The latest twist and turn in the unveiling of the Trump peace initiative – it will be rolled out right as the calendar turns! Before Israeli elections! After Israeli elections but before the government is formed! Right after Ramadan! As soon as Shavuot ends! – is that it will kick off with a workshop in Bahrain at the end of June focused on “an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region, including enhancements to economic governance, development of human capital, and facilitation of rapid private-sector growth.” Despite the White House going to great lengths to deny what is now plain as day, the announcement confirmed the long-held suspicions of many analysts and observers that the Trump administration is focusing on economic peace and temporarily shelving whatever political component its initiative contains.
The announcement that the administration’s opening salvo is to convene some finance ministers and businessmen to talk about the future of the Palestinian economy despite not including any representatives from the putative Palestinian government, and that the same administration that froze all funding to development and civil society projects in the West Bank is now going to ask others to contribute to development and civil society projects in the West Bank, was widely mocked by many, myself included. But it’s worth laying out precisely what the Trump administration seems to be aiming for with this plan and what it is they are betting on, and why those bets are far more weighted in the other direction than they want to allow.
For starters, the White House is betting that economics can override politics. From the consistent refusals to be pinned down on what type of ultimate arrangement Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman envision, to Kushner’s focus in public comments on improving the daily lives of Palestinians, it is evident that the Trump team hopes that enough money can solve anything. The theory behind the Bahrain gathering is to demonstrate to Palestinians just how much they are potentially giving up by not engaging, and that their insistence on focusing on political issues is going to cost them economically.
This is the other side of the coin of the Trump policy toward the Palestinians, which has been to punish them financially through all cessation of aid and development projects so as to raise the costs of their alleged intransigence and make them yield. That policy has not paid off dividends so far, largely because the Palestinian national project is about nationalism rather than quality of life and thus cannot so easily be bought off, but the White House is intent on doubling down on this particular bet.
Next, the administration is betting that it can separate the Palestinian people from the Palestinian leadership by fomenting grassroots anger at the Palestinian Authority not engaging with the peace plan. The logic behind this is that it will pressure the PA to ultimately concede the point and deal with the Trump plan, or perhaps – in the Trump administration’s wildest dreams – lead to an uprising that will overthrow Mahmoud Abbas and the current leadership entirely. Trying to get Palestinians excised about the PA is one way of making sense out of Greenblatt’s Twitter feed, which is an almost non-stop screed against the Palestinian leadership and its hostility toward the Trump administration’s efforts to improve Palestinian quality of life in the West Bank.
One can also read into the invites to the Bahrain workshop sent to a group of Palestinian businessmen whom Greenblatt has been promoting on Twitter the stirrings of an effort to promote an alternative Palestinian leadership. The notion that the U.S. can engineer a grassroots uprising, particularly given the Trump administration’s absolute toxicity these days among Palestinians, is farcical, and the entire pursuit is reminiscent of the Ahmed Chalabi gambit for Iraq that the Bush White House cooked up before the Iraq War. Nevertheless, the Trump team is pretty obviously not only trying to isolate Abbas but to challenge his authority.
The White House is also betting not only that Arab states will play along with the Trump plan, but that they will commit to investing in specific projects in the Palestinian territories, or even donate piles of aid, on nothing but blind faith despite having no insight into what the status of those territories will be or what political system will exist in the West Bank. Will it be an independent Palestinian state in 96% of the West Bank? Will it be an autonomous enclave in 40% of it? Will it be integrated entirely into Israel and under direct Israeli control? There are literally no answers to these questions, because the Trump administration has neither advanced a vision of statehood nor committed to releasing any part of the political framework before asking countries to commit billions of dollars to a black hole. As Tamara Wittes so aptly put it, “Releasing an economic vision for government ‘investors’ without specifying the political structures that support it is like selling apartments in a skyscraper for which there are as yet no architectural plans.” My guess is that states attending the workshop will end up showering the Trump effort with some platitudes and a bunch of empty commitments that never get fulfilled, but that it is an exercise in kabuki theater.
Finally, the administration is betting that this entire enterprise, whether it is nothing more than economic peace or indeed advances down the road to a tangible political agenda, can be done while ignoring the split between the West Bank and Gaza. For years, the Netanyahu government and its allies argued that no progress toward a permanent status agreement could be made without Palestinian reconciliation – a point that absolutely has merit – and now the Trump team is trying to do exactly that without any prior effort to prod Fatah and Hamas to reconcile or to return the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. It suggests either a supremely naïve hubris, or that furthering the West Bank-Gaza split rather than mending it is actually the point. Prime Minister Netanyahu has purposely tried to keep the West Bank and Gaza separate precisely in order to avoid having to deal with any serious diplomatic overtures, and an initiative that is aimed at improving the West Bank economy without addressing how to integrate the West Bank and Gaza, or really addressing the political issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all, is straight out of his wildest dreams.
None of this is to say that the Trump administration won’t claim victory once the workshop is over. Israeli officials will attend alongside Arab officials in an Arab country, there will be grandiose pledges made and even more grandiose words spoken of the untapped potential that is within the Palestinians’ grasp if they would only stop being so stubborn and insisting on a viable sovereign state, and the Kushner team will declare their vision and approach vindicated. While it will not bring the two parties any closer to an agreement, it will absolutely give Israelis more ammunition to argue that the Palestinians will never agree to anything put forward by anyone, and strengthen the voices inside of Israel that are calling for unilateral moves that will upend the entire Israeli-Palestinian dynamic for good. And rather than bringing the two sides to peace, perhaps that is ultimately the point of this entire exercise.