US Secretary of State John Kerry came on to the stage at this week’s World Economic Forum in front of an excited crowd who were expecting to hear of some kind of a major new US approach to finding peace in Palestine, but Kerry’s punch line of a $4 billion (Dh14.71 billion) investment fund for Palestine was a serious disappointment.
The lack of any political element to the plan makes it very hard to see how it can trigger change and there was a sense of real shock when Kerry said that former British prime minister, Tony Blair, was coordinating what he called the West Bank Plan. Blair has slowly lost credibility in his lingering role as Quartet Ambassador, especially after his refusal to condemn the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008. So the decision to give him the responsibility to raise and coordinate the $4 billion is bizarre.
Of course, there is no question that Palestine needs investment and no one would deny that more than most people, Palestinians need well-paid jobs offering them exciting careers and allowing them to think in terms of stable plans for themselves and their families.
However, it is almost certain that an investment plan implemented under Israeli occupation will fail miserably. It was glaringly noticeable that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not at the Dead Sea meeting. So, despite the presence and support of the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, for Kerry’s speech, it seems that the Israeli government is not part of Kerry’s West Bank Plan. The vote of the Israeli president is largely symbolic as head of state, while all the power lies in the office of the prime minister.
But Peres is no fool and has been around a long time. He was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 and has been there ever since. He believes that his left-wing politics and more pragmatic foreign policy represents Israel’s soul much better than Netanyahu’s right-wing rejectionists. So, it is possible that he has responded to the initiative to help reinforce a domestic Israeli constituency in favour of peace talks, to try to help isolate what he would see as the minority Netanyahu position.
Two separate initiatives came together at this week’s World Economic Forum meeting on the Middle East at the Dead Sea. Kerry spoke of the West Bank Plan as worth around $4 billion, which he described in over-optimistic language as “a ground-breaking plan for the Palestinian economy that is bigger, bolder and more ambitious than anything since Oslo 20 years ago”. The money will come from investors around the world and it has been backed by the Americans and the Quartet (EU, US, Russia and the UN), which is where Blair comes in.
Kerry said that the West Bank Plan has been in the making for several months and is supposed to raise Palestine’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 50 per cent in three years, triple agricultural production and make the Palestinian National Authority self-sufficient through taxation and fees on this renewed vibrant economy. Kerry also referred to the opportunities in tourism (pointing out that Palestine attracts fewer tourists than Yemen, despite having some of the world’s holiest sites). A different but similar process was called ‘Breaking the Impasse’ and was sponsored by the World Economic Forum, which had gathered hundreds of businessmen from both Palestine and Israel representing more than half the GDP from both sides. These businessmen filed into the hall and Israeli businessman Yossi Vardi, who made a fortune in high-tech industries, went to the stage to call for a renewal of the search for two-state solution, crying out that war and occupation had been “Too much. Too Long. Had been too painful to too many mothers! Enough!”
Reinvigorating the peace process
He was backed by Palestinian tycoon Munib Al Masri who said: “We reject the status quo. We risk falling into an abyss. End expansion of settlements [colonies]. Tear down the wall. The broad outlines of a solution are well documented. We want a just solution based on 1967 borders with [Occupied] Jerusalem as the capital of the two states, living in mutual respect and peace.”
Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke in favour of ‘Breaking the Impasse’. Both presidents backed the two-state solution and the actions taken by their two business communities to reinvigorate the peace process. Abbas spoke about the centrality of the two-state solution, which would give the next generation of Palestinians hope and self determination.
Rather unexpectedly, Peres picked up on a reference by Abbas to the Arab Peace Initiative and went much further by describing it as offering “meaningful change and a strategic opportunity”. The Arab Peace Initiative has been around for some time since it was first launched by the then Saudi crown prince, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, in 2002, and has not attracted much Israeli support or interest.
Peres went on to call for Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations and spoke directly to “his close friend, Mahmoud Abbas” when he said that “you will be surprised at what we could achieve with open dialogue working in trust and transparency”.
The only problem with all this goodwill is that it was between Abbas (who only controls half of Palestine and has not yet managed to achieve reconciliation with Hamas in Gaza) and Peres (who does not run the government of Israel). Netanyahu was not there and Kerry left the World Economic Forum to look at far more pressing issues like the huge crisis in Syria hanging over the whole region.
The $4 billion will be very useful if they appear and are well managed, but they cannot replace a removal of the Israeli colonies on the West Bank, end to occupation and a proper peace treaty based on mutual respect. It will be a tragedy if Kerry thinks this new investment move has let him off the hook in having to face down Netanyahu and stop the occupation of Palestine.