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Can Jared Kushner Ignite a Spark of Peace in the Middle East?

It appears Kushner has not yet mastered the Art of the Deal when it comes to Middle East diplomacy.

President Donald Trump comes from a business background, and much of his public legend is built on his dealmaking and negotiating skills. His son-in-law Jared Kushner, also a former New York real estate wheeler-and-dealer, is taking after the president and applying his business experience to the political arena, with his new Peace to Prosperity deal for the Middle East.

Jared Kushner

In 2017, Trump assigned Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, the role of working to “broker a Middle East peace deal.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most contentious on earth today. One imagines that, after many failed attempts, only a giant among men could achieve the peace longed for by millions of people, though not necessarily by the ideologically driven leaders on either side of the dispute. Kushner presents the world a clean-cut face and soft-spoken manner, but does he have the chops to mediate the world’s toughest deal?

After two years of work, Kushner’s team unveiled the first installment of its plan at a conference in Bahrain on June 25-26. Phase one focuses exclusively on economics, leaving the political side of negotiations to be thrashed out at an unspecified time in the future.

Peace to Prosperity

Kushner is offering Palestinians “the opportunity of the century,” or so he claimed at the opening of the conference. “Imagine a bustling commercial and tourist center, in Gaza and the West Bank, where international businesses come together and thrive,” he said. “Imagine the West Bank as a blossoming economy, full of entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, and business leaders.” An appealing vision – especially for the billionaires being asked to invest – but is it based on reality or fantasy?

The plan has proven controversial because so far it focuses purely on economics and ignores politics, at least until Kushner is ready to divulge the political details. Matters relating to potential Palestinian statehood, mutually agreed-upon borders, military action, and terrorist attacks have been set aside in favor of an “economics first” approach, whereby wealthy Gulf states and private investors are encouraged to invest in local infrastructure.

Although the Trump administration cut aid spending to Palestinian regions in 2018, the new plan calls for a $50 billion investment fund, which would promote the economy of Palestinian society and surrounding Arab countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, which have taken in the most Palestinian refugees. Among the 179 suggested projects are a $5 billion transport corridor between the West Bank and Gaza, as well as financial support for industries from sports to tourism. According to Kushner, the proposal would halve the Palestinian poverty rate, double the GDP, and create a million jobs in the West Bank and Gaza over ten years.

Rather than jumping head first into the deep end, Kushner exhibited a tentative attitude, clearly avoiding the controversy that would accompany an open political stance. “Our thought was that it was better to put the economic plan first, it’s less controversial, let’s let people study it, get feedback, let’s try to finalize if we can all agree on what that it would look like in the event of a peace agreement,” he told Reuters Television (RT).

The proposal has been likened to the Marshall Plan, through which the United States took economic measures to stimulate the post-WWII European recovery – although Kushner says it was not his original intention to emulate the 1948 program. Saad Nimr, professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told RT that Shimon Peres attempted similar economic incentives while serving as Israel’s acting prime minister in the 1990s, but without success.

The economic portion of the Peace to Prosperity plan is aimed purely at Arab populations. Israelis receive none of the cash some have predicted that the political phase of the Peace to Prosperity program will swing in their favor. Indeed, the Trump administration as a whole has had no qualms in displaying an openly pro-Israel stance. It has maintained friendly relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even as he builds up settlements in the West Bank. In 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and in 2018 moved the U.S. embassy to the ancient and contentious city.

Israeli and Palestinian Reactions

Mahmoud Abbas

While the workshop was attended by a smattering of global highflyers, from Tony Blair to International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, as well as businesspeople and a few government representatives, the obvious absence of Palestinian and Israeli leaders perhaps speaks volumes about the deal’s potential for success.

Palestinian authorities boycotted the event, and so the Israeli government was not invited. “We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness. And I cannot understand how the Palestinians, before they even heard the plan, reject it outright,” said Netanyahu, although he reiterated his desire to hold on to Israeli-settled territory in the West Bank, an obvious sticking point for Palestinians.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization called the plan a “humiliating blackmail” that “cannot pass because it ends the Palestinian cause.” He said:

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important … What have the Americans proposed that is original? Fifty or 60 billion dollars? We are used to this kind of nonsense. Let’s not lie to each other. We’ll see if anyone lives long enough to see that $50 billion or $60 billion come.”

Ismail Radwan, a spokesman for Hamas, added that “Palestine isn’t for sale.”

Regional Politics

The Palestinians’ appeal in the region seems to be diminishing year by year. It appears Saudi Arabia has quietly abandoned the cause in favor of more profitable pastures in positive relationships with Israel and the United States, while other neighbors, like Egypt and Jordan – who stand to gain financially from Kushner’s deal – also seem to have tired of the conflict, gradually distancing themselves from the side that appears to be losing. Nevertheless, open disloyalty is out of the question. Nathan Thrall, director of the Israel/Palestine Project for the International Crisis Group, told Reuters:

“The Arab states have very limited room for maneuver in terms of how much they can betray the Palestinians on the core issues. They are betraying the Palestinians just in the very fact of their growing closeness to Israel, but to betray the Palestinians on something like the Arab position on Jerusalem or on refugees, that is something that, at least in 2019, is still unthinkable.”

Much of the Middle East is divided into two sides in a “cold war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the United States on friendly terms with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and Iran supporting Hamas and the Palestinian side, it’s not difficult to see which way the teams will line up in the increasingly likely event of a U.S. military confrontation with Iran.

With President Trump elected on a ticket of domestic issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly the top priority of American voters, yet lobbies for both sides have been making their voices heard in the years since the last presidential election. With strong opinions on both sides, it will be interesting to see whether Kushner can emulate his father-in-law in The Art of the Deal.

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