by Mitchell Plitnick
On Sunday, the Trump administration said that it would release the economic component of the “deal of the century” in late June. That statement is a walkback of an earlier pledge to release the whole plan after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which end on June 5 and June 10, respectively. More than that, the release of the political component—if one even exists—is yet again delayed until an unspecified date later this year.
The reveal of an economic plan hints that there might be a political plan somewhere, while this continuing delay and uncertainty reinforce the notion that there is not. In either case, the economic portion seems to be real enough, as President Donald Trump’s point man on the “deal of the century”—First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner—has assembled a conference to be held in Bahrain in late June to unveil it and to get the wealthy Gulf states to contribute to it.
This is not the first mention of an “economic peace” for the Palestinians. The Trump administration has made no secret of its belief that it can buy Palestinian acquiescence, a view strongly encouraged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has advocated “economic peace” for many years.
It’s likely a genuine offer. Both Netanyahu and Kushner have worked hard to frame an extortive choice for the Palestinians: either face continuing economic strangulation that will quickly reach unprecedented levels in Gaza, with much of the West Bank soon to follow, or accept your status as subordinate to Israelis with only those rights Israel deigns to give you, if any. But your economic situation will improve.
Obviously, this is not a tempting offer for Palestinians. Collectively and individually, in media and in conversation, the Palestinian response to this choice is the same that anyone else would give: that their freedom and rights are not for sale. Not only the political leadership in both the West Bank and Gaza, but the Palestinian people at every level have broadcast that message quite loudly. So why does the Trump administration believe this will change now?
Jabari and Friends
At least part of the answer might lie in the person of Ashraf Jabari, a businessman from Hebron. Jabari, who at one time worked for the Palestinian security services, believes the two-state solution is a failure and has formed a new political party that aims, like Netanyahu and Kushner, to separate political and economic issues and tackle the latter first.
“Most people realize that the economic situation was much better before the Oslo Accords,” Jabari told the Jerusalem Post. “Let’s focus now on the economic track. We can deal with the political track later. The people are caught hostage to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The situation is very bad, and people want economic stability.”
This argument could have come from Likud headquarters. It ignores the deliberate harm done to the Palestinian economy since Oslo, much of it in response to the first intifada, which depended largely on demonstrations and labor stoppages at a time when Israel relied on cheap Palestinian labor. Israel made sure that that tool could not be used again by bringing in foreign workers from Thailand, the Philippines, and other places and by limiting the ability of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to enter Israel, something that was routine in the first 20 years of the occupation.
Jabari has found eager interlocutors. Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, called Jabari a “man of courage and vision who is practical but committed to peace and to coexistence. …I’m proud to call you my friend.” Another member of the Trump team, Jason Greenblatt, tweeted his approval for a publicity stunt where settlers in Hebron shared a “kosher iftar” meal last week in a large tent set up in front of Jabari’s home in that radically divided city. In an emblematic reaction to the display, Omar Shakir—the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch whom Israel is trying to deport right now—tweeted, “Here @jdgreenblatt45 trumpets Hebron with its sterile roads that Palestinians can’t walk on, 100+ checkpoints, settler violence that terrorizes locals and downtown for 200K occupied Palestinians that’s a ghost town where 800 settlers live with full rights as model for peace. What a joke!”
Jabari has also established a partnership with settler leader Avi Zimmerman, an entrepreneur and spokesperson for the settler movement worldwide. Zimmerman is the executive director of American Friends of Ariel. He and Jabari spearheaded the formation of the “Judea Samaria Regional Development Financing Initiative” (RDFI). Its stated mission is to integrate “economic planning as well as to advance joint entrepreneurship between Israelis and Palestinians who live in the region.”
Jabari’s efforts call to mind the “Village Leagues” that Israel established in the occupied territories in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Leagues were an attempt to control the Palestinian population by elevating local Palestinians—generally people who had no political following of their own and who therefore would remain dependent on Israel to maintain their authority—to positions of control over Palestinian towns. According to the incentive structure of this program, Palestinians would have greater freedom— not to exercise any political rights but rather to grow their local economies.
