In an effort to revive the moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, US secretary of state John Kerry announced a plan to invest as much as $4 billion to develop the economy of the West Bank.
Sketching out a vision of a transformed Middle East, Mr Kerry said that an infusion of what is expected to be mainly private sector investment could boost the gross domestic product of the West Bank by 50 per cent over three years and slash unemployment, which now hovers around 21 per cent, by two-thirds.
In highlighting the plan at a conference in Jordan of the World Economic Forum, Mr Kerry's goal was to spur Israel and the Palestinians to begin talks on a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement amid concerns that the window for initiating negotiations may begin to close.
“Negotiations can’t succeed if you don’t negotiate,” Mr Kerry said. “We are reaching a critical point.”
He said that the investments under the plan would be made in the areas of tourism, light manufacturing, agriculture, construction, energy and technology. The idea would be to give the Palestinians an incentive to negotiate and to assure a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be viable.
Neither Mr Kerry nor his aides provided any details, such as what specific projects were envisioned, who might invest and what modifications might be required in Israeli restrictions on the West Bank for it to work.
Reporters travelling 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 British prime minister Tony Blair 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 last night by Mr Blair’s office said that the economic initiative was intended to run in parallel with the political process and not replace it. Officials from the quartet are still in the process of consulting experts on the Palestinian economy and will provide details about specific projects “in due course.”
As Mr Kerry has tried to set the stage for negotiations, Palestinian officials said he had asked them to hold off on seeking membership in international forums to underscore their claim to statehood, which they said they will only do until June 7th. The Israeli government, meanwhile, has quietly refrained from issuing bids for construction in West Bank settlements or from announcing major building projects.
“Time is not on anyone’s side in this,” Mr Kerry said. “And changes on the ground could rob all of us of the possibilities of peace.”
Mr Kerry has noted that there are skeptics about the peace process in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps, some of which was evident at the conference yesterday.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, praised the business initiative while also noting that Palestinian youth had "started to lose their confidence in the two-state solution because what they see on the ground makes them truly have no hope."
In a forceful and at times angry speech, Mr Abbas assailed Israel for failing to release Palestinian prisoners as outlined in previous agreements and for refusing to discuss the issue of Palestinian refugees outside of negotiations.
President Shimon Peres of Israel, whose own speech to the meeting was largely a lofty discussion of the yearnings of a young generation, pleaded with Mr Abbas to save such issues for the negotiating table.
"When I listen to the arguments on both sides, I could say, 'Well, nothing can happen,'" Mr Peres said, diverging from his prepared text to address his counterpart directly. "All these differences, they are deep, they are moving, they are important," Peres said to Abbas. "All of this should be really done around the table. Let's sit together - you'll be surprised how much can be achieved in open and direct and organized meetings."
New York Times