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Lesson Learned in Bahrain

Some Washington Mid-East experts have criticized the Trump administration’s recent Bahrain economic workshop for Middle East peace.

Critics have accused the White House of engineering a Marshall Plan instead of forging a political peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This criticism is shortsighted.

After 25 years of a failed “top-down, politics-first” approaches to Middle East peacemaking, many leaders continue to hope that yet another “incremental” peace process with the PA will result in a final political agreement.

Apparently, critics have not been listening to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. The PA has defiantly declared to the international community that Ramallah is more committed to financing terrorists and their families than it is dedicated to paving a path to economic prosperity for the Palestinian people, let alone signing a peace deal with Israel.

It is well known both among the Palestinian public and in the West that the PA has legislated laws rewarding Palestinians who kill Israelis. The PA assigns 7% of its annual budget to fund terrorists and their families. By comparison, China allocates only 5.5% of its budget for all its military spending.

The US Congress, in passing the Taylor Force Act in 2018, determined that these Palestinian “pay for slay” payments merely reward and incentivize terrorism. Additionally, official PA media and school textbooks glorify violence against Israel.

Regretfully, some Middle East analysts have insisted that the PA will eventually redirect their monies and propaganda efforts away from encouraging civilian violence to building civil society.

The PA’s boycott of the Bahrain economic workshop unmasked that falsehood.

The PA leadership rejects the idea of incremental peace deals. It also does not want international assistance money to help its own working and middle classes build better lives.

Unlike past peace efforts, the Kushner/Greenblatt economics-first plan contained no preconditions. Its American sponsors simply requested the Palestinians to show up and cooperate to help pave a path to receive some $28 billion.

But the PA leadership has defied the international community and for the first time the Arab leadership as well.

In its official statement, the PLO wrote: “The workshop attempts to circumvent the real issues by peddling in recycled and failed ideas. It wants to sell a mirage of economic prosperity for the Palestinian people so long as they accept and endorse their perpetual captivity. This is a formula that no dignified people can accept.”

One must ask a simple question to the PA leadership and their diplomatic allies in the West: Can anyone oppose forging economic prosperity for the Palestinian people in advance of a political deal when the past five political attempts failed miserably?

The Arab powers apparently agree with the question’s premise. Only the PA appear to disagree.

For its part, the PA has succeeded in devastating the Palestinian economy while enriching itself. PLO leaders awarded PA bureaucrats a 20% salary increase in the midst of budget cuts. That’s on top of PA corruption and pilfering of international assistance.

How can the PA claim to represent the Palestinian people while turning down billions of dollars?

The Palestinians suffer from 30% unemployment in the West Bank and well over 50% in Gaza. Yet they receive the highest per capita assistance in the world and are broadly considered to be the most educated in the Arab world, providing Gulf states with engineers and contractors.

The Palestinian people seem to be waking up to the PA’s economic and political repression. PA orchestrated protests against the international aid conference were poorly attended.

Some Palestinian businessmen defied death threats to attend the Bahrain conference. One attendee said of the PA, “They don’t want anyone to speak about their theft, their misdeeds, the money that they stole from the Palestinian people. So they accuse anyone who tries to condemn them.”

Another Palestinian participant told The Jerusalem Post, “I’m not a traitor, and I’m not a collaborator with Israel, I’m a businessman who wants to help his people and boost the Palestinian economy. I didn’t break the law and I’m not a criminal. I went to a conference to discuss economic projects for my people, and because of that I’m now being punished and forced to live in hiding”.

Building Middle East peace requires new and creative thinking. Experts have long erred in pushing “top-down” political solutions without first developing the necessary economic infrastructure. Those “experts” argue that developing Palestinian economic infrastructure merely “deepens the occupation.” This is exceptional equivocation. Just ask any one of the 30,000 Palestinian employees working in the 14 Israeli industrial zones in Israeli-protected area C of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) who earn three times what average workers in the PA-controlled areas earn. That does not include bonuses, insurance, and benefits, and it’s all protected and guaranteed by Israeli labor laws.

Those Palestinians have said publicly, “Peace requires economic prosperity first to underpin a viable political solution.”

As in any free society, the Palestinian people must build an empowered civil society with an economically empowered middle class. That will force its democratically elected government to govern according to the will of its people. The Kushner /Greenblatt approach to “Peace through Prosperity” can achieve that only if the Palestinian leadership shows up.

Regretfully, the Palestinian leadership refuses to develop an empowered middle class. The failure of Bashar Masri’s hi-tech “Rawabi” city project is a good example. Simply put, free market incentives, strong middle and professional classes, a strong business community, and a liberalized economy threaten PLO control and uproot their decades-old radical doctrine of “revolution until victory.”

The PA boycott of Bahrain demonstrates a key point. Today, the PA leadership not only rejects Israel and the United States, it also discards the Arab world’s desire for economic cooperation and normalization with Israel while defiantly undermining the Palestinian people’s economic and political future.

Sander Gerber is CEO of Hudson Bay Capital Management and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. Dan Diker is foreign policy fellow and director, Project on Political Warfare, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on July 25, 2019.