Kerry says Tony Blair has 300 businessmen planning to raise $4 billion for the West Bank Palestinians

After the build-up that led to the Swiss-based World Economic Forum’s session at Jordan’s Dead Sea on Saturday and Sunday — it was hard to understand why, at least during the speeches of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Abbas waived a copy of the Arab Peace Initiative in the air and asked Israelis to actually read it. It was not clear why. [Later it did become clear that the reason was the incentive it gives to Israel for withdrawing from the West Bank: recognition + full normal relations including trade with the entire Arab and Muslim world.]

Peres spoke about being born in an age of agriculture and living in a world of technology, where all good things could happen to the region if only there were peace. It was not clear why. [Peres contradicted the Israeli government’s current disapproval and said the Arab Peace Initiative was a strategic opportunity…] It was not clear why.  But, his reasons seem to be the same as Abbas’.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry started to talk, and seemed to have not much new to say; he thanked a lot of people and spoke about the Arab Spring. It was not clear why.

Then, Kerry said, he wanted to give ” I want to say a special thank you to the Quartet Representative, former Prime Minister Tony Blair… he is working diligently on a special project that I want to share with you in a few minutes”…

It was all downhill from there…

US State Dept photo - Kerry greets Blair at WEF Dead Sea, Jordan meeting 26 May 2013
US State Dept photo - Kerry greets Blair at WEF Dead Sea, Jordan meeting 26 May 2013

Photo from the US State Dept “Amman and Dead Sea, Jordan” Flikr set, here.

Kerry said: “No one doubts that this is a very complex moment in international relations. But still, I don’t think that there is any secret about the conditions that are necessary for peace and stability to succeed. Those are: good governance, security, and economic opportunity. And so the real question for all of us, for President Abbas, President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, all of us, is a very simple one: Will we, despite the historic hurdles, have the courage to make the choices that we know we need to make in order to break the stalemate and provide a change of life for people in this region?”

Then, Kerry announced the creation of an investment fund to be financed with a possible $4 billion dollars to spur private-sector development in the West Bank [though he did also mention  4 million people, though it was not clear who: if Kerry meant Palestinians only, that would include the West Bank population of some 2.8 million  and Gaza with some 1.5 million…]

It was clear that Kerry’s remarks were the real reason all those people were there, in the meeting at the Dead Sea in Jordan on a Sunday afternoon…and Abbas and Peres were just there to prop up the show.

Kerry then explained the still-vague Blair super-project:
“I have asked Quartet Representative Tony Blair and many business leaders to join together. And Prime Minister Blair is shaping what I believe could be a groundbreaking plan to develop a healthy, sustainable, private-sector-led Palestinian economy that will transform the fortunes of a future Palestinian state, but also, significantly, transform the possibilities for Jordan and for Israel.

It is a plan for the Palestinian economy that is bigger, bolder and more ambitious than anything proposed since Oslo, more than 20 years ago now. And this, the intention of this plan, of all of its participants, is not to make it merely transformative, but frankly, to make it enormously powerful in the shaping of the possibilities of the future so that it is more transformative than incremental and different from anything that we have seen before.

To achieve that, these leaders have brought together a group of business experts, who have donated their time, who have come from around the world over the course of the last six weeks to make this project real and tangible and formidable – as we say, shovel-ready. They have come from all over the world because they believe in peace, and because they believe prosperity is both a promise and a product of peace.

This group includes leaders of some of the world’s largest corporations, I’m pleased to say. It includes renowned investors and some of the most brilliant business analysts out there – and some of the most committed. One of these senior business leaders actually just celebrated his 69th birthday in Jerusalem at the Colony Hotel after spending a 14-hour day in the West Bank trying to figure it out.

When others ask them, all of them, why they’re here, doing this on their own time, the unanimous answer is: ‘Because we want a better future for both Israeli children and Palestinian children’.

Their plan begins with encouraging local, regional and international business leaders to, and to encourage government leaders in various parts of the world. I raised this issue with the President of China, with the Prime Minister of Japan, with all of our European leaders, and everywhere – with the Brazilian Foreign Minister a few days ago, with the New Zealand Foreign Minister. All of them have on the tip of their tongues the idea that we can make peace in the Middle East and need to, and all of them are committed to be part of this effort in order to change life on the ground.

