By David K. Shipler
Jared Kushner’s economic proposal for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is comprehensive, bold, and visionary, full of noble goals in commerce, trade, agriculture, manufacturing, road-building, local electricity production, water supply, education, vocational training, health care, women in the workforce, and the arts. Titled “Peace to Prosperity,” it imagines the West Bank as a trading center akin to Singapore or Dubai. Its calls for judicial independence, dependable contract law, anti-corruption measures, and administrative transparency that would be hailed by any “good-government” advocates. It envisions some $50 billion in international grants, loans, investments, and global expertise.
This would be nothing to sneer at if it related to reality. But to take it seriously, you have to play Let’s Pretend. So let’s pretend that the West Bank and Gaza constitute a normal country, independent but poor, with no Israeli overlords, and free to accept whatever outside assistance it chooses. Let’s pretend that the Palestinian rulers control their own borders so that people and goods can move easily, as Kushner recommends. Let’s pretend that West Bank land is all under Palestinian authority, rather than being fragmented into leopard-spot jurisdictions favoring expanding Israeli settlements and security concerns. And let’s pretend that the radical group Hamas no longer controls Gaza with a policy of relating to Israel by rockets alone.
In that fictional environment, Kushner’s plan is utopian in the best sense of the word. The document is silent on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so depending on how charitable a reader wants to be, Kushner’s effort is either ignorant or presumptuous, either blind to the political resolution that would be required before his proposals can be implemented, or based on an assumption that a resolution will have occurred.
It should be obvious that this pretty economic dream cannot be realized without the political dream of Palestinian independence. The point could have been made dramatically by the Palestinian leadership, which missed an opportunity by boycotting the conference in Bahrain where the plan was presented. Also absent was Israel, which would have to make significant concessions.
It’s unclear exactly what Kushner and the Trump administration wanted or expected out of this proposal. President Trump displays a belief that money is the pivot point of human behavior, as in his promise to Kim Jong-un of North Korea that his country “would be very rich” if it relinquished nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and investment.
So, did the Trump family think that dangling prosperity in front of the Palestinians might bribe them into a conciliatory political posture? If that’s the case, Kushner and his colleagues have no grasp of the dynamics of Palestinian nationalism. While economic hardships weigh on many Palestinians, especially in the deep poverty of Gaza, the long-running conflict with Israel has been a territorial dispute fueled by the clash of historical narratives, national aspirations, and religious extremism on both sides.
When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving the US embassy there, he foreclosed an American role in mediating impartially between Israel and the Palestinians, who also covet Jerusalem as their capital. When his ambassador, David Friedman, supported the prospect of Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank—and given his support of Jewish settlements there—he slammed the door on Palestinian regard for the sincerity of any US proposal.
Indeed, ProPublica reported a year and a half ago that the Kushner Companies Charitable Foundation had contributed to the West Bank settlement of Beit El, from which militant Israelis harass and attack Palestinians. Significantly, Kushner’s economic plan makes no mention of the settlements, which have intruded on Palestinian grazing land and uprooted vineyards and olive groves. It laments the small amount of agriculture on the West Bank and calls for Palestinians’ “access to more land.” Is this a coded statement of opposition to Jewish settlements, or is it just plain hypocrisy?
Similarly, the plan’s repeated recommendations for the relatively free movement of people and goods across borders with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel could be read as a challenge to the intricate, onerous checkpoints and barriers that Israel employs around the West Bank and Gaza. Kushner envisions vibrant Palestinian production and exports with outside assistance to “develop beneficial free trade agreements.” He praises the talents of the Palestinian diaspora and urges technical help from Palestinians living abroad—who would probably not be allowed in under current Israeli policy. The plan also revives the old, abortive idea of a land route open to Palestinians, through Israel, between Gaza and the West Bank. Is he pressing Israel for fundamental change, or is he anticipating such a relaxation of tensions that fears of terrorism would no longer be an issue?
Ever since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 war, Palestinians have found themselves largely stymied by Israeli authorities in developing their own substantial economic base. In the early 1980s, some international non-profit organizations were barred by the Israeli military government in the territories from giving seed money to embryonic manufacturing enterprises. Farming declined as land was confiscated and exports into Israel were restricted to curtail competition with Israeli producers. That threw more and more Palestinians into Israel proper for wage labor, where the pay is much higher than in the territories. But after Palestinian terrorist attacks prompted Israel to close and restrict border crossings, the commute became virtually impossible from Gaza and difficult from the West Bank.
The West Bank economy has improved somewhat, but whether Israel will permit or encourage the scale of independent Palestinian entrepreneurship and international trade proposed by Kushner is an open question.
And whether a Palestinian leadership would welcome the Kushner approach is also a question, given that it envisions a model of minimal government regulation and maximal capital enterprise, plus tax reform, that follows conservative Republican ideology. He urges strong property rights and a central registration of land ownership (many Palestinians have no deeds, which has made their land vulnerable to takeover by Israeli settlers). He suggests that a Palestinian government should privatize certain services.
The plan advocates massive funding in areas where his father-in-law’s administration has already cut off American aid. Is this another bit of hypocrisy, or a statement of dissent? And what of these statements, which might be applied as a counterpoint to Trump’s own behavior in office:
“Good governance requires rigorous systems that empower people to hold institutions accountable.”
“Robust civil society institutions and a free press are important parts of any well-functioning democracy. Preserving and expanding these important institutions within the West Bank and Gaza will require new laws and practices that protect their independence and improve their capacity.”