Will Trump's peace plan make economic progress before final status deal?

Some 18,000 Palestinians currently work inside Israel industrial zones in the West Bank. They earn 2.5 times more than comparable jobs in the Palestinian territories.

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October 12, 2018 15:35
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to reporters, October 9, 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to reporters, October 9, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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A few weeks ago during the summer, I visited the Barkan Industrial Park. I was a guest of the Yesha Settlement Council that wanted to showcase the so-called coexistence and economic success that can happen when all residents of the West Bank – Israeli and Palestinian – work together.

We walked through the Lipski Plastic Factory that employs some 95 people, 65 of them Palestinians from nearby villages. Everyone does everything. Israelis and Palestinians stand on the same assembly line, pulling toilet seats and plastic plumbing tubes out of machines and putting them into nearby boxes. They share office space on the floor above, and sit together for joint meals.

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The Lipski company, like others in the industrial park, takes its workers on an annual vacation, but here things get tricky: the Israeli workers can vacation inside Israel; the Palestinians can’t. So the company takes the Palestinians to Jordan or Turkey. Some of the Israelis seemed a bit jealous. They went to Eilat last year while the Palestinians got to travel overseas.

Around the corner from Lipski is the Alon production plant, the place where Ashraf Walid Suleiman Na’alwa, 23, a former worker in the factory, shot and killed his co-workers – Kim Levengrond-Yehezkel and Ziv Hajbi – on Sunday. As of Thursday night, Na’alwa had yet to be apprehended. The IDF manhunt is continuing.

What was Na’alwa’s motive? Was he always a terrorist in disguise, or did something happen that triggered the attack on Sunday? That remains a mystery.

What is certain is that except for some fringe right-wing elements in Israel, no mainstream settler leader is lobbying the IDF to revoke the permits for the 30,000 Palestinians who work inside the settlements and 15 industrial zones scattered throughout the West Bank. On the contrary. If it was up to the leaders of the Yesha Council, there wouldn’t be 15 industrial zones – there would be 50.

 “Peace is through interests and not love,” Yigal Dilmoni, the council’s deputy head told me on Thursday. “The real way to advance peace is by investing in infrastructure and economic prosperity. Economic interests are far stronger than national interests.”

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I’m not sure Dilmoni is right. The Palestinians’ national aspirations are unlikely to disappear even if another 35 industrial parks are built and another 50,000 Palestinians gain employment there. But it would definitely be an important step, one that might be where the Trump administration is looking to put its focus.

THE NUMBERS speak for themselves. Some 18,000 Palestinians currently work inside Israel industrial zones in the West Bank in factories like Lipski and Alon. They earn 2.5 times more than comparable jobs in the Palestinian territories, simply because their employers – who are Israeli – have to abide by Israeli labor laws and pay Israeli minimum wages.

Until now, though, the problem has been that the Palestinians have refused to engage in real economic development. Part of their opposition has been out of a fear that economic development would come at the expense of political progress and their pursuit of statehood. They fear that the so-called “Economic Peace” which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken about since returning to power in 2009 would replace a state.

Under the Obama administration this type of talk was dismissed. John Kerry, Martin Indyk and the other peacemakers were focused on a final-status agreement, of which economic improvement was just a piece, but not the emphasis. Under the Trump administration, however, there are signs that this might be changing.

Last month, for example, Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations who is working on the Mideast peace plan, gave insight into what the administration is thinking when it comes to the conflict.

“There is an old philosophy that Palestinian economic cooperation with Israel, which would lead to an improved quality of life for the Palestinian people, must be avoided,” Greenblatt told the semi-annual meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

“This philosophy is based on the notion that such cooperation and improvement of Palestinian lives and their economic situation would cause apathy for Palestinians’ national aspirations,” he continued. “This old philosophy – the anti-normalization philosophy – has never worked, and it will never work. It is time for the Palestinian leadership to recognize that reality.”

This might not mean much, but Greenblatt’s comments came just weeks after the administration cut more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians, and as it works together with Congress to put in place a new economic package that would focus on advancing joint Israeli-Palestinian business ventures. The idea behind this is not to simply throw money at a failing PA government, but rather to invest in people and in ways to fast-track the Palestinian economy.

PART OF THIS might also be an understanding by the administration that a final-status agreement is not possible in the foreseeable future. There are numerous reasons why: PA President Mahmoud Abbas is old, sick and not really interested in a deal; the Hamas-Fatah divide in Gaza is intractable; and the current Israeli government is in any case too right-wing to reach a deal. For that reason, for example, Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has spoken about first resolving the conflict in Gaza and only then trying to reach a comprehensive deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

In addition, Greenblatt recently told a number of people that he is prepared for the possibility that the deal will be dead on arrival. If that happens, it would not come as a surprise if he announces that he is leaving the White House and returning to the private sector.

How exactly the administration will convince the Palestinians to engage in economic partnerships with Israel remains unclear. On the one hand, the suspension of aid has led the Palestinians to further distance themselves from the US. On the other hand they need aid, and recognize that under the current economic climate, any state of theirs would be a failed one as long as it does not have a viable economy.

The economic package could be just one stage within the administration’s larger deal. Within the White House there is still uncertainty about the best way to roll out the plan. But what is for certain is that jumping straight into negotiations, like in the past, will likely fail.

An alternative would be to present an economic plan that proceeds without connection to political progress. If that happens, the entire process will have a greater chance to succeed.

***

ON TUESDAY, Netanyahu shocked the country. No, it wasn’t because of his decision to appoint a former Israeli who has lived in the US for the past few decades as the new governor of the Bank of Israel. Rather it was something that might seem trivial but actually is of extreme importance: he agreed to take reporters’ questions.

Netanyahu’s news conference seemed like a response to Ehud Barak’s attack against him the day before for refraining from doing exactly that: speaking to the media. It is true that Netanyahu speaks and does so frequently; but he rarely – if ever – takes questions from the Israeli press or give interviews to its members.

He speaks at the United Nations and at the beginning of meetings with heads of state, but he does not sit down for one-on-one interviews with Israeli media. He’ll give an interview to Fox News or CNN – but not to Channel 2, Haaretz or this newspaper.

The reasons seem to vary. On the one hand, Netanyahu claims that the Israeli media is biased, is out to get him, and will anyhow only use an interview to ask him about the police investigations against him and his wife, Sara. What he doesn’t reveal, though, is that even when offered to be interviewed with a guarantee that not a single question will be asked about the police or his wife, he still says no. How do I know? Because I made the offer.

Another reason Netanyahu prefers not to do local interviews is because he doesn’t need to. Why say something he might later regret? When he is interviewed on Fox News, he gets asked about the Palestinians and Iran, easy topics for him to handle. In Israel, he might be asked about the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) draft bill, the housing crisis, the problems with the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, and other domestic issues that will not score him points among the Israeli electorate.

I mention this because all indications are that elections are on the horizon. Some predictions are that Netanyahu will attempt to dissolve the Knesset in the coming weeks, meaning that elections will be held sometime in the beginning of 2019. The last time he gave interviews was in 2015 when he feared he was going to lose to Labor. Tuesday’s news conference might have been the opening salvo in the Likud campaign.

Israelis should not agree to this reality. The whole point of a democracy is that political leaders work for the people and have a duty to be transparent, to answer questions, and be taken to task for their policies and actions. Netanyahu’s news conference on Tuesday was a nice start. He shouldn’t be let off the hook.

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