The fact is that we are looking to mobilize some $4 billion of investment. And this team of experts – private citizens, donating their time – are here right now. They’re analyzing the opportunities in tourism, construction, light manufacturing, building materials, energy, agriculture, and information and communications technology.

This group will make recommendations to the Palestinians. They’re not going to decide anything. The Palestinians will decide that in their normal course of governance. But they will analyze and make recommendations on a set of choices that can dramatically lift the economy.

The preliminary results already reported to me by Prime Minister Blair and by the folks working with him are stunning: These experts believe that we can increase the Palestinian GDP by as much as 50 percent over three years. Their most optimistic estimates foresee enough new jobs to cut unemployment by nearly two-thirds – to 8 percent, down from 21 percent today – and to increase the median annual wage along with it, by as much as 40 percent.

These experts hope that with their plan in full force, agriculture can either double or triple. Tourism can triple. Home construction can produce up to 100,000 jobs over the next three years, and many of them would be energy efficient.

Ultimately, as the investment climate in the West Bank and Gaza improves, so will the potential for a financial self-sufficient Palestinian Authority that will not have to rely as much on foreign aid. So just think, my friends – we are talking about a place with just over 4 million people in a small geographic area. When you’re talking about $4 billion or more and this kind of economic effort, you are talking about something that is absolutely achievable.

I am happy to say that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas support this initiative, knowing that just as people find the dignity in a good job, a nation finds pride by functioning and growing an economy that can stand on its own two feet. This will help build the future.

Now, is this fantasy? I don’t think so, because there are already great examples of investment and entrepreneurship that are working in the West Bank.

So we know it can be done – but we’ve never experienced the kind of concentrated effort that this group is talking about bringing to the table.

Now, everyone here also knows how much more can be done if we lift some of the barriers to doing business, build confidence, bring people together. I just ask you to imagine the benefits from a new, open market next door, a new wave of foreign investment that could flow into both Israel and Palestine – and Jordan, and all of them share it”… The transcript of Kerry’s remarks is posted by the U.S. State Department here.

Let’s see — if $4 billion dollars is supposed to benefit some 4 million people [not all Palestinians, I guess — this seems to include some Israelis and some Jordanians — that would work out to an average of 100 per privilged person… because clearly many people are not going to get any direct or immediate benefit from this.

If the end result is supposed to raise the average wage by 40%, as Kerry said, that would mean that a Palestinian Government employee who now makes 2,000 shekels per month would then be making 3,000 shekels per month — the better to pay back his or her bank loans with.

The average Israeli wage, if Israeli wage-earners benefit to the same extent, would jump from some 8,000 shekels per month to… 12,000 shekels!

The New York Times reported that “Neither Mr. Kerry nor his aides provided any details on what specific projects were envisioned, who might invest and what modifications might be required in Israeli restrictions on the West Bank for the plan to work.  Reporters traveling with Mr. Kerry were told to direct their questions to the ‘quartet’, a Middle East peacemaking group whose experts devised much of the plan. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain serves as the Middle East envoy for the group, which is made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.  A statement issued Sunday night by Mr. Blair’s office said the economic initiative was intended to parallel the political process and not replace it. Officials from the quartet are still consulting experts on the Palestinian economy and will provide details about specific options ‘in due course’, the statement said … After his speech, Mr. Kerry went to a private dinner at which his economic initiative seemed sure to be discussed. The guests included Mr. Blair; Tim Collins, a wealthy financier whom State Department officials have described as one of the advocates of the initiative; and the foreign ministers from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates”. This is reported here.

The NYTimes report added this about the businessmen who announced their support for immediate steps to realize a two-state solution: “The group, calling itself Breaking the Impasse, has met more than 20 times in the past year and includes about 300 executives of high-tech, construction, beverage and insurance companies, as well as banks, and many Palestinian investors from abroad. Representatives of the group said they met on Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and have also met with President Abbas”.

Well, there is nothing more depressing right now than imagining another conditional influx of donor aid to the Palestinian part of the West Bank [only], and the people who are capable of doing so taking out more loans to buy suits and scramble on top of other peoples fingers and shoulders to climb to the top of the pile to grab more than their fair share of this money…

There is nothing more depressing than thinking of more bright-eyed and ambitious Palestinians filing into hotels for days of conferences, trainings and workshops for which they will each get their transportation paid, a logo bag, a free buffet lunch and coffee breaks… and no practical experience but quite a lot of self-assurance.

