Most opponents of the Trump plan reject it on the grounds that it does not address the most pressing political issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the June economic workshop in Manama was never about reaching a solution, but about presenting novel ideas that may ultimately bear fruit. Given the diminishing regional interest in the Palestinians' affairs in the Middle East, their insistence on rejecting any initiative means they risk getting left behind
Manama's World Trade Center | Photo: Allan Donque/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The first block of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan, titled “Peace to Prosperity”, has been laid. As expected, the economic workshop held in Manana in June invoked Pavlovian reactions and a plethora of opinions, comments, posts and tweets, press conferences, and some demonstrations. Truth be told, there are indeed many reasons to oppose the Trump initiative, to belittle or dismiss it, and to be cynical about it. Most of its opponents advised the Palestinians to reject the plan, mainly because it does not address the most pressing political and identity-related issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But the plan's critics are missing the point: this part of the peace plan is not dodging the core issues of the conflict (i.e., borders, security, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem); rather, it is about laying down a solid foundation in order to discuss them in the future, and giving those talks a better chance to succeed. The workshop's planners see it as the first step in shaping the road to a viable and (hopefully) sustainable Palestinian state. And at a time when Palestinian affairs are increasingly relegated to the back stage in regional strategic priorities, the Palestinians would be wise to embrace the workshop - since it currently represents their best chance at fulfilling their national aspirations.
The Manama economic workshop was both a declaration of intent and a feasibility test. It was a declaration of intent in the sense that it gathered medium-to-high level representatives around the table, thus sending a message by carrying on almost as planned despite strong opposition; and it was a feasibility test in the efficient use of economic diplomacy to lay the basis for a wider political plan.
Some have argued that there is nothing really novel in “Peace to Prosperity.” In a way, it echoes former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s (unsuccessful) attempts to establish a de facto Palestinian state by creating strong institutions and fighting state and economic corruption. But if the Fayyad initiative was an inside-out attempt, Peace for Prosperity’s strategy is an outside-in endeavor.
Why does it stand a chance to succeed, though it receives virtually no Palestinian support? The reason is that the new plan for promoting Palestinian state-building is backed by several important states in the region. One motivation for this support is that the Iranian threat has succeeded in aligning the national security interests of Israel and many Arab states in the Middle East. Importantly, as opposed to the past, today it takes precedence over Palestinian grievances.
The train is leaving the station
The discussion over solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to focus on political solutions. The Oslo accords of the 1990s defined the tangible core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stated above. But the years following Oslo also fleshed out the underlying issues: a battle for historical narratives, subjective “justice”, dignity, and (dis)trust. While these issues tend to attract most of the attention, every serious peace initiative since Oslo has also featured an economic plan.
Until now, it was assumed that the economic component must follow the political—but must it? One explanation, often invoked by Palestinian officials, is that glossing over the political injustice (in their view) to reach the economic part will eventually leave them empty-handed. They fear that if Israel and their supporters get their way, once the Israelis’ relationship with the rest of the Arab world is normalized, they will have no incentive to address the core issues, let alone take far reaching steps toward the Palestinians.
Developments in the Middle East in the past 15 years are currently undermining the traditional Palestinian belief that the Arab world will reject Israel until it meets their political demands
The problem with this explanation is that to some degree, the process the Palestinians are afraid of is already taking place, with or without their objection to the Trump initiative. And, arguably, the best way to keep their political cause relevant is to jump on the bandwagon rather than be left behind.
The last fifteen years have witnessed three significant geopolitical developments which have transformed the Middle East. First, the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” has refuted the contention that all conflicts in the Middle East stem from the Israeli-Palestinian one. Second, Iran’s expansionist foreign policy has become a source of significant regional concern that cuts across traditional rivalries. For example, some of the Gulf States have already engaged in semi-official discussions with Israel on how to curb the Iranian threat. And third, the aspiration for economic prosperity in the Arab world, along with greater access to information, have generated new interest in Israel and what that it has to offer to the region, and a rejection of the notion that ties with Israel are haram. It is interesting to note, for example, the renaissance in Israeli tourism to Morocco, where – unlike Jordan and Egypt – it’s the people-to-people interaction that opens new paths towards engagement between the two states.
Each of these developments, and their cumulative impact, threatens the traditional Palestinian belief that the Arab world will reject Israel until it meets their (political) demands. Against that background, one might be tempted to bluntly ask them: what do you really have to lose here? After all, there is no time frame for implementing the economic components of Trump’s plan. The political aspects of the deal are not destined to be neglected just because the economic aspects of Palestinian statehood will be addressed first.
