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Why the US ‘workshop’ for Palestinians in Bahrain will fail

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Twenty-five years ago, I moderated the panel discussion on the Palestinian economy at the international economic summit in Casablanca, Morocco. I was there in my capacity as co-chair of Builders for Peace (BfP), a project created by Vice-President Al Gore to help grow the Palestinian economy in support of the still-fledgling Oslo peace process.

I learned a great deal both at the Casablanca Summit and in my more than three years with BfP and it is from that vantage point that I want to comment on the Trump Administration’s proposal to sponsor an economic “workshop” in Bahrain.

In short, I believe this effort will fail, not because the Palestinians won’t participate. It will fail because of the reason why Palestinians won’t participate. They know that without sovereignty and independence they cannot grow their economy. The Trump team would have been well advised to learn from – and not ignore – this lesson that Palestinians could have taught them.

I first saw this lesson play out in Casablanca. When we arrived there, in January of 1994, we found the atmosphere to be quite heady. Government and business from around the world were there. In addition to the top echelon of the Clinton Administration, BfP had brought a delegation of American business leaders. Arab governments and investors were there in full force; as were the Israelis – who were demonstrably excited to be welcomed, for the first time, in an Arab capitol. At times, it became almost comical to watch Israeli businessmen spotting an Arab in a thobe and then running up to them to have a picture taken to send home.

The Palestinian leadership were there and were feeling optimistic about their prospects for achieving a Palestinian state within the five-year window projected by Oslo. They were, therefore, eager to begin building the structures of their state and securing the investment needed to create businesses and jobs that would enable them to develop an independent economy.

During the first decades of the Israeli occupation, Palestinians had lost access to much of their water and arable land, been cut off from one another by a harsh occupation regime, and had also been cut off from the outside world. As a result, the territories had undergone a process of de-development and had become increasingly dependent on the Israelis. Israeli businesses dumped products in what had become for them a captive market. Palestinian businesses, where they existed, could only have access to the outside world if they traded through an Israeli middleman. And the single largest source of employment for Palestinians were low-paying, often humiliating, day-labor jobs in Israel.

Our efforts were encouraged by a World Bank study which argued that with investment and access to external markets the Palestinian economy was ready to take off. The US had already pledged $150 million a year for five years to support the Palestinians, with other nations following suit.

My panel featured three Palestinian ministers – all with economic portfolios – who laid out in some detail what they felt was needed to help them grow. At the end of the session, I was approached by a young American, who asked excitedly if I would introduce him to the Palestinian ministers. He told me that he had just been awarded a USAID grant for around $10 million to help train Palestinians in entrepreneurial skills. When I relayed his request to the Palestinians, they were furious. One said to me, “No one consulted us as to what we needed. Our people don’t need to be trained on how to do business. We need capital to be invested in our small business sector and we need the freedom to do business.” I experienced variations of this same frustration – with supply-driven instead of demand-driven aid – throughout my tenure at BfP.

In our first year, we brought two delegations of American business leaders to meet with Palestinians to discuss investment and partnership possibilities. The projects that were hatched during our first visit were ultimately aborted when the American side realized that they could not freely import raw materials and export finished products without securing either an Israeli partner (which added unacceptable costs) or Israeli permission (which was not forthcoming). As I expressed it then, “We had the horses at the gate, but the gate never opened.”

Even US government efforts were blocked. On one occasion I fielded a troubled call from an official at the Department of Agriculture. They had appropriated funds to ship bulbs to Gaza’s farmers in order to assist them in developing an export capacity. He reported to me that the bulbs had been sitting in the port for months and had rotted. The Israelis wouldn’t let them in.

What we discovered, in part after then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown convened a roundtable discussion with Israeli and Palestinian government and business leaders, was that the Israelis simply didn’t want the competition that might result from the emergence of an independent Palestinian small business sector. The Israelis were more interested in protecting their small businesses than they were in seeing the Palestinians grow and become independent.

