The first phase of the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan for Israel and Palestine has been rolled out to scepticism, anger and outright derision.
A conference hall of regional officials – with no Israelis or Palestinians present – was the first to hear details of the US-brokered deal, an economic blueprint that shreds decades of diplomacy and which even its mooted financial backers seemed reluctant to embrace.
The centrepiece appears to be a call for donors to contribute $50bn to kickstart the Palestinian economy and win the buy-in of neighbouring Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, which would eventually open direct trade links with the West Bank and Gaza.
There has been no sign of a political dimension to the proposal, hailed as the brainchild of Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Critics across the region suggested the US was replacing the long-agreed “land for peace” formula with a blunt new “money for peace” that attempted to buy off the Palestinian cause.
Kushner said his plan was “the opportunity of the century” for the Palestinians but their acceptance was a precondition for peace.
“Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues,” he said. “To be clear, economic growth and prosperity for the Palestinian people are not possible without an enduring and fair political solution to the conflict – one that guarantees Israel’s security and respects the dignity of the Palestinian people.”
Acknowledging the scepticism about his father-in-law’s policy in the region, he said: “My direct message to the Palestinian people is that despite what those who have let you down in the past say, President Trump and America have not given up on you.”
Nancy Okail, the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said: “The Palestinian issue is primarily political, and pouring money into it won’t solve it. Kushner’s plan is indicative of his lack of understanding of the history and dynamics in the region, offering a simplistic and unviable, immoral non-solution to a longstanding, complex issue.”
Hours before the official “Peace to Prosperity” conference dinner in the Bahraini capital, Manama, on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia released a statement reiterating its support for the two-state solution. This has been the bedrock of past discussions between Israelis and Palestinians, underwritten by successive administrations in Riyadh and Washington.
Saudi Arabia is an ally of the Trump administration and a nominal supporter of the conference. Its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had forged a close understanding with Kushner in the months before the conference; both are understood to see the 71-year-old conflict through a similar lens.
During Kushner’s time as Trump’s Middle East envoy, core demands of the Israeli rightwing have been implemented. US aid to Palestine has been slashed, the bitterly contested city of Jerusalem declared as Israel’s capital, Palestinian diplomatic missions closed in Washington and US missions closed in the West Bank and Gaza.
“We’ve gone from a ‘land for peace’ formula addressing a decades-old occupation and siege to a ‘money for peace’ recipe for disaster,” said HA Hellyer, a senior associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council.
“The needs and rights of the Palestinians – the occupied – are now openly and explicitly disregarded by the Trump administration with such transparency that such a ‘money for peace’ recipe for disaster [to them] is a logical conclusion,” Hellyer said.
“There are precious few in the Arab world who are willing to invest much political capital to address and solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but that doesn’t translate to support for this. If that were the case, we would see high-level delegations, for example, going to the Bahraini workshop. Instead, Arab states are trying to send as low-level diplomats as possible.”
Sir John Jenkins, a former Middle East director for the Foreign Office, said torpor across Palestinian politics had contributed to a loss of faith in the existing peace model.
He said Palestine’s political structure had collapsed and there was “no Palestinian national narrative any more”, pointing to the “bureaucratisation and demoralisation of Fatah”, the “futilely belligerent” Hamas in charge of Gaza, and the fact that the Palestinian Authority that runs parts of the West Bank was “widely distrusted and despised as corrupt by many Palestinians”.
Jenkins said: “Add to this the failure of the Arab uprisings, the consequent discrediting of political Islamism, the collapse of Arab nationalism and the rise of securitised authoritarianism, and the old context within which the Palestinian national cause sat has also vanished. No one has replaced it with anything satisfactory. This is a failure of the political imagination.”
He said this vacuum had been filled with “the promise of economic development, as if that will make the unorganised but still widespread and powerful Palestinian yearning for a state, or at least a political community, go away. I think that’s a misreading. Economic development gets you so far – but then what?”
He added of mooted Arab benefactors: “I can’t see them simply signing on the dotted line unless there is some sort of political horizon. The Palestinian issue retains a distinctive power to mobilise many Arabs emotionally. It’s hard to see why the Kurds and others are allowed to realise national aspirations but not the Palestinians. And Iran would accuse them of selling out the instant they signed. Why give them the satisfaction?”
Hellyer said a two-state solution, already diluted, may become even less viable in the absence of meaningful political engagement. “If the Israelis continue along this present course of action, they make the alternative of a one-state solution more and more inevitable, where the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination in a state is transformed into a civil rights struggle in a single state alongside Israelis.”