US told Palestinian economic plan must have political vision

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The Trump administration's $50 billion economic support plan for the Palestinians cannot succeed without addressing the political elements of a Middle East deal, international financial chiefs and global investors said Wednesday in comments that pushed back on the U.S. insistence that the two must be separated.

Panelists at the two-day conference in Bahrain welcomed the proposal's ambitious investment and development goals, but warned it would fall short without good governance, rule of law and realistic prospects for lasting peace through a political vision, which they noted is missing from the initiative.

Their views were aired as the Palestinians repeated their outright rejection of the so-called "Peace to Prosperity" plan because it ignores their political demands, including an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of an independent state. Even the conference's lone Palestinian speaker — a West Bank businessman who is viewed with deep suspicion by many compatriots — talked about the need for a Palestinian state.

Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, suggested that peace is the missing part of the proposal, which was put together by President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

The Palestinians have great economic potential that can only be fulfilled with serious reform and protections for investors that must include serious anti-corruption efforts. But those alone are not enough, Lagarde said, stressing that a "satisfactory peace" is imperative for prosperity. "It's a matter of putting all the ingredients together," she said.

"Improving economic conditions and attracting lasting investment to the region depends ultimately on being able to reach a peace agreement," she said in a statement released later by the IMF. "Peace, political stability and re-establishment of trust between all the parties involved are essential pre-requisites to the success of any economic plan for the region."

Lagarde's comments appeared at odds with the views expressed by Kushner when he opened the conference on Tuesday and said an economic plan "is a necessary precondition to resolving what has been a previously unsolvable political situation."

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had a hand in earlier peacemaking efforts and has been supportive of Kushner's plan, also spoke of the need for the economic proposal to have a political component.

"Obviously, it isn't a substitute for the politics," Blair said in a conversation with Kushner. "There will be no economic peace. There will be a peace that has a political component and an economic component, but the economy can help the politics and the politics, of course, is necessary for the economy to flourish."

The only Palestinian on the agenda, Ashraf Jabari, downplayed the Palestinian Authority's rejection of the plan. He noted that it had not been formally invited to the conference but he said a Palestinian state is necessary for economic improvements.

"This is our objective: to have an independent state of Palestine," Jabari said. "The Palestinian people would like to be independent and we are sure that this will lead to the development of the Palestinian economy."

Kushner's proposal depends heavily on private sector investment in the West Bank, Gaza as well as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, where it envisions creating a million new jobs, cutting Palestinian unemployment to single digits, doubling the Palestinian gross domestic product and reducing the Palestinian poverty rate by 50% through projects in the health care, education, power, water, tourism, transportation and agriculture sectors.

The plan acknowledges that its success hinges on the completion of a long-elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

But that necessity was driven home by participants who sprinkled their comments with repeated references to "Palestine," a "country" and a "nation-state."

Those words have not featured in U.S. officials' comments about a resolution to the conflict since Trump became president in 2017 and began cutting aid and political support to the Palestinians in what critics have cited as the U.S. administration's pro-Israel bias. The administration has also refused to endorse a two-state solution that has long been seen as the only viable path to peace.

"You are going to have to deal with the political thing in order to get investment," said Daniel Mintz, a founder of Olympus Capital Asia.

"Stability and security is key to investment in every country where we go," said Selim Bora, the president of the Turkish investment firm Summa. "Things don't have to be perfect, but we have to have a minimum level to go in."

Others said the plan could not succeed without the Palestinians having rights and dignity within their own state.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are represented by official delegations and many Arab nations that are attending the gathering have sent lower-level officials in a sign of their skepticism of the plan.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization issued a scathing statement condemning the plan and the Trump administration for what it called blatant bias toward Israel. It accused the administration of showing "willful blindness to the occupation" and a "deliberate refusal to deal with reality."

"The workshop attempts to circumvent the real issues by peddling in recycled and failed ideas. It wants to sell a mirage of economic prosperity for the Palestinian people so long as they accept and endorse their perpetual captivity," it said.

In a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians, the Gulf Arab state of Oman used the second day of the conference to announce Wednesday that it would open an embassy to the "State of Palestine" in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In addition to the financial and business participants, the head of the international football federation FIFA Gianni Infantino and film producer Fernando Sulichin told the conference of the importance of sports and entertainment in building confidence.

Infantino, who participated in the event despite a last-minute direct appeal from the Palestinians to reconsider, said he was hopeful soccer could have an important role in giving hope to Palestinian communities and improving relations with Israel.

"With football, though football, we can really build bridges," he said. "Let's use football as tool to show what is possible. We play footoball in Palestine, we play football in Lebanon, it is possible. Football can play a little role, but an important one."

Infantino's co-panelist, Sulichin, spoke of the need to change the narrative of "Palestinian victimization" through entertainment. "We need to stop the victimization and start telling new stories."

He suggested there could be a "Black Panther" or "Billy Elliott" hero for the Palestinians or an uplifting story like "Roma," the Academy Award winning film about the life of a live-in housekeeper of a middle-class Mexican family.

"Why don't we have a 'Roma' in Palestine?" he asked.