by Suzanne Pollak
Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent announcement of a major effort to pump $4 billion into the Palestinian economy as a way to sweeten their desire to enter into peace talks with Israel is being met with some hope but much skepticism.
“We always want to see efforts to help the Palestinians become economically developed,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). He believes a lot of the unrest in the West Bank as well as in other Arab countries can be attributed to a poor economy, lack of jobs and political repression.
“Hopefully this will help,” he said. However, he added, “We can always hope. I’m not going to hold my breath, but we can always hope.”
David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Washington Institutes Project on the Middle East Peace Process, said Kerry’s economic plan to bring business and therefore jobs into the West Bank was merely an effort from which to launch negotiations. “That is his main goal now.”
Kerry’s “main focus is to try to see if he can find enough of a common basis between the Palestinians and the Israelis” to start talking about the issues, Makovsky said, explaining that Kerry understands that high youth unemployment among Palestinians feeds into a belief that they will never have their own state.
While many people look at the Obama administration’s attempts to renew peace talks as a “last gasp effort,” this really is more “of a homework phase to see if that common basis exists” to start talks, Makovsky said.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) recently traveled to the Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but didn’t come away impressed.
“As long as the Palestinians are playing their games, nothing is going to change,” he said. “What is needed is face-to-face meetings” that begin without any preconditions, Engel said in a phone interview. “I think the Palestinians have to decide if they are serious partners.”
Engel, who traveled with Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Nina Lowey, (D-N.Y.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), summed up their meeting by saying, “Basically the Palestinians were giving us a lot of baloney.”
“If I was new and just walked in there, I’d say, wow, these people really want to make peace.” But, Engel said, Abbas “went on and on about how [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu should negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines” and agree to cease all settlements before talks could commence.
At that point, Engel said he asked Abbas if Netanyahu did so, “would you say publicly that yes, I recognize Israel as a Jewish state?” At that, Abbas “started to double talk, he repeated what he said earlier.”
The Palestinians need to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, Engel stressed. “I think it shows bad faith if they are not willing to say it. Until they do, peace is going to be illusive.”
The New York politician said he understood why Kerry wants to try to renew the peace talks, but added, “I am under no illusions.”
Sherman, who was on the same trip, wouldn’t say if he thought Kerry’s plan would bring peace to the region. Instead, he noted that if peace talks are ongoing, “I think it will be a lot easier to attract investors. If they see peace talks starting, people will invest,” he said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Fla.) was more direct, labeling Kerry’s plan “absurd,” and adding that the Obama administration “continues to fall for the same tricks by thinking that improving the economic situation in the West Bank and ignoring the lack of accountability and transparency somehow equates to stability in the region.”
Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, issued a statement noting, “The desire for peace should be enough of an incentive for the Palestinians to come back to the peace talks,” adding that the United States shouldn’t give any more money to the Palestinians “unless they come to the negotiating table.”
But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called Kerry’s economic plan “new momentum.” In an opinion piece he wrote for Haaretz, Menendez said, “The rekindling of the Arab Peace Initiative and new investments in the Palestinian economy are positive steps. I am hopeful that we can resume negotiations and avoid distractions and grandstanding at inappropriate venues like the United Nations.”
“I strongly disagree with those voices in Washington that advocate disengagement in the face of the challenges of the Middle East. We cannot stand up for America’s interests – or Israel’s – from the sidelines,” he wrote.
In a May 26 speech at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Kerry explained that he and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had developed a plan to pump $4 billion into the Palestinian economy “to develop a healthy, sustainable private-sector-led Palestinian economy that will transform the fortunes of a future Palestinian state, but also, significantly, transform the possibilities for Jordan and for Israel.”
Under the plan, local, regional and international business leaders as well as government leaders would help “mobilize some $4 billion of investment” in such areas as tourism, construction, light manufacturing, building materials, energy, agriculture and information and communications technology.
“The preliminary results already reported to me by Prime Minister Blair and by the folks working with him are stunning. Those experts believe that we can increase the Palestinian GDP by as much as 50 percent over three years. Their most optimistic estimates foresee enough new jobs to cut unemployment by nearly two-thirds,” Kerry said.
However, Kerry said in his speech, in order for a better economy to come to pass, a political approach to work out a two-state solution must also take place.
“The consequences of prolonging the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply in no one’s interest,” Kerry said, asking, “Do we want to live with a permanent Intifada?”
Toward the end of his speech, Kerry said, “A greater Israel that would end up trying to swallow up the Palestinian people could only possibly survive in a state of institutionalized division and discord, a pale shadow of the democratic vision that motivated and animated the founders of Israel, and any attempt by Palestinian politicians to wait out Israel in the hope that somehow, someday, the Israelis will just give up and go away, or that somehow they can win a one-state solution, that will only result in decades of futile confrontation and eventual disillusion, and perhaps worse, violence.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres and Abbas also spoke at the World Economic Forum. Peres called for a return to negotiations “as soon as possible” and called Abbas “our partner and we are yours. You share our hopes and efforts for peace, and we share yours.”
Peres called the proposed economic package “an important development.”
Abbas told the forum that young Palestinians were losing hope that there would ever be a two-state solution, and that it was time to work out a peace agreement.
Not all Israelis believe peace talks must be revived now. Dov Lipman, a newly elected member of the Israeli Knesset who lived much of his life in Silver Spring, said while a peace treaty with the Palestinians would be good, he believes the Israeli people are more focused on other things right now.
While his party is committed to a two-state solution, Lipman said, “The past elections showed that Israelis are thinking inward and not outward. We do have to get ourselves in shape from within,” he said while in the United States to march in the Israel Day Parade in New York City and attend a Jerusalem Day celebration on Capitol Hill.
“We certainly believe we have to be in negotiations. We have to be talking about this, but there is no timetable. We are not rushing anywhere,” he said, adding, “Pressure is never a good thing.”