Brown was even forced to tackle the Israelis resistance to surrendering to Palestinians the franchises that Israelis had secured allowing them to market American products in the West Bank and Gaza. These areas represented but a small percentage of the Israeli GDP – but the Israelis didn’t want to give up their economic control.

I accompanied Brown on another visit where we convened a meeting to hear the concerns of Palestinian business leaders. The meeting was held in East Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel (before Congress bowed to Israeli pressure and barred US officials from meeting Palestinians in Jerusalem). Part way through his opening remarks, many Palestinians began to leave. Brown turned to me and asked whether it was something he had said that caused this exodus. I left the room and met a number of those who had departed. They showed me their travel permits that had been granted by the Israeli occupation authorities allowing them to cross the checkpoints and come into Jerusalem. The permits were for a three-hour visit. Because these Palestinians were mostly from Ramallah or Hebron and because of the long lines at the checkpoints – entering and exiting – they were afraid that if they missed the deadline for returning they would be denied future travel permits.

A year and a half after Casablanca, a second summit was convened in Amman, Jordan. One important component was missing from the 1995 gathering – Palestinians weren’t there. Israel had instituted a closure of the West Bank and Gaza – in the wake of a massacre committed by an extremist Israeli settler at the mosque in Hebron. Then Prime Minister Rabin, fearing Palestinian retaliation, closed the territories and banned travel.

The Amman Summit was a disaster without the Palestinians. It was, as I remarked at the time, as if the Palestinians had opened the door to the Arab World, the Israelis had entered, and then promptly closed the door behind them.

Frustrated by this lock-out, I convinced some of our BfP delegation and a few US government representatives to go to Jerusalem to convene a rump session and invite the Palestinians to join us. The night of the meeting, we, Americans and Israelis, sat for hours waiting for the Palestinians to arrive. A US consular official passed me a note saying, “I bet it’s damned Arafat who refused to allow them to attend.” A few minutes later we received a phone call from the Palestinians. They had been stopped at a checkpoint and the Israelis were refusing to allow them to enter. Even after we put an Israeli cabinet minister and a US official on the phone, the occupation authorities refused to budge.

Much has changed in the intervening years, mostly for the worst. West Bank Palestinians have lost more land and settlements and Jewish-only roads have cut the territory into small pieces; Palestinians, in what is called “East Jerusalem,” have been completely severed from the West Bank; and Gaza, under the control of Hamas, is being strangled by an Israeli blockade. Given these conditions, the Palestinian economy has deteriorated even further, becoming dependent on external aid to underwrite a swollen public sector or day labor jobs in Israel or in Israeli settlements.

Under these circumstances, what the Palestinians need more than anything is freedom from Israeli control and the independence required to grow their economy. A recent World Bank study says that the Palestinians would triple their growth rate if the barriers to free trade were removed.

This said, the attempt to convene an “economic workshop” without first guaranteeing that Palestinians will have freedom and independence – is destined for failure. We’ve been down the road paved with false promises before and have found it to be a dead end. Because freedom isn’t being discussed and Palestinians see no commitment to independence on the horizon – the US summit in Bahrain will be a nice show but it won’t make a difference. As the old adage goes “you can’t put the cart before the horse” – it just won’t go.

This post appeared on June 1 first on the Arab American Institute website, with the disclaimer that the views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute, which is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse candidates.

James Zogby

James Zogby tweets at @jjz1600 and is the author of Arab Voices and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.–based organization which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab-American community.

