Trump puts the cart before the horse in Palestine

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama's Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.  REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick - RC12ABEFD000
Editor's note:

Trump’s cart-before-the-horse approach to the Palestinians turned the basics of freedom on its head. There has long been a bipartisan consensus that United States should pursue a genuine two-state solution where the sovereign states of Israel and Palestine can live side-by-side. A version of this piece was originally published in The Hill.

After a long wait, the Trump team led by Jared Kushner just released its blueprint for how to grow the Palestinian economy, and a glitzy workshop is being held Tuesday and Wednesday in Bahrain.

As the U.S government official who from 2013-2017 was responsible for curating John Kerry’s economic initiative for the Palestinian people, I thought I would share some thoughts:

First, and amazingly, instead of building this plan alongside the Palestinians, Trump and Kushner have chosen to release this plan after spending 18 months deeply offending the Palestinian people. As a result, the Palestinian leadership refused to attend the meeting.

Trump has hurt and insulted Palestinians by:

What’s worse, Trump has amazingly decided to release the plan before releasing an essential political vision for Palestine. Putting the peace-plan cart (economics) before the horse (freedom and sovereignty) is a fatal flaw for the Trump/Kushner approach.

The cherry on top is that this is all happening just at the moment when U.S.-Iran tensions have been at their highest in years, via an event in adjacent Bahrain of all places, a country which Freedom House has called “one of the Middle East’s most repressive states,” which ranks far below the West Bank for freedom and par with Hamas-controlled and Israeli-blockaded, Gaza.

Not only is the Palestinian leadership not attending, but as a result, the Israeli government isn’t attending either. What’s more, some of the key international participants who are attending have privately signaled their very deep skepticism.

Now, at first look, the Trump plan itself is smart, reasonable and very well written. It largely builds on the great work done by the World Bank, the Quartet and others.

It proposes a range of investments in the Palestinian economy, such as an essential multi-billion dollar connection between Gaza and the West Bank, and billions of dollars for power and water. And it acknowledges that such an undertaking could only happen “following a peace agreement.”

These would all be smart things to do for the economy of an ordinary country. But the Palestinian people don’t live in an ordinary country or situation. For decades, the Palestinian people have languished in quasi-autonomous areas where their lives are sadly subservient to Israeli needs.

Had the Trump team first built a strong rapport with the Palestinian people and leadership, worked in partnership with them to identify their needs, and then discussed these ideas alongside a fair agenda for genuine freedom for the Palestinian people, things could have been entirely different.

Trump’s cart-before-the-horse approach turned the basics of freedom on its head. Sure, our Boston Tea Party had an economic core, but it helped spark our Declaration of Independence, not a British conference on the American economy. How silly would that have been?

The people of Palestine feel no differently. I know because we heard time and time again from them that their top priority was freedom—not prosperity.

They were very happy to work with Kerry’s Initiative for the Palestinian Economy. We held more high-level meetings on Palestine’s economy than I could count: In Prague. In Washington. In Jordan. In partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You name it. It’s straightforward diplomacy.

But because of a decades-old effort by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promote Palestinian economic growth first before (and perhaps instead of) freedom, Palestinians reject any approach that sounds similar to them. And Trump’s close embrace of Netanyahu, who has embraced ultra-right wing approaches, doesn’t help.

There is roughly an equal number of Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land. One group will never accept control by the other. But the Palestinians have only partial security control over only 5 percent of the land and some administrative control over another 5 percent. Israel controls the remaining 90 percent.

Meanwhile, per capita GDP in Israel is over $40,000 per year, higher than that of France or Japan, while it is under $2,000 a year in Gaza and about $4,000 a year in the West Bank.

When we talk about income disparities in the United States, for every $1,000 per capita for African Americans, it’s $1,693 for whites. For every $1,000 for a person in Gaza, it is $20,000 for an Israeli. It should be obvious to everyone that that’s not sustainable.

While economic indicators illustrate the disparity, freedom remains the core of the problem. Israeli citizens have freedom while the Palestinians have restrictions on their ability to travel, import and export and even on their movement within and between the West Bank and Gaza.

While loosening Israeli restrictions on Palestinian lives is certainly a good thing—and it was something we certainly pursued in the Obama administration—doing so under Israeli control is only a half-measure. That’s why we pursued economic freedom for the Palestinian people jointly with a two-state political solution.

This is why there has long been a bipartisan consensus that United States should pursue a genuine two-state solution where the sovereign states of Israel and Palestine can live side-by-side. Even Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been speaking out.

The sad truth is that if the Trump really wanted to scratch an itch to improve the lives of the Palestinian people, his team could have looked no further than the smiling faces on Palestinian girls on page two of their plan. These girls attend a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) which as it happens is hosting a long-scheduled pledging conference on the very same day in New York City. The Trump team isn’t attending though because they’ve abandoned the decades-old U.S. financial commitment to UNRWA, which probably does more to nurture the foundations of peace and prosperity—education and health care for Palestinian girls and boys—than Trump’s plan ever will.

The only way out of this mess in the medium term is if the Trump-Kushner team provides a fair and workable vision that puts a premium on Palestinians’ freedom. At that point, the Palestinian people may allow their leadership to re-engage with Trump. Then, perhaps, American investments in the lives of the Palestinian people can resume.

Otherwise we will need to wait until Americans go to the polls in November 2020 to vote for a new president who could decide to reverse much of the damage—and chart a new vigorous course for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on mutual doses of freedom, dignity, prosperity and security.