MANAMA A regional workshop held in Bahrain last week has ended with a thud rather than the bang its organisers hoped for.
Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser and son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, had been hoping to rally the Arab world behind an economic plan for the Palestinian territories and the Middle East as part of a wider plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The conference failed to impress the Arab streets and some Arab governments signalled their uncertainty by sending lower-level delegations to attend.
But for some Israelis in attendance, the two-day “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama presented a unique opportunity to establish relationships with Arab investors similarly interested in launching projects in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli businessman, told Al Jazeera that he had been invited by the White House and found the workshop allowed him to “develop relationships with investors from Saudi Arabia and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] who were enthusiastic”.
He added that he had discussed plans with potential Arab investors to create industrial zones operated jointly by Israel and the Palestinians. Fogel is CEO of Ampa Group – a holding company active in real estate, finance and industry – and co-owner of Gold Bond Group and Israel Shipyards.
With plans to establish textile plants in a free-trade area on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, Fogel said the thousands of Palestinians working in these plants would have safe passage back and forth. He added that the arrangement would facilitate financing by international banks normally concerned by the security risks of doing business in Gaza.
But Fogel acknowledged that getting the plan off the ground would take time: not only because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also due to Israeli bureaucracy, as he has experienced in past projects.
According to Fogel, the recently completed Jordan Gateway bridge – a commercial transport artery between Jordan and Israel in the northern Jordan River Valley – took nine years and the approval of 22 Israeli governmental bodies to build.
The Palestinian perspective
While Fogel’s plans could create jobs for thousands of Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, for many Palestinians, the projects are seen as benefiting Israeli businessmen and their partners more than the Palestinian workers or economy.
Basil al-Qudwa, a Washington, DC, based Palestinian-American economist, told Al Jazeera that the US’s economic plan will not work because it lacks the recognition of Palestinian political rights which would give them control over the political process, borders and ports.
Large-scale economic rescue programmes are usually proposed to help sovereign nations rebuild. This by default is an economic plan proposed without the necessary political recognition of a nation, which will not work,” he said
Participants in Manama discussed proposed megaprojects such as one to create a corridor connecting the occupied West Bank and Gaza and another to build a power station and a desalination plant for the besieged coastal enclave.
But the Palestinian leadership fiercely opposed the two-day affair, saying that the Kushner-led efforts undermined the two-state solution laid out in the Oslo agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.
They also said economic solutions ignore the core political issue for the Palestinians: an end to military occupation.
Palestinians have long expressed fears that US plans will result in maintaining the status quo where the Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises limited rule in some areas of the West Bank, while Israel retains overall control.
Under the Oslo accords, the West Bank is divided into areas A, B and C. On paper, the PA has full control over area A, which comprises 18 percent of the occupied West Bank. Area B, which constitutes about 22 percent, is under Palestinian civil administration while Israel retains security control and some cooperation from Palestinian police. Area C, the other 60 percent, is under Israeli military and administrative control.
‘Quality of life’
Eyal Erlich, the Israeli owner of M Energy Ltd and a long-time peace activist who did not attend the workshop, expressed hope the Manama workshop would be a step towards helping the Palestinian population, especially in Gaza.
While he agreed that a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to rebuilding the Palestinian economy, he added that its absence should not preclude improvement of the daily lives of Palestinians, through cooperation between private Israeli and Palestinian companies.
Erlich says his company seeks to build energy infrastructure projects in Palestinian areas – where he has connections in the Palestinian business sector – and he prefers to set apart thorny political questions from commercial plans,
That is possible for an Israeli businessman, but less so for Palestinian businessmen; for them, political considerations and government policies are paramount – especially when Israel’s economy dominates the Palestinian one.
In 2016, Erlich had worked to set up partnerships with Palestinian businessmen in Gaza to buy electricity from the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) and resell it to the Gaza energy authority, a project that faltered because of approval issues from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Fathi al-Sheikh Khalil, former head of the Gaza energy authority, told Al Jazeera that Gaza only has eight hours of electricity a day, mainly thanks to Qatar-funded purchases of diesel fuel that amount to $10m a month to operate its only power station.
Gaza’s electricity needs during the summer are 500 megawatts a day for general usage or 800 megawatts if industries and businesses were to come online. It is currently getting 200 megawatts a day and factories remain shuttered because of the energy shortages.
While Khalil said that the Palestinian authorities in Gaza are open to buying energy from private Israeli companies, he doesn’t see this as enough of a solution, insisting that political instability and the ongoing conflict with Israel stand in the way of truly improving the Palestinian economy.
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