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14 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson on June 1, 2019, 4:43 pm

    RE: [T]he Israelis simply didn’t want the competition that might result from the emergence of an independent Palestinian small business sector. The Israelis were more interested in protecting their small businesses than they were in seeing the Palestinians grow and become independent. ~ Zogby

    SEE: Israel “free” trade agreement delivers $144 billion deficit to US | Grant Smith |
    • America’s first and worst bilateral

    [EXCERPT] The cumulative US merchandise trade deficit with Israel from 1985 through 2015 has ballooned to $144 billion adjusted for inflation. Why are these results so one-sided? By design. The 1985 US “free” trade deal with Israel was passed among a score of measures in the 1980s designed to prop up Israel’s tiny, sputtering economy—not to benefit the US. As recognized by industry opponents at the time, if the deal were truly about trade, the US would have sought out a foreign trading partner with a much larger and more diversified economy.

    The “US-Israel Joint Economic Discussion Group” headed up by economist Stanley Fischer demanded the Reagan administration henceforth deliver foreign aid to Israel in the form of grants, which did not have to be repaid, rather than loans. The team also insisted upon the unilateral elimination of US trade barriers on Israeli goods while allowing Israel to continue to protect its own domestic industries.

    Originally referred to as “Duty Free Treatment for US Imports from Israel” the spin-masters in the “discussion group,” the Israeli government, and its foreign lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) knew a public relations reframing job was necessary if they were going to pull off the near unilateral lowering of US tariff and non-tariff barriers.

    The deal was therefore rebranded as America’s first “free trade” deal, conjuring up rosy images of bilaterally, if not equally, lowering barriers which would force each country’s producers to focus on their comparative advantages, boosting total trade volumes and making better, cheaper, more plentiful goods available to consumers in both countries.

    It did not work out that way.

    Israel maintained its set of fixed and floating tariff and non-tariff barriers in order to gradually reverse America’s bilateral trade surplus and create a chronic trade deficit solely to Israel’s advantage. . .


    • Citizen on June 2, 2019, 6:10 am

      The Israeli negotiators knew every chess move the US negotiators would make due to obtaining all underlying base business data thanks to American spies working for Israel. Congress has had this information available for decades but has never revisited the US-Israel FTA. Trump never mentions this FTA as something needing a revisit, same as he never mentions US extravagant military aid to Israel. His public stance generally is “I’m 100% in support of Israel.”

    • Misterioso on June 3, 2019, 9:49 am

      @JLewisDickerson, et. al

      More grist for the mill:

      “Mike Pompeo Destroys Jared Kushner’s ‘Deal of the Century'” June 3/19 by Juan Cole, truthdig

      “I can barely believe it. Mike Pompeo, who can believe 10 impossible things before breakfast every day, including the impending Rapture and Hilary Clinton’s responsibility for Benghazi, isn’t a complete Trumpbot after all.

      “In private remarks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that someone recorded and leaked to the Washington Post, Pompeo threw cold water on Jared Kushner’s still unrevealed ‘Deal of the Century.’ There are things wrong with it, he admitted.

      “1. It isn’t very good.

      “2. It is “un-executable,” i.e. impractical and incapable of being implemented in the real world.

      “3. It isn’t very original. (This is bad, since all previous attempts by the Israelis and their American backers to impose a settlement on the Occupied Palestinians have failed, and if this Deal is like the others then it will fail too).

      “4. It stacks the deck for Israel so heavily that the Palestinians will refuse to play. Only an Israeli, Pompeo admitted, could love it.

      “So not only is Jared not solving the Palestine problem, not only is this plan not the deal of a century, but it isn’t even the deal of a week. it is not worth the paper it will be printed on.

      “The normally docile and compliant Palestine Authority is so enraged by what they know of the deal that they have cut off relations with the United States and are refusing to be involved in these negotiations.

      “And the Trump administration has cut off funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency that had been used to keep millions of Palestinian refugee families, as well as cutting off development aid to the Palestine Authority.

      “Pompeo just confirmed what most seasoned observers were expecting.

      “In separate remarks at Axios on HBO, Kushner revealed that he has no idea what self-determination means. He said Palestinians need to have it, but then implied that they would remain under Israeli military Occupation and that anyway the Palestinian WOGS are incapable of self-rule at this time.

