Amidst a flurry of diplomatic activity on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front, a new theme is emerging about the direction of the Trump team. With Jason Greenblatt’s seemingly permanent presence in the region and another unannounced meeting between Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, there are reports that Greenblatt and company are pushing the Israeli government on a number of economic initiatives to improve the lives of West Bank Palestinians in order to present President Trump with something he can tout as a success. There is no question that improving the Palestinian economy and particularly focusing on quality of life issues are unalloyed goods. But there is an acute danger to isolating economic initiatives from political ones, which is a path that has been embraced by more hawkish Israelis. The end result may be the one thing that Israelis of all stripes want to desperately avoid – an end to Palestinian nationalism and a demand for full Israeli citizenship for all Palestinians living between the river and the sea.
To the Trump administration’s great credit, they have understood from the outset the importance of improving Palestinians’ quality of life and have consistently pushed Prime Minister Netanyahu on this issue. Greenblatt seems proudest of achievements such as brokering this past summer’s agreement for Israel to provide desalinated water to the Palestinians. The Trump administration has also reportedly asked Israel to allow more Palestinian construction in Area C and to improve the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan, the lone international entry-exit point for West Bank Palestinians. These things are enormously important; they make a big difference to the Palestinians and cost Israel almost nothing. In addition, measures that Israel has dragged its feet on, such as widening and improving the access road to Rawabi, have no security implications at all and do not impact neighboring Israeli settlements in any way. Observers will recall how dismantling Israeli roadblocks throughout the West Bank improved Palestinian quality of life without diminishing Israel’s security, and a focus on initiatives that can further improve the Palestinian economy and freedom of movement is the logical next step. Water issues in particular should be a focus of cooperative efforts, not only because of Israel’s expertise in water technology and the importance of water in an agriculture-dependent area like the West Bank, but because resolving water issues improves Israeli security as well. Water scarcity undoubtedly creates social unrest, which inevitably reverberates back onto Israel. That Israel has been able to quickly and massively grow its desalination capacity should be a boon not only to Israelis but to Israel’s neighbors too, and in the Palestinian case it is a win-win for both sides.
But these economic initiatives cannot be done in a vacuum. The danger in doing so is that Palestinians will see progress on the economic front but none on the political front, and will then drop their political agenda due to its stagnation. This has actually been a talking point on the Israeli right for decades, but not in a way that recognizes how harmful this would be. Netanyahu and figures such as former IDF chief of staff and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon have pushed the idea of economic peace – although not doing much to actually implement it – as a substitute for a political agreement with the Palestinians on the theory that an improvement in Palestinian quality of life will erode the desire for an independent state.
This theory has never been adequately tested since the economic situation of Palestinians in the West Bank has not been improved to the extent in which this would come into play. But were this to actually happen and economic issues were completely divorced from political issues, it would carry disastrous unintended consequences. Palestinians who are envious of Israelis’ quality of life and have a taste of what a growing and more viable economy means for them may indeed drop their demands for a Palestinian state, but it does not mean that they will be willing to live in a state of political limbo. Rather than accept economic and local governance autonomy or just abide living under Israeli control without their own political representation, they will almost certainly demand full Israeli citizenship. Indeed, this is a trend already under way among the younger generation of Palestinians, who are rapidly transforming the Palestinian struggle away from nationalism and toward civil rights because they do not believe that Israel will ever acquiesce to a political compromise. The danger in eliminating a political horizon and pushing solely economic and quality of life measures is that it will actually accelerate this movement by diverting Palestinians’ focus away from politics. Eroding Palestinian nationalism is not something that Israel should be encouraging, since an environment in which Palestinian nationalism is dead is actually far more problematic and dangerous for Israel in the long term.
The brilliance of the CIS Security First study is that it explicitly recognizes how damaging a sole focus on economic measures would be, and it thus links economic and social measures with political ones. Tired as the well-worn cliché about a political horizon may be, extinguishing it would create an existential security disaster for Israel by sparking mass Palestinian demands for Israeli citizenship. The only way to avoid this is by working on parallel and twinned tracks to improve the Palestinian economy and get toward a permanent status agreement on two states. The economic measures are imperative for establishing a level of trust and cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians while laying the groundwork for a Palestinian state to be viable. The political measures are imperative for demonstrating to the Palestinians that there is something more than higher purchasing power at the end of the road and that their national dreams will not be frustrated.
I am all for quality of life improvement in the West Bank; this should not be misinterpreted as a call for the U.S. to stop pushing for these vital measures in any way. While Israel absolutely must do more on this front, both out of fairness to the Palestinians and for its own self-interest, there must be commensurate political movement as well, and if the Trump team ignores this component, it will not redound to Israel’s benefit in the long run.