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Economic portion of Middle East plan full of anomalies

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RON KAMPEAS

The “Peace to Prosperity” plan authored by a team led by Kushner, United States President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, was posted on the White House website on Saturday. It doesn’t outline the political portion of the peace plan, which the architects say will come in November, after Israel’s September elections.

The economic plan’s 40 pages enthusiastically endorse expressions of Palestinian identity, from Palestinian food to universities, and hint at political outcomes that could upset Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to forge a coalition with parties to the right of his Likud Party. Not mentioned, however, is Palestinian statehood.

In addition to the Gaza-West Bank link, which would inevitably cross Israeli territory, there are proposals to register Palestinian ownership of land, and to give Palestinian farmers greater access to water and arable land.

These outcomes would put Netanyahu in a tough squeeze. He has been unremitting in his embrace of Trump, who has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, pulled out of an Iran nuclear deal Netanyahu loathes, defunded the Palestinians, and effectively campaigned for Netanyahu in April’s election.

But elements of the plan portend security compromises that Netanyahu might be loath to make. Chief among these is a $5 billion (R71.6 billion) transportation project that would link the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Kushner’s plan envisions $50 billion (R716 billion), to be disbursed on building infrastructure and capacity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as to promote trade and tourism partnerships with Egypt Jordan, and Lebanon, with portions of the funding to go to these countries.

Neither the 40-page plan nor the accompanying 96-page breakdown of how the money will be spent mention statehood. Kushner has said he doesn’t find the term useful, and David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, has said that the political portion of the plan will relinquish to Israel security control of the West Bank, suggesting that full Palestinian sovereignty is not on the table. Netanyahu has retreated from favouring a two-state outcome, and has said he plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority, which boycotted the workshop this week in Bahrain, has rejected the plan unseen in part because it seems clear it will stop short of statehood and of a Palestinian claim to a portion of Jerusalem. The plan and its annex, which breaks down in detail where funds should go, do not mention Jerusalem at all.

Kushner, in an interview with Reuters which reported the plan before it was posted, said its publication could bring around sceptics.

“I find that in the real world, the way you solve problems is by really going into the details, putting forward proposals, agreeing, disagreeing on certain things – that’s very healthy, that’s how you resolve a conflict,” he said. “Remember, nobody agrees up until right before they do so. It’s not unexpected for people to posture and to criticise things, but what we’re hoping to do is create a framework where we can change the discussion and get people to look at these problems differently, hopefully in a way that can lead to some breakthroughs.”

The Gaza-West Bank project would take about two years.

“Features could include an interurban rail line linking many of the major cities of Gaza and the West Bank for rapid urban transport, mass transport stations near urban centres, and connections to regional railways such as the Jordan railway project,” the proposal said.

A similar proposal was raised during the Oslo process in the late 1990s. Israeli officials at the time fretted that any system that transported Palestinians from Gaza, where the Hamas terrorist movement flourishes, to the West Bank across Israeli territory posed a massive security risk.

Other elements of the plan suggest an embrace of Palestinian national identity, which could also be a hard sell to Israeli hardliners, and even to Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

“A new flagship liberal arts and sciences university in the West Bank and Gaza” is tagged at $500 million (R7.1 billion). Palestinian universities have over the decades nurtured the Palestinian national identity, and have at times been the nexus of protest at Israel’s occupation. Israeli authorities over the years have repeatedly shuttered the universities during periods of unrest.

Another $80 million (R1.14 billion) has been set aside for the development of Palestinian arts, which often embrace a nationalist outlook, and $150 million (R2.14 billion) is earmarked for the Palestinian museum near Ramallah. The museum is dedicated to celebrating Palestinian identity, including resistance to Israel.

The plan includes nearly $28 billion (R401 million) earmarked for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Funds would also go to three neighbouring countries for cross border projects, including tourism: more than $7 billion (R101 billion) for Jordan, $9 billion (R128.9 billion) for Egypt, and $6.3 billion (R90.2 billion) for Lebanon. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, Lebanon does not have a peace treaty with Israel, and Hezbollah, an Iranian-allied terrorist militia that rejects any accommodation with Israel, remains hugely influential in the country.

The proposal advocates for easing the movement for Palestinians, and for greater access to fertile land and water. “An improved business environment in the West Bank and Gaza, and access to more land will create an enormous opportunity for farmers to expand their operations,” it says.

Unmentioned are the obstacles that Israeli policies, mindful of security and favouring Jewish settlement growth, impose on these ambitions.

The proposal’s optimistic outlook skates over some of the issues that have most vexed any resolution, including who exactly owns each acre of land.

The plan proposes a vast expansion of border crossings which will incur costs for Israel if it is to secure and help staff the crossings.

The issue of governance, which presumably will feature in the political component, is absent, but nonetheless haunts the document. Hamas, a US designated terrorist group, rules the Gaza Strip, and the Trump administration and US congress have banned all but a small amount of direct funding to the Palestinian Authority.

Addressing the second day of the workshop on Wednesday, Haaretz reported Kushner said the political component of the plan would be announced when the US was ready, and that there would be a peace deal only when both sides were ready to say yes.

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