      “Yes, and in the 1930s and early 1940s Churchill thought Indians wouldn’t be ready for self-rule for hundreds of years.

      “The main problem at issue in Palestine is Occupation and statelessness. A state has control of the land, water and air of a target. Palestinians do not have one

      “A state gives its citizens secure human and property rights. Palestinians lack them.

      “Kushner is essentially an Israeli squatter on Palestinian land working on behalf of other squatters. He headed a foundation aimed at helping Israeli squatters in illegal settlements.

      “The only thing the Trump administration is actually capable of doing is making things worse.”

  2. brent on June 1, 2019, 10:55 pm

    Something important is different this time around. We have a giant ego as President who challenges the deep state and wants to prove he’s the greatest of all. That he would characterize his objective as the “deal of the century” is revealing of the personal importance he places on it and suggests there will be hell to pay for scuttling it. He said if Israel refuses to play, he’ll cut off their money, “All of it!”. Presidents haven’t said such things before.

    • RoHa on June 2, 2019, 2:25 am

      “He said if Israel refuses to play, he’ll cut off their money, “All of it!” Presidents haven’t said such things before.”

      I’ll believe it when he does it.

    • eljay on June 2, 2019, 8:20 am

      || brent: Something important is different this time around. We have a giant ego as President who challenges the deep state and wants to prove he’s the greatest of all. That he would characterize his objective as the “deal of the century” is revealing of the personal importance he places on it and suggests there will be hell to pay for scuttling it. He said if Israel refuses to play, he’ll cut off their money, “All of it!”. Presidents haven’t said such things before. ||

      Donald “Grand Marshal of the Israeli Day Parade” Trump is going to be tough on Israel – the most…the toughest, you’ve never seen a tougher president, trust me! – and you know he’s serious because he validated Israel’s claims to Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Presidents haven’t done such things before! So you know he’s tough.

      And he’s also said many tough things such as:

      ” … I’m very pro-Israel. In fact, I was the head of the Israeli Day Parade a number of years ago, I did a commercial for Netanyahu when he was getting elected … People are born with hatred, they’re taught hatred. And I have to say, it’s mostly on the one side, not on the other side. But they’re taught hatred. … ”

      “I am a great friend of Israel. I was the Grand Marshal of the Israeli Day Parade… I have so many friends. In fact one of them, one of my great friends — where is Jared, my son-in-law? Where is he? My son-in-law is Jewish, and he’s fantastic … So, there is nobody closer — and Bibi Netanyahu asked me to do a commercial for him, for his campaign. I did a commercial for him.”

    • Brewer on June 2, 2019, 9:19 pm

      There is nothing new here, simply a re-run of the old strategy of making an utterly unacceptable offer that ignores the basic issues – International Law, United Nations consensus, land theft, ethnic cleansing and right of return. Palestinian refusal to lie down and accept a few shekels in exchange for their birthright will be characterized as “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.
      The Kusher/Trump/Netanyahu response will be “See. We tried, you can’t deal with these people” and the ethnic cleansing will go into higher gear.

  3. RoHa on June 2, 2019, 2:25 am

    An Arab capital.

  4. just on June 2, 2019, 7:06 pm

    Thank you for this fascinating and historical article, Mr. Zogby!

    Here is a terrific interview from Democracy Now! for your viewing/reading information. It’s very intense and fairly lengthy, and I recommend it unreservedly. I am posting what is actually wrt the ridiculous ‘Kushner’ plan:

    “Denied Entry to US, Palestinian Diplomat Hanan Ashrawi on US “Peace Plan” & Israeli Political Crisis …

    … You have here extreme right-wing ideologues. Trump has put together a team. As you rightfully pointed out, they are either bankruptcy lawyers, or they are real estate lawyers and his brother—and his son-in-law, sorry. “Nepotism” is not a word here. And all of them are committed to Israel. They are committed ideologically to Israel. In religious terms, Israel, to them, is, you know, the gift of God, therefore somebody like Friedman can speak openly and say that Israel is on the side of God. I wonder what God will do without Israel being on its side. I mean, this is ridiculous. This is the first I’ve heard of such a statement. Or even somebody like Pompeo, who says that God sent Trump to save Israel from Iran.