Furthermore, representatives of Arab states in the workshop appear to have remained fully committed to the Palestinian aspiration for a political solution. They simply believe that the two aspects are intertwined, and that a political settlement is more feasible to attain if some progress is made on the economic front. For example, one possible solution that was discussed to the (political) issue of securing the future Palestinian state's territorial continuity is the establishment of a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, this solution hinges on investments and regional support, and no less importantly on a political agreement between Israel, the PA and Hamas (which controls Gaza).
Israeli reporters interviewing Bahrain's foreign minister during the Manama workshop. A step towards normalization? | Source: Youtube
Despite the aforementioned potential of the route taken in the Manama workshop, three important caveats remain. First, to have any real impact, the plan requires the support of the Arab world, the European Union, and other regional and global powers. However, Muslim states such as Morocco and Jordan reluctantly sent only mid-level representatives to the Manama workshop; the EU sent only observers; and Russia and China did not even bother to participate.
Second, Israel must internalize the signals it received from the Arab participants of the workshop: that it will hit the economic route’s glass ceiling very quickly, unless economic progress is accompanied by a meaningful effort to restart the political route. Thus far, there are no indications that the Israeli government - the current one, and its successor - is willing or able to make progress on this.
And third, there is a serious discrepancy between the increasing indifference to the Palestinian cause among the Arab leadership and the strong commitment to that cause in Arab public opinion. Indeed, while in some key countries such as Morocco and the Gulf States the idea of normalizing relations with Israel is no longer taboo, the great majority of people in Arab states stands by the Palestinians. This will make any progress achieved without the participation and consent of the Palestinians hard to sell to the Arab public.
The Kosovo model
While the Oslo process failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was able to articulate a vision shared by peace supporters for the last 25 years: the two-state solution. The Trump administration “Peace to Prosperity” framework proposes to rethink the order in which, and how exactly, this will vision can be realized—creating a state de facto before declaring its existence de jure. And while Oslo’s two-state solution is being strongly criticized and increasingly dismissed as obsolete, it is still the point of reference and the most strongly supported idea in the discussion.
The Manama workshop’s focus on economic progress allows us to compare efforts to establish a Palestinian state with a successful previous attempt at achieving statehood - Kosovo, which is nowadays acknowledged by over half of the world's countries.
If Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians can more or less get along within the same borders, Hamas and Fatah - which share a common nationality and religion - can be expected to try and solve their problems
The Manama summit’s goal was to create economic incentives and enlist other actors to join its economic vision for the region. Like in post-war Kosovo, the focus was on political elections and reconstruction (economic and societal). The World Bank’s involvement in Kosovo, for example, focused on three areas: budgetary support until Kosovo became sustainable economically; job creation and poverty reduction; and support of infrastructure reconstruction. The donor countries were tasked with coordinating the efforts, although their interests were not always aligned.
Most importantly, Kosovo's reconstruction was seen as part of a process of regional reconstruction, to which Kosovo had to adapt. One of the main challenges was finding a way for two rival peoples, Albanians and Serbs, to reach a modus vivendi. And if Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians can more or less get along in the same political territory, Hamas and Fatah – which do have a common nationality and religion – can be expected to try and solve their differences.
Give (economic) peace a chance
While it is easy to dismiss the Manama workshop due to Palestinian insistence to stay out of it, the kind of public acts and declarations made during the two-day event bear meaning in a region that highly values symbolism. Processes that seek to overcome century-old animosities and mistrust take time, and each small step may accelerate the next one.
The success of this new beginning requires commitment from all sides. The Palestinians may continue to shun this new framework. As a general strategy, however, it may be time for them to realize that their traditional strategy of Sumud (“steadfastness”) only goes so far these days. Given the strategic shifts in regional and global order, the lack of appealing alternatives, the inevitable change of leadership in the PA which is drawing closer, and the deep feud between Fatah and Hamas, sticking to the status-quo of "all or nothing" is a a risky proposition for the Palestinians.
Israel, for its part, must demonstrate a strong commitment to this economic diplomacy initiative, and make sure to fulfill its responsibilities for the growth of the Palestinian economy, from infrastructure to investments. Israel must also remember that without the prospect of a viable route to resolve the political side of the conflict, normalization with its Arab neighbors will not be achieved. Finally, the US and its Arab partners have an international responsibility to keep the Manana ball rolling even if both parties are not completely in the game.
The real potential of the Manama workshop does not lie in the immediate responses by either those who have celebrated its existence on the one hand or downplayed it on the other. It is rather in setting in motion micro-events and novel ideas on how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the failure of past approaches, the refreshing vision introduced in Manama at least deserves to be given a chance.
Lea Landman heads the "Diplomacy 2030" desk at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. She is a policy consultant for the public and private sector, specializing in public policy, defense, and foreign affairs for over 15 years. She is a commentator in the public, private, and defense sectors in Israel and abroad, and hosts the "Les Ambassadeurs" weekly television broadcast on i24News in French.She holds a BA in History and Political Science from Tel-Aviv University, and graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.