Last month, Jason Greenblatt took to Twitter to defend the Trump administration’s decision to end U.S. funding of the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. Because the hospitals are the only locations where Palestinians have access to some cancer treatments, the funding had previously been deemed so vital that the network of six hospitals was exempted from the Taylor Force Act restrictions passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. In response to journalist Barak Ravid’s query as to why the administration stopped funding the hospitals, Greenblatt tweeted, “We want those patients to receive the best care -the PA could easily pay its own bills to the hospital by ending incentive payments to terrorists/their families & use the $ to care for their ppl.” Five days later, he tweeted about the end of American assistance to the hospitals, “Every Palestinian has a right to know they’re losing access to quality health care because the PA decided support to terrorists is more important.”
The Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity plan for the Palestinian economy, released on Saturday ahead of the Bahrain workshop that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday, contains three broad initiatives. The first and the second, described as “unleash the economic potential of the Palestinians” and “empower the Palestinian people to realize their ambitions,” both mention investment in and secure access to hospitals for Palestinians in their single paragraph summaries, promising that “access to quality healthcare will be dramatically improved, as Palestinian hospitals and clinics will be outfitted with the latest healthcare technology and equipment.” In a stand-alone section entitled “Empowering the Palestinian People By Investing in Healthcare,” Greenblatt and his colleagues identify the current problem as, “Deficiencies of staff, medicine, equipment, and supplies in Palestinian medical facilities cause gaps in the Palestinian healthcare system and force many Palestinians to forgo care,” and declare that their proposal will “provide financial support to ensure hospitals and clinics receive medicine and equipment to improve treatment for those most in need of care.”
Welcome to the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace, where no contention is too absurd to be floated, facts are mere inconveniences, dead parrots are merely resting or daydreaming about fjords, the party that created a healthcare funding crisis decries the healthcare funding crisis and extolls the importance of reversing it, and the same people who cut off every single dollar of U.S. aid to hospitals that serve Palestinians and defended the move on political considerations now insist that their economic plan must be considered in isolation from any political considerations.
Parts of the Peace to Prosperity publication really do seem to be a cruel parody. The images used throughout the plan were lifted from promotional materials put out by USAID touting aid and civil society programs that the Trump administration defunded and canceled. The document’s closing image is of schoolchildren wearing school uniforms from UNRWA, an organization whose defunding has been one of the centerpieces of the Trump team’s approach to the Palestinians. The plan envisions the construction of a highway and possibly a rail line connecting the West Bank and Gaza despite Israeli policy – supported by the U.S. – of not allowing Gazans to travel to the West Bank at all and of treating the two entities as completely separate. One wonders whether the creators of this document did this intentionally while hoping that nobody would realize, or if they themselves did not comprehend the farce at work. But leaving aside the purest examples of hypocritical chutzpah, the bigger issue with Peace to Prosperity is the idea that politics can be shunted aside.
While Jared Kushner, Greenblatt, and others who worked on Peace to Prosperity undoubtedly put in lots of time and effort, it is chock full of absurdist fantasies that result from this insistence on skipping over any and all first order questions of politics and security that must necessarily be addressed before any of the economic problems can be tackled in full. For instance, the plan proposes supporting development of 4G LTE and 5G telecom services, but West Bank Palestinians only received access to 15 year old 3G service of their own last year due to an Israeli ban on 3G entirely until November 2015 and a ban on Palestinian 3G networks until January 2018, while the ban on the current higher speed technology still exists. The plan declares that Palestinian goods and people must be able to move easily across borders, but Israel controls all of the border crossings and imposes overwhelming restrictions and delays on everything coming in and out. The plan stresses the importance of logistical travel challenges within the West Bank, yet on the same two days that this very plan was being discussed in Bahrain, Israel closed the Hawwara checkpoint and cut off the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank.
There are reasons for all of these Israeli restrictions, some very convincing and others far less so. But none of Israel’s security objections will simply go away and allow these plans to proceed in the full and extensive manner that the Trump administration envisions without a political arrangement first. Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a question of economics. Even growing the Palestinian economy is not primarily a question of economics. The barrier is the absence of a political agreement that will allow for permanent arrangements with regard to basic questions of governance, security, and sovereignty. Without that, the rest is convincing an irate customer that his dead pet isn’t really dead, no matter how well-meaning the shopkeeper.
Speaking in Bahrain on Tuesday, Kushner conceded that politics cannot be ignored forever, but described the economic pathway as a necessary precondition to solving the political issues, which has things exactly backwards. The administration has this glittering plan to inject $50 billion into the Palestinian economy, but thinks that this will work without first figuring out who will actually control that economy, spend and administer the money, or even what the basic political structure in the West Bank and Gaza will look like. To bring in another comedic reference that too often scarily approximates real life, this is the equivalent of the South Park underpants gnomes, where the business plan is to collect underpants in phase one, skip over phase two, and then phase three is profit. Amazingly, Kushner told reporters on Wednesday that the people who worked on the economic plan were completely siloed from those working on the political plan, and don’t even know what the political plan contains, so anyone hoping for a silver lining of there being a grand unified theory here is destined for disappointment.
The tragedy is that many of Peace to Prosperity’s ideas and proposals are good ones. In the right environment, there would be lots here to work with and build upon, and the economic vision presented is one that treats Palestinians as capable and promising agents for change. But the environment for an extensive and interconnected economic vision such as this is following a permanent status political agreement between Israel and Palestinians, and not before even having a basic discussion about what that agreement should or could look like. John Cleese and Michael Palin would be proud.