The Leagues failed miserably as local Palestinians were unwilling to accept their authority. Jabari’s Reform and Development Party faces similar pushback. A Palestinian source told Al-Monitor, “This new party brings to mind the Village Leagues; its leaders are collaborating with settlers and work under the wing of prominent Palestinian families. Their discourse focuses on improving living conditions. Although the [new] party leaders are not necessarily well-off, they may get U.S.-Israeli support, which could help some of them qualify for ministerial and government positions.”
Indeed, Jabari already has U.S. and Israeli support, and could tap into more. An organization called the U.S. Israel Education Association (USIEA) facilitated Jabari’s venture with Zimmerman. USIEA is a Christian organization that provides briefings for members of Congress and sponsors tours of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Though small, it has grown substantially over the past few years, increasing its budget by over 500 percent from its founding year in 2014 to 2017, the last year its financial records are available for.
Zimmerman is a member of USIEA’s board, and the organization states that its mission is to serve and educate “governmental leaders who are directly involved in advancing important dialogue between the United States and Israel, particularly related to regional complexities related to modern and biblical Israel.” It states that it “values the Judeo-Christian heritage and the historical and spiritual significance of Israel” and that it wishes to show members of Congress “Judea, Samaria, and the undivided city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has called Jabari a collaborator. Abdullah Abdullah of the Fatah Revolutionary Council said that Jabari’s
party will not succeed, because it lacks organizational and popular bases, and its political experience was dead before it began. The Palestinian leadership will not allow it to overstep President Abbas. All of Israel’s attempts to find alternatives to the Palestinian leadership have never worked, and today, this party will fail.
Abdullah is correct when he says tha tJabari has scant support among Palestinians, and most will likely view him as a collaborator of the worst sort. Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman are badly misreading the possibility of Jabari being able to marshal support.
Thus far, Jabari has insisted that he is simply trying to make economic progress, not trying to set himself up in opposition to the current leadership. He claims to be acknowledging the failure of the two-state solution, although he says it would be preferable, and instead hopes to advance Palestinian rights under Israeli sovereignty:
Sadly, we’ve been attacked by Fatah although they haven’t read our program. We’re not offering ourselves as an alternative to the PLO or Palestinian Authority. We’re not even offering ourselves as negotiators with Israel. We established our party to achieve the goals of the silent majority among Palestinians, who want economic stability. We continue to see the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. All we are saying is that the economy is our number one priority.
The upcoming conference in Bahrain will test the truth of Jabari’s claim and the measure of how integral he is to the Trump team’s “economic peace” idea. The PA is likely to boycott the gathering. If the United States arranges for Jabari or any other members of his fledgling party to be there, it would be a direct challenge to Mahmoud Abbas’s rule and that of the entire PLO. It would also mean that the Trump administration believes that Jabari can sell his ideas, which would be a bad gamble on its part—though obviously not the first such bet it has made.
Official Palestinian rejection of this economic plan is likely, and it’s a scenario that the pro-Likud right is already prepared for. Last week, the Gatestone Institute published an “analysis” of why, as it put it, “Palestinians oppose economic prosperity.” It viewed the refusal of Palestinian leadership to consider Jabari’s plans as a smear campaign and “proof” that “the Palestinians are less invested in gaining economic stability than they are in hating Israel.”
Gatestone’s ostensible scholar on this matter, Bassam Tawil—whose bio is devoid of any qualifications other than his being an Arab living in the Middle East—wrote, “Far from any ‘deal of the century,’ the Palestinian leaders long ago struck a dirty deal of their own: they put their stock in Israel-hatred rather than in their own people.”
For the pro-Likud right, the only alternative is for the Palestinians to embrace Jabari’s path that eschews any hope of self-determination but submits to a future of permanent apartheid in exchange for somewhat improved economic conditions. This threadbare ploy is doomed to failure.