By Madeleine Seibert
Washington, D.C.– Last Thursday afternoon, the Gulf International Forum hosted four experts on the Middle East in an effort to unpack the ‘Deal of the Century’ fronted by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner. The plan is known for its ‘economics first, politics later’ approach, which sets it apart from the dozens of failed peace plans that have preceded it. While the four panelists disagreed on many aspects of the plan, all agreed that the fiscal focus of Kushner’s proposal would inevitably be its downfall.
Dr. Grace Wermenbol, a non-resident scholar of the Middle East Institute, kicked off the event with her remarks on the situation at large. Giving attention to Palestine’s crucial role in the agreement, Wermenbol noted the deep cuts the Trump administration has made to Palestinian aid in the past. She added that, in her view, the current administration’s close and friendly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is another undeniable indicator of Washington’s ill will towards Palestine. Lastly, in addressing the notorious ‘economic prosperity’ claim of Kusher’s plan, Wermenbol made it clear that the conditions for such growth will be impossible until the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved.
Continuing on the ‘economics first, politics later’ theme was Dr. David Pollock, a Bernstein Fellow & Fikra Project Director at the Washington Institute. While others dismissed the chances of any real political action being taken as part of the Peace to Prosperity plan, Pollock insisted that the currently unknown second half of the plan is make-or-break for its efficacy. Noting that any solution in the Middle East will not be as simple as a ‘two state set-up’ or ‘solving Jerusalem’, Pollock remained relatively optimistic about the supposed political half of Kushner’s proposal. Shifting focus, Pollock then addressed the regional aspects of the Israel-Palestine issue. The multilateral nature of the plan appeared very important to Pollock. From Iran to Egypt to Jordan, he ultimately concluded that the GCC region is “getting tired of the Palestinian issue”, as priority in the region has shifted to more pressing conflicts, such as that of Yemen and Syria. Pollock’s most controversial point was his last one, as he presented the findings of a poll he conducted in GCC countries. The poll simply asked GCC citizens if they would like to play a more active role in alleviating the Palestinian conflict, to which Pollock’s poll found approximately two out of three citizens polled answered yes.
Returning to the Palestinian perspective, Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of the Arab Center in DC, firmly asserted that the deal in question is neither a peace deal nor an economic proposal. Jahshan identified two simple indicators that the plan did not serve Palestinians; “Palestinians are rejecting the plan, and people do not reject things that improve their living conditions”. Reaffirming the perspective of Wermenbol, Jahshan stressed that Kushner’s plan is ignorant of the 77 failed attempts that have come before it, dating all the way back to 1937. Jahshan also echoed Wermenbol when he noted “actions speak louder than words”, referring to the many anti-Palestinian actions the Trump administration has taken before rolling out the Kushner plan. He furthered his critique of the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ deal by noting its failure to utilize any of the Middle Eastern experts in Kushner’s backyard of DC. Invaluable expertise is being ignored, when it could better inform this complex policy-making process. Jahshan closed his remarks with polling statistics of his own, stating that 90% of Palestinians do not trust the US and 83% favor independence over economic growth. In short, the court of public opinion has ultimately ruled against Kushner’s peculiar brand of ‘economic prosperity’ in favor of Palestinian independence.
Dr. Debra Shushan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at the Americans for Peace Now, closed out the panel with arguably the most passionate address. She eloquently argued that the Peace to Prosperity plan, is not a peace plan at all, but instead a plan for Palestinian surrender. Shushan backed up her claim by noting that there is evidence the plan is being constructed as a bankruptcy deal for Palestine. In terms of the ‘economics first, politics later’ approach, Shushan was skeptical that the two elements could ever be separated, as Pollock proposed they could be. Both appeared eager to uncover the political second-half of the plan, however, confidence in its efficacy varied. Once again reaffirming the initial claim of Wermenbol, Shushan stressed that the Kushner plan is entirely contingent on Palestinian sovereignty
The panel concluded with a Q&A session. The first question focused on what the process in its entirety was, considering this “Deal of the Century” only covered the economic aspect. Pollock highlights what the Trump administration has done so far, from cutting all aid to the West Bank and Gaza, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to the closure of the PLO office in D.C. Shushan sees this could be seen as part of the political aspect of the plan. Pollock however believes there is no endgame, and that the Kushner Plan was simply a basis for discussion. Jahshan also believes there is no process, and notes the time element to the creation of a plan. It is currently unknown whether a full economic and political plan will be announced before or after Israeli elections. However it cannot be too far into the future since the Trump administration will be preoccupied with US presidential elections.
The moderator asked the panel where the money for the Kushner plan would actually come from. Pollock believed it would most likely come from the Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. Wermenbol sees the economic plan as a method of lowering the bar of expectation, since no pledges from any of the actors will have to be made.
The moderator then made his last remark to the panel, noting the current stasis between Israel and Palestine will have violence as the logical outcome. He then followed up by questioning why Palestinians will not condemn terrorism. Jahshan responded to the first part in agreement with seeing that the situation will continue to escalate, and that the U.S. will not initiate a peace process until blood starts to flow, and historically that has been Palestinian blood. Shushan, however, closed with the claim that officials of the PLO and the PA have both come out and renounced terrorism.