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Palestinian Business Leaders Reject Trump’s Economic Overture


Originally published in the The New York Times

By David M. Halbfinger

JERUSALEM — Palestinian businessmen have a message for the White House: Keep your money.

Promising tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment as part of its peace plan for the Mideast, the Trump administration announced an “economic workshop” in Bahrain next month to show Palestinian business leaders the potential windfall they would reap under the American proposal, which has yet to be publicly disclosed.

But leading Palestinian businessmen, including some who said they already received invitations to Bahrain and others considered likely to be asked, dismissed the event as insulting and counterproductive.
“They’re destroying the appetite for any investor to come to Palestine because there’s no clue to any solution,” said Ibrahim Barham, chief executive of Safad Engineering & Electronics, one of the West Bank’s largest technology companies, who said he was asked to attend the Bahrain workshop.
“Thank you very much for inviting us, but we will not go,” he said.
Palestinian government officials, who were not invited to the conference, also rejected it.
Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that his government had not been consulted about the economic conference and that an end to the conflict “will only be through political solutions to end the occupation and realize the rights of our people.”
Palestinians, he said at a cabinet meeting on Monday, “do not trade our national rights for money.”
The Trump administration has been promising a peace plan since the election but has repeatedly delayed its release. Palestinian officials, who see the administration as hopelessly tilted in Israel’s favor, have refused to talk to the United States since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.
Trump administration officials described the Bahrain workshop as the first step in the economic portion of the plan, aimed at revitalizing the Palestinian economy, to be followed by the political part, which would include proposals for issues like borders, the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
But sequencing the peace deal in that way, putting potential investments ahead of political change, did not sit well with Palestinian business leaders.
Zahi W. Khouri, a Palestinian-American entrepreneur who owns the Coca-Cola franchise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called it offensive to broach investment in the Palestinian economy before addressing the Palestinian people’s national aspirations.
“Putting this first is a blatant payoff,” Mr. Khouri said. “You insult the people by talking about their quality of life when you keep them locked up” under the Israeli occupation, he added. He likened it to “trying to strangle a woman while giving her a manicure.”
“In nation-building you start with dignity and freedom,” he added. “You don’t start by bribing people and buying people.”
Jason D. Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s special representative for negotiations, said in a Twitter post on Monday that a political component of the peace deal was coming.
“We’ve been clear that the economic vision we present can’t exist without the political component, and the political component can’t succeed without the economic,” he wrote.
Several businessmen said they simply did not trust the Trump administration, whose actions in the Middle East could have been scripted by Israel’s right wing. The United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the American embassy, closed the consulate that had dealt with Ramallah, cut aid to the Palestinians and to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, and pushed to deprive millions of Palestinians of their status as refugees.
“If it were coming in any other administration, you’d go to Bahrain and leave no stone unturned for a positive outcome,” said Tarek Aggad, a Saudi businessman who is chairman of the Arab Palestinian Investment Company, which employs some 1,900 people in real estate, manufacturing and other interests in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“But it’s not coming in a vacuum,” he said. “It’s who’s doing the inviting: There’s nothing bad about going and listening, except that it comes from the same address that has issued statements that have all but emptied the peace process of its content. It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to take away all your rights, but come, let’s discuss your economy.’”
The idea of promoting a so-called economic peace as a forerunner to a political resolution has a long history, dating back to the Reagan administration.
But the term took on a negative cast after 2009, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel stated his willingness to negotiate a two-state solution but called on Arab countries to cooperate with the Palestinians and Israel on achieving an “economic peace” in the meantime. His talk of a two-state solution became seen as disingenuous by many Palestinians, and an economic arrangement as a precursor to a settlement was discredited by association, several said.
“The idea of economic peace is an old idea that is now suggested differently,” Bashar Masri, the real estate developer who built Rawabi, the West Bank’s first planned city, wrote on Facebook on Monday. “As our people previously rejected it, we are rejecting it now.”
Mr. Masri said he had been invited to the Bahrain event, on June 25 and 26, but that neither he nor any of his employees would attend.
Others see any economic cooperation with Israel, as long as it continues to occupy Palestinian territory, as “normalization” of an unacceptable status quo.
Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, warned that “Attempts at promoting an economic normalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine will be rejected.”
Some business people said that in practical terms, it would be impossible to draw any major investments into the Palestinian territory, no matter how many leaders of multinational companies might show up in Bahrain, because the possibility of an end to the conflict seems years away.
Several executives noted that Palestinians imported billions of dollars worth of Israeli goods a year but only sold a fraction of that to Israelis.
“The blind spot of the administration’s entire approach is they don’t get that Israel is addicted to our economy,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant in Ramallah.
It was not money that was holding the Palestinians back, he said — it was a political solution that would create the conditions under which private enterprise could freely prosper.
“We don’t lack money, know-how and interest,” Mr. Bahour said. “We lack the resources: land, water, movement, access and frequency. It doesn’t require a grand plan, nor does it require a grand workshop. It requires Israel getting its boot off at least the economic part of our neck.”