    I mean, is this how you make 21st century politics? Is this how you deal with geopolitical realities based on international law, on parity, on the recognition of the imperatives of peace and coexistence and so on? Or do you start invoking biblical text and the Old Testament and so on in order to justify contemporary injustices? And then somebody like Greenblatt and others keep saying, “Well, this is an outdated argument. These are archaic arguments. You don’t go back to your old arguments,” while they’re going back and reciting the Bible to us, a 3,000-year-old text, as being the basis of 21st century decisions. And yet we are not supposed to talk about freedom, human rights, dignity: These are really calcified arguments.

    So, there is a certain degree of blind commitment emanating from a very strong ideological fundamentalist faith that has dominated decision-making. And that’s why we feel that this is extremely dangerous. Whenever you bring God into a conflict, you turn it into a religious conflict. It becomes a matter of absolutism, absolute right versus absolute wrong, and therefore you can justify whatever you do to the other because you negate the very humanity and all the rights of the other. …

    … NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ashrawi, before we conclude, if you could just say what you expect will happen next month at the June meeting in Bahrain? Are there Arab countries who are participating? And Palestinians, including yourself, the Palestinian leadership, are they boycotting the secret Kushner plan?

    HANAN ASHRAWI: Well, the Kushner plan is not much secret when it comes to the real issues—Jerusalem and refugees and borders and the two-state solutions, and settlements being illegal, and so on. They’ve done everything to prejudge and destroy the real issues. Now they’re talking about economic issues, as they said, and they’re trying to get the Arabs to foot the bill in order to give the Palestinians a handout and in order to integrate Israel economically within the region. So, it is putting the Arab Peace Initiative on its head, asking the Arabs to normalize with Israel, while Israel is still an occupying power, occupying Palestinian land, annexing Palestinian land, occupying Arab Syrian land, annexing Arab land, and so on. This is really rewarding the aggressor and trying to normalize before Israel is brought to compliance with international law, number one.

    Number two, I think this whole workshop is much ado about nothing. There’s a lot of talk trying to persuade people that the U.S. has something to say, something to do. They’re going around trying to persuade Arabs to attend. I don’t think this will have any significance now, also given the fact that their ally and best friend Israel is in deep political trouble, and their man in the region, Netanyahu, is still seeking re-election.

    So, I would say that they managed to get some Arab countries. They convinced Bahrain to host this, for heaven’s sake. They convinced Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to immediately announce that they’re attending. Even Qatar announced that it’s attending. I know that there are many countries who have other political calculations and interests, and who do not want to stand up to the U.S. And the U.S. can use different means to threaten, bash, cajole, bribe—whatever they want—other countries. This administration has used these tactics.

    With us, they use, you know, punitive measures, sanctions. They’re very cruel measures. They can, you know, punish the sick, in terms of defunding hospitals in Jerusalem. Or they can punish students by suspending their scholarships or whatever. So they have done this. They have stopped any funding on the Palestinians, ironically. And then they are saying, “We’re holding an international workshop to see how to make the Palestinian lives better, how to give them more quality of life,” while carrying out an economic interdiction of the region.

    Now, we are not stupid. And I think that this not only insults our own intelligence; it’s a real insult to the real requirements of peace and to the international community and to the people who are attending and to the people who are trying to justify their attendance by saying, “Let the leadership do something good for its own people.” Well, get the Israeli boot off our neck. Stop the American boycott and American threats to defund all of Palestine. Get Israel to give us our money that it is stealing and withholding, our customs funds. And that’s what we need. Then deal with the real issues. The real issues are self-determination, freedom, sovereignty, dignity, rights on our own land. That’s what we need. And if you avoid all the real issues and start devising distractions and diversionary tactics, they’re not going to get you anywhere. And I doubt whether the Arabs are willing to foot the bill. …

    • Marnie on June 2, 2019, 11:10 pm

      It’s all part of the Greatest Snowjob On Earth – the tRUMP presidency. In the end, everyone gets cancelled.

