Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman, activist, and writer. Based in Al-Bireh/Ramallah, Bahour was instrumental in the establishment of two publicly traded firms in Palestine: the Palestine Telecommunications Company (PALTEL) and the Arab Palestinian Shopping Center. He is currently an independent director at the Arab Islamic Bank, advisory board member of the Open Society Foundations’ Arab Regional Office, and completed a full term as a Board of Trustees member and treasurer at Birzeit University. Bahour serves in various capacities in several community organizations, including co-founder and chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy, board member of Just Vision in New York, board member and policy adviser at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, and secretariat member of the Palestine Strategy Group.
Mondoweiss spoke with Bahour, a vocal critic of the US “Deal of the Century”, about last month’s “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain, what he thought of the conference, its implications, and his predictions for the future of American-led peace negotiations.
Mondoweiss: What were your initial reactions to the Bahrain conference as it kicked off? Specifically in regards to the attendance of Arab countries, even some Palestinian businessmen, and the normalization of relations with Israeli delegates?
Bahour: As a Palestinian, first and foremost, it was a sad spectacle, but it was also embarrassing to watch as an American. I call it the “Peace to Prosperity Circus.” The workshop was true to the insights shared by the “Deal of the Century” threesome’s many interviews leading up to the workshop. Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, the real architect of the entire fiasco, came across as total clowns. However, as amateurish as they are, we must admit that they are powerful actors with a despicable strategy who have access to massive state resources and, more importantly, they have the world’s superpower wrapped around their pinky finger.
As for the Arab countries, totally expected since they are not sovereign countries, they are America’s banana republics, maybe called in this context petrol puppets.
Regarding Palestinian “businessmen,” I did not see any. I saw five Uncle Toms, posing as businessmen. The leader of that pact was asked multiple times what he does in business and could not answer. They are not even worthy of comment.
Bottom line, Palestine was not invited, so this never had a chance to succeed from day one. What a waste of time and money as they tried to throw sand in the world’s face, pun intended.
Mondoweiss: What did you think of Kushner’s remarks at the conference, specifically the comment about how “Trump has not forgotten” the Palestinian people?
Bahour: Very clear. Actually, crystal clear when linked to the administration’s actions. They do not see Palestinians as having any national rights and aim to extract the Palestinian political agency from the discourse. Boy, did they fail here! They actually empowered the Palestinian leadership.
Mondoweiss: While many people voiced their skepticism towards Kushner’s approach, many delegates (including from Arab countries) expressed their support of Kushner’s idea of “economic peace”. Do you support the idea that his plans could work, if coupled with a political solutions?
Bahour: Without Kushner and company accepting the fact that Palestine exists, and the occupation is alive and well and must end, no plan will work, not economic and not political. Remember, we tried the model of economy before peace, it was called the Oslo Peace Accords and got us 600,000 settlers over 25 years. We are not interested in waiting more time or seeing more settlers on our land.
Mondoweiss: Do you have any faith at all that the Trump administration will put forward political solutions that could offer justice to the Palestinians?
Bahour: Zero. Why? Because of what they have already done for 18 months, which I would claim was the implementation of the political program without a public announcement, also, because of what they say, the threesome and Trump himself, and now, with Bahrain, with what they presented. They have not given themselves a chance to succeed.
Mondoweiss: What are the inherit flaws that you, as a Palestinian businessman, see with Kushner’s approach to the peace process? (i.e. promising economic prosperity over political gains for Palestinians)
Bahour: The following excerpts were taken from Bahour’s “An Open Letter To My Fellow American, Civil Servant Jared Kushner” originally published on Medium.com
“I must give it to you. You did it. You produced 136 pages of nothing, in full color and with photos too…
I really liked the part of the plan’s vision which notes that it can only be achieved, “following a peace agreement” and that “Only through peace can the Palestinians achieve prosperity.” You are spot on here Jared, but isn’t that what the Palestinian leadership and people have been saying to you from the outset, show us the political parameters and then we can talk economy? Isn’t that how “business plans” are built; you ask about the applicable laws and regulations, then you build your plan?…
You’re on target again Jared when you say, “no vision for the Palestinians can be realized without the full support of the Palestinian people and their leadership.” I can kiss you for this one.
I was so happy that you are aware that “certainty and predictability for investors” is needed and your plan promises it. The plan also promises to “open the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Only problem with these, my friend, is that you skip the how here and who is not allowing for “certainty and predictability” and why are we “closed” today. Jared, you’re losing me here.
Your plan promises to “provide financial and technical assistance to build the capacity of immigration and customs officials to operate and manage crossing points in coordination with neighboring states” and will “construct new ports of entry.” Excuse my ignorance here, but these require a state, that thing you have already dismissed and the U.S. ambassador to Israel can’t define, so I must ask what will the nationality of those “immigration and customs officials” be and what country will these new ports belong to?…
I can go on, but I know you are busy. You produced a plan for Palestine without mentioning Palestine. You spoke of the Palestinian people without recognizing that 300,000 of us are in Jerusalem and 5 million of us are waiting to go home. You did not use the word “occupation” once in all 136 pages of the plan; well, you did come close by using “high-growth occupations” which could be a pun but one you did not intend to make.”
Mondoweiss: One popular argument is that Palestinians are currently suffering from extremely high rights of poverty and unemployment, and the situation is unlikely to get better. So people essentially say, “why not?” accept this plan, if it helps put food on the table. What do you say to that?
Bahour: Pie-in-the-sky public relations spectacles are not economic development. If they would have presented something more than an amateur desk research, with legal parameters, we could have entertained it, but we are not interested in acquiescing to illegalities. Additionally, and equally important, is that development is a human right, so no one has the right to plan for Palestinians except Palestinians.
Mondoweiss: Do you think the Palestinian people would ever agree to compromising some of their larger political aspirations in favor of economic prosperity?
Bahour: No. Israel has been trying this approach for 52 years. How many more attempts will it take to convince people that Palestinians’ rights are inalienable and not for sale?
Mondoweiss: The Palestinian leadership/people have been criticized by the Israelis and Americans for refusing to participate in the current “peace talks.” Do you support the current stance of the Palestinian government? Or do you think they should be sitting at the table? What would the implications of that be?
Bahour: I support the Palestinian leadership. It is Israel that blatantly refuses to sit at a proper negotiating table, one with references and parameters. If Israel or the US thinks we are going to come to a smoke-filled backroom to engage our military occupier, they are hallucinating.