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It sounds great on paper: The U.S. administration will hold a “peace to prosperity” economic workshop in Bahrain on June 25 and 26 to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Yet scratch the shiny PR surface and you’ll find a dangerously simplistic approach to a complicated situation. Anybody who followed the last 30 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict understands that President Donald Trump’s announcement of this first step on the way to a deal is all form and no substance: a new name for the same failed idea known as “economic peace,” and before that as “a new Middle East.”
Putting economics first, before a political process, is more than a tactical error, yet another in a long line of failed attempts to advance towards a permanent two-state solution. The Trump administration’s focus on economics—led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner—is a strategic mistake that could stymie the negotiations before they begin. If Trump and his team studied history, they would know that placing economics before core political issues is a slap in the face to the Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinians want to improve their quality of life; of course they want to build a growing economy. But these are secondary goals, to be pursued after self-determination is achieved. If the Palestinians could be “bought” with economic benefits, we would be long past the need for talks. Trump’s approach is not only immoral, it is impractical.
The truth is that economics were never enough to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Paris Agreement, which followed the Oslo Accords—a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in the 1990s that were never implemented to the letter—focused on economics, and it did not salvage the deterioration of the security situation that resulted in the second intifada, a bloody 4- year Palestinian revolt against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Neither the first nor the second intifadas broke out for economic reasons (the Palestinian economy was not faring badly, relatively speaking). They erupted because the way forward was unclear and because the Palestinians felt that the economic benefits offered would not lead to the end of the occupation. High hopes for trust-building had been dashed against the absence of a political plan to end the conflict. This void nurtured despair and disappointment, leading to angry uprisings that cost many lives on both sides.
That is the very real danger we are facing again. By putting economics first while ignoring the end game, Trump is repeating a colossal mistake: resuming talks without defining the end goal. For both Palestinians and Israelis, that goal should be ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel within 1967 borders, with necessary land swaps. Unless both parties and the mediating power state this clearly at the outset, the expectations gap will breed mistrust. Thus, sitting down together will be futile. This will lead to further disillusionment—and escalating violence. Unless the goal of the talks is explicitly defined as ending the conflict and establishing a Palestinian state, more lives will be lost.
Moreover, there will be no Jewish and democratic state without resolving the Palestinian issue.
The problem is that once Trump’s deal hits the table, it will be hard to ignore. Israel and the Palestinian Authority will have to respond. This will place Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, already considered a collaborator with Israel by most Palestinians, in a dangerous bind. He will not able to accept a deal that blatantly ignores Palestinian national aspirations, yet rejecting it will paint him as resisting peace. Domestic pressure may force him to stop cooperating with Israel on security, which will lead to a hike in terrorism. The path from there to igniting the entire area would be short, as the painful history of the conflict shows.
A Middle East explosion could be ignited by another conflict point: the rapidly escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which is connected to the Israeli Palestinian issue. The best way to effectively confront Iran is via a regional coalition of relatively moderate Sunni regimes, headed by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with tacit participation of Israel. But forming such a coalition is not possible unless a credible political process aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is underway; Arab people will not tolerate cooperation with Israel without it. Thus, for the Trump administration, which views confronting Iran as a key foreign policy objective, a plan that establishes this process should be critically important.
As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yet it is not clear whether Trump’s intentions are good or merely seek to do Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a political favor. Presenting Abbas with an impossible choice will allow Netanyahu to win another round of the blame game and accuse the Palestinians of backing away from a good deal, playing into Netanyahu’s electoral base that rejects a two-state solution. But the result may be more death and an escalation that would delay constructive talks—and a Mideast anti-Iran coalition—for years.
To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, protect Israelis and Palestinians, and prevent more bloodshed and greater instability in the Middle East, Trump’s dangerous “economics first” approach should be discarded—and, if not, opposed.
Read the full article on Politico here