Bahrain Workshop: Business Over Politics
Date: 
June 11, 2019
Author: 

The use of economic means as a way to transition to political peace is neither new nor likely to succeed.

Since
he took office, Donald Trump has expressed interest in “unlocking
the potential of the Palestinian economy
.” This vision has evolved into
the organization of a “Peace to Prosperity” workshop
in Bahrain on 25 and 26 June. American conveners of the workshop say it offers
Palestinians economic benefits and large-scale investments, and aims at initiating
projects of regional economic cooperation. According to Senior Middle East
advisor, Jared Kushner, the proposed plan reveals a fresh
approach
to peace-making.

However,
while a number of recent American maneuvers indicate the adoption of a new
approach to resolve the political deadlock, the use of economic means as a way
to transition to political peace is neither new nor likely to succeed.

The
Historical Illusion of “Economic Peace”

Contrary to Kushner’s claim, the Bahrain workshop falls within longstanding American and Israeli claims to improve Palestinian economic conditions and increase economic cooperation to pave the way for “peace.” This economic peace approach is based on the belief that transition to political peace could be achieved by ensuring higher economic growth and interdependence among countries. The assumption is that the economic benefits that arise from economic cooperation and better living conditions would raise the cost of a political conflict, thus creating interest in peace.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Shifting Sands: Zionism & American Jewry]

This
approach, which was at the heart
of the peacebuilding
efforts in Europe
after World War II, has for long inspired American
and Israeli policies in Palestine. From the “Open Bridges” policy advanced by Israel’s
Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, in the 1970s, to U.S. plans to “improve
the quality of Palestinian life
,” promoted by Secretary of State George
Shultz in the 1980s, to Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin’s plan to ease
conditions on Palestinians for conducting business in 1992—all of these policies
in the pre-Oslo period focused on improving economic conditions for
Palestinians, based on the premise that such improvement would in turn raise
the cost of a political confrontation with Israel, thus pacifying Palestinians.

These economic peace strategies were further developed as part of the Oslo “peace process,” with more emphasis on promoting economic interdependence at the regional level. Shimon Peres’s vision of “The New Middle East” and the different regional economic development working groups hosted by Arab countries (Morocco in 1994, Jordan in 1995, Egypt in 1996 and Qatar in 1997) all aimed at increasing economic ties among Israel and Arab states, as part of the multilateral peace process that was launched after the Madrid conference in the early 1990s. American administrations endorsed regional economic cooperation as a way to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Parallel to these multilateral meetings, astronomical amounts of aid, or “peace dividends,” were also distributed to Palestinians with promises to better Palestinian standards of living and economic growth, while increasing economic cooperation with Israel.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Enshrining Discrimination: Israel’s Nation-State Law]

However,
despite this historical record of economic peace
strategies, it was not until 2008 that the concept of economic peace was popularized
when Benjamin Netanyahu, then Likud chairman, strongly advocated for it. His
vision that economic development “mitigates” problems was based on the nexus of
security, economic development, and peace. More
permits and facilitation were provided to Palestinians to increase
individual wealth while joint economic projects were also advanced. A similar
approach guided U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s plan,
in 2013-2014, to boost the Palestinian economy while promising mutual economic
benefits to Palestinians and Israelis.

The
Bahrain Workshop: A Continued Trend of Failure

Where the goal of achieving peace is
concerned, the strategies above have been nothing short of an absolute failure.
The eruption of the First Intifada following Shultz’s policy, and the
second Intifada during the “peace process” definitively delivered the
ultimate blow to economic peace and highlighted the deficiency of putting
economics over politics.  

The economic workshop in Bahrain is no exception to this trend of failure. As long as economic development is seen as separate from politics, and as long as Israel’s colonial structures of power and control are not addressed, then every strategy that aims at the development of the Palestinian economy will be destined to fail, since the Palestinian economy is a political construct heavily embedded in Israel’s colonial enterprise. It is only when there is an end to this enterprise and a lifting of all measures to restrict Palestinian movements and access, that Palestinian economic development can take place.

[Israel and the Saudi-UAE Alliance]

The reality is that these strategies simply
sought to manage the so-called “conflict” and the Palestinian population, under
the guise of paving the road to peace, while obfuscating the structures of
colonial domination. The management of the population partly happened through
the disbursement of economic rents/ benefits that created vested interests in
the “peace process” among a group of Palestinians.

For instance, the post-Oslo period has
witnessed the growth of a political and economic elite that is materially
dependent on Israel, given all the privileges it has access to such as VIP and
BMC cards, import licenses, and permits, among other benefits—privileges that
are conditional on acquiescence to Israeli rule. This has been exacerbated by
the growing political and economic liberalization in the occupied Palestinian
Territories, promoted by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and international
donors, which has undermined collective political projects while creating a
constituency that has material gains from the continuation of the Oslo process.

What is New about the Bahrain Workshop?

The economic workshop in Bahrain is thus
another U.S. attempt to manage the political situation, rather than resolve it,
and pacify Palestinians by offering them economic incentives to distract them from
political issues. However, what is new today is that while previous economic
peace initiatives, especially in the post-Oslo period, were framed around the larger
political goal of establishing a Palestinian state, the current U.S.
administration seems to be leaving this goal behind. Leaks of the plan have shown that it is largely biased against
the PA’s goal to build a sovereign state, let alone achieve self-determination
and justice. Kushner even refuses to mention the concept of two-state solution,
which has been the main slogan used by the international community thus far,
while U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, recently stated that Israel
has the right to annex
some part
of the occupied West Bank. The deal thus appears to be solely focused on
economics, while completely disregarding a just political solution.

The absence of a clear political process, accepted
by the Palestinians, coupled with the lack of Palestinian trust in the Trump
administration, given its pro-Israeli tilt and its disregard of international
law, have led to a strong joint opposition to the workshop, by the PA,
Palestinian factions and the Palestinian private sector. In contrast to Jared
Kushner’s
unfounded claim recently that the Palestinians
mainly “want the opportunity to pay their
mortgage,” Palestinians seem to have had enough with economic peace
strategies, that have kept the Palestinian economy structurally subordinated to
the Israeli economy, and are showing that they will not accept to be
financially bought off and that an economic solution can no longer replace
their political aspirations.

About The Author: 
Nur is a Rhodes Scholar, doing her PhD at the University of Oxford, and is a policy advisor with Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.

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