David Makovsky is director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, faced plenty of skepticism heading into a two-day conference last week in Bahrain focused on transforming the Palestinian economy. The gathering was a precursor of and complement to the Trump administration’s much-awaited peace plan, which seems to have been postponed in light of a new round of Israeli elections in September.
The Palestinian Authority boycotted the Bahrain conference, charging that Kushner’s economic plan would seek to buy off Palestinian political aspirations by financial means. Given the circumstances, the Arab states in attendance thought it was not wise to invite Israeli government officials. Some Arab countries, in a sign of their ambivalence, did not send their finance ministers, relying instead on deputies.
Kushner and his team deserve credit for identifying the important issue of the Palestinian economy and presenting a long list of specific projects. Beyond the specialists who would be vital to the projects’ success, the team found constituencies including potential investors from the Persian Gulf and even parts of corporate America.
Yet the test is whether Kushner’s ideas will materialize. Having attended the conference as an observer, I think his remarks at the opening of the event were noteworthy: “What I found is the more I’ve dealt with the traditional policy community on this, people are just stuck in a paradigm that never seems to move forward.” He added that by inviting finance ministers, not foreign ministers, and members of business communities, he would be working with people who see the problem “the same way that I do, which is that it actually is a solvable problem economically.”
Kushner’s point was that the traditional way of looking at the Israeli-Palestinian issue is to zoom in to the core policy matters known as “final status” issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees, while treating economic issues as an afterthought.
But on closer inspection, Kushner’s approach is more like the old paradigm than he may realize. (In fact, during the mid-1990s, there were four larger Middle East economic conferences with widespread governmental and business-community participation, along with that of Israel, Arab states and the Palestinian Authority.) The Trump administration and its critics share a common all-or-nothing approach to the Middle East, and when it’s all or nothing in the Middle East, it’s nothing.
The administration has sequenced its peace plan so the economic dimension was unveiled in Bahrain. It chose to roll out the less-controversial economic and quality-of-life ideas first, but the administration insists that these economic proposals hinge on accepting the political part, which is why their plan may hit a wall.
There was a telling moment in Bahrain when former British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to Kushner that the all-or-nothing approach may not be the right way to go. “Before we get a long-term solution, I would like to see at least a short-term agreement where the violence can be halted,” Blair said, noting that it would be “very hard to have a peace agreement” until the split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza is resolved and “Palestinian politics is unified.”
Kushner did not seem to care for Blair’s suggestion, yet Blair is right in sensing that achieving short-term gains are necessary before a grand peace deal — given the wide gaps between the parties — will be possible. The advantage of incremental economic progress, such as ensuring that Gaza has drinkable water and full-time electricity, is that it could create the political space to deal with tough policy issues later. Such stabilization measures would give Palestinians something to lose and would mitigate the chances of an explosion, all the while changing the view of the Trump administration as one that only takes things away from the Palestinians.
Yet there is a reason that Kushner cannot veer from the straitjacket of the all-or-nothing approach, which has been tried at least three times before in Israeli-Palestinian relations and failed repeatedly. The Trump administration’s method in this conflict, as it is to others, is to apply maximal pressure: You get nothing unless you agree to their deal.
The White House’s inflexible approach means that if the final-status ideas offered by the political portion of the plan don’t gain support, the economic package goes down the tubes. The linkage is almost certainly doomed. If Kushner in Bahrain had instead suggested a few immediately achievable, no-strings-attached, direly needed economic projects for the Palestinians, he would have signaled a new focus — and the arrival of a new paradigm for the Trump administration.