Trump’s Middle East plan may have a silver lining

Trump’s plan will not make the Palestinians’ lives better, but it could help dismantle the disastrous Oslo order.

Palestinians watch as Israeli soldiers aim their weapons at a protest against the US President Donald Trump's Middle East plan, in Hebron, occupied West Bank on January 31, 2020[Reuters/Mussa Qawasma]

On January 28, US President Donald Trump finally unveiled his much-delayed Middle East plan to broker “peace” between Israel and the Palestinian people.

Titled Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives and of the Palestinian and Israeli People, the plan proposes to “unleash the economic potential of the Palestinians” through investment, improved education, healthcare and utilities, and enhanced governance.

The plan also promises large-scale economic projects including a free trade agreement with the United States, a new port in Gaza, a Palestinian Dead Sea resort under Israeli “sovereignty”, and others. 

Compensation is also envisioned for Palestinian refugees who will have to surrender their right of return. 

The plan also proposes a broader process of economic normalisation and integration at the regional scale, calling for open borders for capital and investments and the building of new infrastructure to enable trade across the “Palestinian state”, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, with the substantial involvement of Gulf states. One of the great rewards of the plan, its backers argue, is the unprecedented regional economic prosperity that would eventually translate into regional peace and stability. 

All of this is supposed to be realised through an investment worth $50bn over 10 years, which will likely be financed by wealthy Gulf states and private companies.

Basically, Trump’s plan promises the Israelis an almost full realisation of the Zionist objectives to establish a Jewish state on all of historic Palestine, while offering the Palestinians “prosperous apartheid”, ie life under occupation with more money but no dignity and basic rights.

Although backers of the Trump plan like to depict it as a groundbreaking approach to Middle East peace, much of the regional economic integration rhetoric recycles “peace initiatives” proposed by past US administrations.

The Oslo process spearheaded by the Clinton administration in the 1990s, was inspired by the notion of “peace dividends”. It promised a new era of prosperity where Gaza would be transformed into the “Singapore of the Middle East“; unsurprisingly, the text of the Trump plan makes multiple references to Singapore as well.

The “Roadmap for Peace” put forward in 2003 by the Bush administration also positioned economic growth and investments at the centre of a future “peace process” – just like Trump’s proposal.

President Barack Obama’s 2013 “peace” plan offered the Palestinians $4bn to boost the economy by up to 50 percent to help “transform the fortunes of a future Palestinian state” – again the latest plan makes a similar promise.

All of these initiatives have tried to use economic incentives as an instrument for pacification in Palestine, trying to redefine the socioeconomic conditions governing the lives of the Palestinians as a way to ensure political submission.

The economic pacification approach is based on a highly reductionist understanding of peace, which promises economic prosperity in exchange for security collaboration by the Palestinian authorities while side-lining the political process. The expected result is that economic normalisation would have pacifying effects over the Palestinian population and preclude political radicalisation, which would ultimately lead to peace.

Israel adopted this approach early on in order to try to control the Palestinian people. In the immediate aftermath of 1967 war, the Israeli government adopted the “open bridges” policy, designed by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, which endorsed limited economic modernisation through agricultural and light-industry projects in Palestinian lands in order to pacify the population and disrupt the political foundation of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle. In the words of Dayan, the objective was to make the “occupation invisible”.

Then, in the 1990s, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres put forward his idea of a “New Middle East” which proposed a process of regional economic integration beyond the Palestinian territories, bringing together Arab countries and Israel into a common market. Peres’s vision would have exploited power imbalances to transform Arab economies into peripheries subordinated to the Israeli centre.

More recently, this approach took the form of the “economic peace strategy” spearheaded by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 to exploit the intra-Palestinian conflict of 2007, which resulted in Hamas taking control of Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) holding on the West Bank. This strategy, known in some circles as “West Bank First“, eased restrictions on the movement of people and goods and promoted limited growth in the West Bank in order to make the besieged Gazans desire the “economic prosperity” of the West Bank and as a result, turn against Hamas.

All of these tactics have one thing in common: They all have more or less failed to suppress the drive of Palestinians for full rights and independence. The Palestinian people remain staunchly adherent to their national rights and dignity.

Despite the tens of billions that have been poured into the occupied territories since 1993, the Palestinian economy continues to be underdeveloped and structurally dependent on Israel. It is characterised by high unemployment and poverty rates; currently, some 31 percent of working-age Palestinians do not have a job and approximately 29 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.

Another $50bn is unlikely to change all this because Israel will remain in control of large swaths of Palestinian land and resources, including borders, ports, trade, finance, and the movement of people.

Economic pacification strategies, however, have been successful in creating a complex network of financial interests that tie the political elite and restrict their ability for political manoeuvring. 

The Oslo framework, for example, laid the foundation of complex political allegiances and economic alliances that created a status quo, fostered by Israeli policies and the international donor community to maintain the cohesiveness and stability of the PA regime.

This not only explains the reason behind the PA’s persistent inability to seriously challenge Israeli colonisation for more than 25 years but also its unwillingness to reintroduce a new national strategy that would unify the Palestinians and rebuild the national movement along with the principles of anti-colonial struggle and self-determination.

Unsurprisingly PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s response was more rhetorical than substantive and did not take serious action against the announcement of Trump’s plan, nor does he appear willing to do so in the future. On the contrary, it was reported that the PA security coordination with Israel has rather intensified to prevent mass protests and confrontation with Israeli soldiers stationed on the entrances of Palestinian Bantustans. 

Apart from the PA’s muted response, a number of Arab states have come in support of the plan – something that was unthinkable in the past when Arab regimes feared the reaction of the Arab public to even the mention of normalisation of relations with Israel. Some Arab regimes have gone as far as on systematic media propaganda to negate Palestinian rights and defame their anti-colonial struggle and sacrifices.

Yet, none of these actors – US, Israel and Arab regimes can impose unjust solutions as long as the Palestinians are united in their resistance. But this requires radically different approaches and strategies that effectively break with structures and realities the Oslo accords created – most importantly the PA system and its pro-Israel’s security functions.

In this sense, Trump’s plan may have a silver lining: It could help Palestinians dismantle the Oslo order and push for a paradigm shift in Palestinian political thinking towards a long-term struggle for equal rights for all within the framework of one state.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.