      • just on June 3, 2019, 11:46 am

        Marnie, did you see this?

        “U.S. Slashed Palestinian Aid as a Result of Decisions by Their Leadership, Kushner Says …

        … WASHINGTON – Jared Kushner, a senior advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, said Sunday that the Trump administration’s slashing of American aid to the Palestinians was “a result of decisions taken by the Palestinian leadership.”

        During an interview with Axios journalist Jonathan Swan on Sunday, which was broadcast on HBO, Kushner was asked about the massive cuts to U.S. aid to the Palestinians that the Trump administration made last year. He replied that the Palestinian Authority was to blame, and that the cuts occurred because the PA cut all ties with the Trump administration following its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.

        “If we make certain decisions that we’re allowed to do as a sovereign nation,” Kushner said, referring to the embassy move, “and we get criticized by that government [the Palestinian Authority], the response of [Trump] is not to say, ‘oh let me give you more aid.’ So again, that was as a result of decisions taken by the Palestinian leadership.” …

        … When asked whether he understands why Palestinians do not trust him as a fair mediator in this conflict, Kusher said, “I’m not here to be trusted.” He explained that “there’s a difference between the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people,” claiming that the Palestinian people “want to have a better life” and that facts, rather than trust, will be the determining factor.

        Kushner said that he supports “self-determination” for the Palestinians, but did not explicitly say if they should have their own state. When asked whether or not he believed that Palestinians should govern themselves as part of a future peace deal, Kushner replied, “the hope is that over time, they can become capable of governing.”

        When Swan pressed him specifically on whether the Palestinians will be able to live freely from Israeli military control, Kushner said that “I think that’s a high bar,” explaining that “If you don’t have a proper government structure and proper security when people are living in fear of terror, that hurts Palestinians.” …”

        So infuriating and despicable… and demeaning to the Palestinians, to put it mildly. Now the illegal- settlement- supporting- $$$$ and his wife, etc. are glamming it up in London and irritating the regular citizens.

      • Marnie on June 3, 2019, 11:57 am

        @just –

        I’m about crosseyed by the 24/7 sh#tshow that is the united states at this time. Blame the victim. Typical, isn’t it? Their continuing mistake is to believe that because they fooled some people all the time, that they can fool the palestinians, who’ve been dicked around by every president since Truman. tRUMP is acting like he rules the world but has no rule over his tiny fingers and butthole mouth, or that idiot bastard son-in-law and his feckless cnut of a wife. If Pompeo thinks jared’s ‘deal of the century’ isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, how long will it be before there is a new sec’y of state? This house of cards has got to fall, doesn’t it? Soon? Especially since tRUMP declared that israel ‘better get it’s act together’. Really? People have been waiting decades for that one.

        “If we make certain decisions that we’re allowed to do as a sovereign nation,” Kushner said, referring to the embassy move, “and we get criticized by that government [the Palestinian Authority], the response of [Trump] is not to say, ‘oh let me give you more aid.’ So again, that was as a result of decisions taken by the Palestinian leadership.” …

        Cold, callous SOB. It’ll be interesting to see how he handle’s his comeuppance.

  5. Arby on June 3, 2019, 8:58 am

    I think that Zogby made his point very well. And I agree with it.

  6. Elizabeth Block on June 6, 2019, 10:50 am

    Zogby’s piece suggests the question of whether Israel’s suppression/destruction of the Palestinian economy is economic or political. Do they simply want to prevent Palestinians from competing with them economically, or do they want to keep them economically dependent for political reasons? Or both. Maybe they don’t even know, and don’t care.

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