U.S. economic plan for Mideast peace met by harsh criticism

Josef Federman
Associated Press

Jerusalem – When the Trump administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid for Palestinians last year, the Parents Circle, a coexistence group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families, lost 30% of its budget overnight.

In this March 31, 2019, file photo Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, meets with Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Hassan Karim, in Baghdad, Iraq.

So members were shocked Sunday to learn that the White House is now using its photos in promotional materials for a U.S. peace plan that has been skewered by veterans of past Mideast peace efforts. “I think it’s one of the most cynical and insensitive acts,” said Robi Damelin, a spokeswoman for the group.

While U.S. allies in the region have been cool to the plan ahead of a launching conference in Bahrain this week, former U.S. diplomats and Mideast experts criticized it for recycling past proposals, making unrealistic projections and ignoring Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.

“The Palestinians’ economic problem isn’t a lack of money; it’s a lack of liberty,” Aaron David Miller, a former senior Mideast adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote on Twitter.

The White House on Saturday unveiled the $50 billion plan, saying it would seek to raise the cash for a series of investment and infrastructure projects to support its much-anticipated but still unreleased Middle East peace plan.

The plan calls for $27.5 billion of projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas claimed by the Palestinians for an independent state, with remaining funds allocated for Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

These countries either border the Palestinian territories or have large populations of Palestinian refugees. The projects envisioned are in the health care, education, power, water, high-tech, tourism and agriculture sectors and include a land link through Israel between the West Bank and Gaza.

President Donald Trump’s Mideast team, led by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, scheduled a “workshop” in the Gulf state of Bahrain on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the proposal. Already, expectations are low.

The Palestinians have rejected the proposal and will not be attending. Accusing the U.S. of unfairly favoring Israel, the Palestinians say there can be no economic plan without a political horizon aimed at ending a half century of Israeli occupation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday cast doubt on the $50 billion figure. “We have heard these lies before,” he told foreign journalists in Ramallah, West Bank.

The Israelis, meanwhile, were not even invited after the White House said it did not want the gathering to be “political.” Without participation by the two key players, the conference will instead include a collection of low-ranking officials from Arab countries and a handful of private Israelis and Palestinians.

After weeks of silence, Jordan and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, finally confirmed their attendance. But both said they would send only low-level officials and reiterated their support for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

Trump’s team has refused to endorse the two-state solution – the international community’s preferred outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and recently sent signals that it would even accept Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.

The U.S. proposal is surprisingly detailed in many ways. It pledges to more than double Palestinian economic activity, reduce the Palestinian unemployment rate to nearly single digits and cut poverty by 50% over 10 years.

But the proposal is just as notable for what is missing. There is no mention of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which has repeatedly been singled out by the World Bank and other international bodies as the biggest drag on the area’s economy.