Under heavy pressure from the US, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has paid grudging lip service over the past four years to the goal of Palestinian statehood. But his real agenda was always transparent: not statehood, but what he termed "economic peace."
Ordinary Palestinians, in Netanyahu's view, can be pacified with crumbs from the master's table: fewer checkpoints, extra jobs and trading opportunities, and a gradual, if limited, improvement in living standards. All of this buys time for Israel to expand the settlements, cementing its hold over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
After 20 years of pursuing Palestinian statehood implied in the Oslo Accords, the US indicated last week it was switching horses. It appears to be adopting Netanyahu's model of "economic peace."
At the World Economic Forum in Jordan, US secretary of state John Kerry, flanked by Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, revealed an economic program for getting peace talks on track.
Some 300 Israeli and Palestinian business people were on board, he said, and would invest heavily in the Palestinian economy in a venture that was "bigger, bolder and more ambitious than anything since the Oslo accords."
No more details were forthcoming, except that it will be overseen by Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister who has been the Quartet representative, the international community's "man in Jerusalem," since 2007.
He is a strange choice indeed, given that the Palestinian leadership has publicly dismissed him as "Israel's defense attorney" and privately argued -- as revealed in the Palestine Papers leaked in 2011 -- that he advocates "an apartheid-like approach to dealing with the occupied West Bank."
Kerry's claims for his program were grand, yet vague. Some $4 billion in private investment over three years would boost the Palestinian economy by 50 percent; agricultural production and tourism would triple; unemployment would fall by two-thirds; wages rise by 40 percent; and 100,000 homes would be built.
But the proposal left few impressed, and for good reason.
Kerry is simply repackaging the task Blair was entrusted with six years ago. His job has been to develop the Palestinian economy and build up Palestinian institutions in preparation for eventual statehood, so far to little effect.
As David Horovitz, editor of the right-wing Times of Israel newspaper, scoffed: "If there was $4 billion to be had in private investment in the Palestinian economy, you can rest assured that Tony Blair would have found it."
Or seen another way, the Palestinian economy's problem is not a lack of investment; it is a lack of viable opportunities for investment. Palestinians have no control over their borders, airspace, radio frequencies, water and other natural resources, not even over the currency or internal movement of goods and people. Everything depends on Israel's good will. And few investors will be prepared to bet on that. Israel has repeatedly shown itself more than ready to crush the PA's finances by, for example, withholding Palestinian tax revenues it collects and is mandated to pass on.
Blair's role has been heavily criticized because his narrow focus on economic development has not only failed to foster a climate conducive to talks but has served as cover for Israel and Washington's inaction on Palestinian statehood. Instead of rethinking Blair's failed mandate, Kerry appears set on perpetuating and expanding it.
Abdallah Abdallah, a senior Fatah official, summed up the Palestinian response: "We are not animals that only want food. We are a people struggling for freedom."
Israel, meanwhile, is only too ready to push Kerry down this hopeless path.
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