And there’s nothing more depressing than anticipating the next punitive withdrawal of all this largess, and the damaged look in people’s eyes here, when they have no money and know they have been made dependent on money conditioned on their behavior — if the Palestinian leadership [in response to popular demand] does something that the biggest donors don’t like.

Meanwhile, Daoud Kuttab wrote in Al-Monitor here about the afternoon’s events at the #WEF conference in Jordan: “Abbas reiterated the Palestinian government’s total commitment to peace and security, practically begging the Israelis to allow his local police to receive the small shipment of arms that has been rotting in Jordan for years. Peres, the president without much power, contradicted his own prime minister by embracing the Arab Peace Initiative and begging the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, where they are bound to be surprised. Finally, Kerry sounded even more desperate to see through some change in the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. One of his solutions is to throw money at the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Kerry waved $4 billion to the Palestinians, money he said he has received in investment commitments from Japanese, European and others (not clear how much from the United States). To be fair, after Kerry repeated his financial offer, which he said both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas supported, he said that an economic peace should not replace a political peace process. Big money or a political process have lost their bite when it comes to Palestinians who have lost any confidence in politicians and are more interested in day-to-day issues like easing the travel restrictions”.

According to Daoud, he asked Walid Batrawi his reaction to the day’s events, and reported that Walid told him:
“His response was to recall a similar problem years earlier when the United States again tried to solve a problem by throwing money at it. Walid was working for a USAID contractor with an assignment to help empower the new Palestinian legislative council at the time. One of the problems they were facing then was the fact that Israel was barring some legislator from Gaza from traveling to Ramallah to participate in workshops. So instead of putting some pressure on the Israelis to ease the travel of the Palestinian MPs, USAID invested some $140,000 on video conferencing equipment. Walid gave a more current example in which USAID is planning to fund a bridge near the Qalandia checkpoint to ease traffic at this important Ramallah-Jerusalem juncture. ‘Instead of a bridge, the Americans should be putting their efforts on getting rid of the checkpoint’, Walid said in frustration. He added: ‘Unless they expect this checkpoint to stay where it is for ever’.”

Batrawi is not the only one.  Sara Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch in New York Tweeted this:
@sarahleah1 — maybe #Kerry can spend the $4B to buy out the #Israel settlers, restore #Palestine land ownership best use of new peace money i think #WEF

Some other reactions, via Twitter:

Laura Rozen @lrozen — meh RT @FT: Kerry asks Blair to lead Palestine investment http://on.ft.com/10VZMXQ

Laura Rozen @lrozen — why ask blair, symbol of no progress under US/Quartet, to lead what sounds like interesting reg’l biz initiative? @Allison_Good1 @Ibishblog

 

Sam Bahour @SamBahour — WEF Breaking the Impasse: Don’t know whether 2 laugh or cry at this pitiful attempt at leadership: http://youtu.be/vgQ_89sjNb0  #Palestine #Israel

 

Palestine Video @PalestineVideo — Ab-ass actions put all our efforts in the struggle toward liberation to waste, especially those concerning Boycott of Israel. #Unbelievable

Palestine Video @PalestineVideo — As Palestinians who urge for the boycott of the zionist entity, we demand the  immediate resignation of shameless “Makhmoud Ab-ass

Palestine Video @PalestineVideo — Isn’t boycott of Israel defined a peaceful resistance of Israel? Hasn’t Ab-ass
rejected armed resistance pretending he’s 4 peaceful resist?

Palestine Video @PalestineVideo — So, here’s proof he’s for neither. He doesn’t want any form of resistance to the Israeli occupation and zionist colonization of our land

Palestine Video @PalestineVideo — Where are you Fatah? Enough is enough

The reactions provoked a reaction from the Palestinian Presidency. A statement issued in the name of Mohammad Mustafa, president of the Palestine Investment Fund and economic adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said that “the Palestinian leadership will not offer political concessions in exchange for economic benefits”, according to the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram here.

“We will not accept that the economy is the primary and sole component…We wish it to be part of a political framework that will ensure the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem its capital and the rights of refugees and a reference to a political solution — these are the priorities,” the text read. But, the statement added, “President Mahmud Abbas calls on investors to come to Palestine …Palestine is a positive investment experience in many different areas”….

 

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