On Wednesday, six members of Congress introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill to create a $50 million annual fund to “facilitate and finance joint economic ventures and people-to-people exchanges between Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans,” according to a press release.
The bill, known as the Partnership Fund for Peace Act of 2019 (S.1727 and H.R.3104), is sponsored by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE).
The bill would establish a five-person board of governors, appointed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to dole out grants to Palestinian entrepreneurs and companies partnering with Israeli and US counterparts to create private sector jobs. The board would also fund dialogue and coexistence projects run by Israeli and Palestinian organizations.
In its most benign interpretation, this bill could be seen by well-intentioned members of Congress as a last-ditch attempt to revive the moribund prospects for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and perhaps even as a foil to the Trump administration’s “deal of the century,” which appears in all likelihood to preclude the possibility of Palestinian statehood.
Job Creation vs. Sovereignty
Remarks from supporting members of Congress make the likely true intentions of the bill evident.
In his remarks on the bill, Chris Coons maintained that “job creation is the best way to turn people away from violence,” while Lindsey Graham stated that “creating economic opportunities for the Palestinian people outside of the old funding construct is a great way to promote economic opportunity to people who have been systemically abused by their leadership for decades.” Jeff Fortenberry hinted at a similar line of thinking when he said, “We often hear about the ‘the road map for peace in the Middle East. The challenge is laying the proper foundation for the road…this bipartisan bill is a genuine attempt by the United States to regenerate our historic role in finding creative and imaginative pathways to secure a sustainable peace.”
This discourse dovetails neatly with the Trump administration’s repeated claims that Palestinians are to blame for Israel’s oppression and that the way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue is to provide Palestinians with economic development in lieu of their political rights.
Indeed, the timing of the introduction of the bill seems designed to reinforce the Trump administration’s plans to convene (without Palestinian participation) a two-day “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in the repressive Kingdom of Bahrain later this month.
The gathering is being spearheaded by presidential adviser and “deal of the century” point person Jared Kushner, who recently opined that Palestinians are not yet “capable of governing” themselves and “want the opportunity to pay their mortgage” more than they want freedom from Israeli military occupation.
Although the text of the Partnership Fund for Peace Act does not overtly reek of this rank racism and paternalism, more than a whiff of it can be detected through its more moderately couched language.
“Building a viable Palestinian economy is central to the effort to preserve the possibility of a 2-state solution,” according to the bill, which fails to mention how Israel’s continued illegal colonization of the West Bank has rendered that option moot.
A push for economic normalization
Congressional funding for joint economic partnerships and people-to-people projects will “increase the bonds of friendship and understanding between the people living in the Palestinian territories and the people of the United States and Israel,” the bill states, while remaining mum on the subject of Israel’s separate-and-unequal rule over the Palestinian people, supported by the United States diplomatically and financially, which would remain intact even if the bill were to become law.
And while one of the declared objectives of the fund is “to promote the private sector in the Palestinian territories,” this comes with strings attached for Palestinian entrepreneurs and companies. In order to access the fund, they must partner with Israeli or US companies, an induced economic normalization.
The entire premise of the bill—that Israeli-Palestinian peace can be facilitated if Palestinians only had more jobs or if Palestinians only interacted more with Israelis and talked things out—is not only an obtusely apolitical understanding of the issue. It is also an approach which has already served as a feature of US policy throughout the interminable quarter-century-long “peace process” and which has failed to have any discernible impact on the prospects for peace.
Since 2004, the now-defunct USAID Mission to the West Bank and Gaza Strip partnered with the US Embassy to Israel to fund 136 people-to-people projects. And beginning in the 1990s, the Clinton administration established “qualifying industrial zones” (QIZ’s) in Arab countries to promote both Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli joint economic ventures. Goods manufactured with mandatory Israeli inputs in QIZ’s are eligible for duty-free entrance into the United States.
The bipartisan nature of the bill, along with the sponsorship of Members of Congress who are well-placed to advance this legislation, makes its passage a distinct possibility. All four Senators sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, and all except Coons are on its Near East subcommittee.
In addition, Graham is one of the president’s strongest allies in the Senate, making it likely that the legislation enjoys the support of, or at least acquiescence from, the Trump administration.
The bill already boasts the support of a range of mainstream and liberal Zionist groups, including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, Americans for Peace Now, ADL, and J Street, according to its authors. If any combination of these organizations were to really throw their lobbying weight behind this bill, then its likelihood of passing would greatly increase.