Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In late June 2019, White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner unveiled his long-awaited “economic” peace plan for Palestine over a two-day workshop in Bahrain. Before an audience of diplomats, dignitaries and business people, Kushner laid out the blueprint for an investment-led plan to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza over the next decade, which is to be followed by a “political” peace plan at some point in the future.

The great reveal in Bahrain provoked more smirks than steps towards implementation. But if the goal of Kushner and his cloistered policy team was to bring unity to the Middle East, then they have been wildly successful already.  From former Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi to former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and from Jordan to Iran and across the political spectrum, there is considerable unity of opinion about how naive, foolish and underwhelming this plan appears to be.

Criticism of the plan, however, has tended to be too narrowly construed, with an undue focus on the peculiarities of Jared Kushner and the Trump administration or the plan’s finer details. Yet while the plan has many shortcomings, its most fundamental weakness is not unique to the plan itself, nor the Trump administration, but is inherited from a broader theory of change widely accepted and promulgated throughout the international development community. That theory of change—which directs resources and energies into technocratic policymaking while indefinitely postponing the question of political power—is the real culprit. Indeed, roughly a decade ago Palestinians witnessed the failure of a similar technocratic peace initiative, spawned from the same theory of change. That theory, rather than any specific plan, wants revision.

 

Kushner’s Technocratic Vision

The Kushner plan’s cardinal sin, critics have asserted, is that it places the economic cart before the political horse. Skipping past the major political questions of borders, settlements, security, refugees or sovereignty, Kushner’s plan proposes instead to prioritize building up the Palestinian West Bank and Gazan economies and integrating them with those of their neighbors. Bolstering tourism revenues or opening gleaming shopping malls in Gaza seems hard to do, however, while Gaza remains under military blockade and subject to intermittent aerial bombardment. As for the West Bank, the continued expansion of Israeli settlements and layered authoritarian rule by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli military would seem to leave Palestinian entrepreneurs and their investors in suspense as to the future of property rights. In short, the unresolved political issues seem liable to make any economic initiatives difficult if not impossible to implement on their own terms.

The plan, however, does not limit itself to economic growth and integration. It also speaks of building up institutions of governance, tackling corruption, improving transparency and even nurturing civil society organizations. In other words, it envisions not only economic reform, but also political (governance) reform.

More than just economic, then, the Kushner plan merits the more encompassing designation as technocratic. The plan’s unifying theme is not business or markets per se, but rather an attitude which, applied to the context at hand, insists that the Palestinian predicament can be reduced to a kind of technical or engineering problem—which can be resolved with a sustained application of cleverness, good intentions and best practices. Indeed, unlike other Trump administration initiatives, which lend themselves so easily to being lampooned as sloppy or obviously absurd, the Kushner plan actually reads like something that the World Bank, McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group might have proposed—a kind of “Vision 2030” for Palestine. Consistent with the modus operandi of those institutions, the plan does not propose any single sweeping, dramatic or revolutionary change to help Palestinians. Instead, it rather conservatively advocates for a cocktail of micro-interventions, each one aimed at achieving marginal, measurable progress on narrow, tractable policy dimensions.

 

Policy Without Politics

The deeper failure of the Kushner plan is one widely shared by technocratic initiatives: It prioritizes the articulation of policy solutions over the question of how to organize and mobilize the necessary political force required to realize them. The plan answers the question “What specific steps would you take to fix Palestine if you had the political latitude to do so?” while indefinitely postponing the question of how to create that latitude in the first place. This failure, far from being idiosyncratic to Kushner’s plan, is inherited from the international development and global consulting community, against whose many technocratic initiatives much the same criticism could be leveled.

Technocracy’s political blind spot owes to a worldview that assumes socially harmful or “suboptimal” policy portfolios are pursued by governments for lack of knowing better. Under this so-called ignorance paradigm, governments of developing countries are characterized as “socially benevolent planners’” who want what is best for their citizens, but could benefit from the advice of foreign scholars and consultants to help determine the optimal portfolio of policies to implement.

According to this framing, the international development community, and profitable consultant firms, operate as a body of neutral, technical advisors who exploit historical data or run randomized control trials in order to test the causal impact of policies on socially relevant outcomes.  Does paving roads facilitate economic growth? Does election monitoring increase citizens’ trust in democratic institutions?  Do cash transfers to poor parents increase their children’s school attendance rates? With the results of such studies on such questions in hand, consultants can propose an optimal cocktail of policy interventions, much like the Kushner plan.

In the Middle East, as elsewhere, however, the assumptions underwriting the ignorance paradigm seldom if ever hold true. Few leaders can be described as eager to implement socially optimal technocratic policies. On the contrary, the average autocrat is typically focused on co-opting or counter-balancing the narrow group of powerbrokers who could plausibly challenge their rule.[1] Self-preservation, rather than socially optimal programmatic policymaking, is the priority. On the rare occasions where the leader is programmatically minded, vested interests typically thwart their efforts. Vested interests, not ignorance about the causal impacts of policies, are the binding constraint on development in the Middle East.

And this is why technocratic initiatives like the Kushner plan are dead on arrival. They insist on seeing the status quo as an accident born of incomplete information, rather than as the aggregation of deliberate, self-serving machinations of vested interests—the stuff of politics. They propose reforms without articulating how to consolidate sufficient force to drive those reforms past the logjam of powerbrokers and entrenched constituencies opposed to change. Did it occur to the Kushner team, for example, that Israel’s ruling bloc might simply prefer the subjugation and strangulation of the Palestinian economy over any proposal for trade integration and liberalization? Or that the PA’s decision to boycott the Bahrain summit, purportedly in solidarity with its constituency, was perhaps instead a cynical ploy by a collaborationist and authoritarian apparatus keenly aware that its future is bound to the two-state paradigm so conspicuously eschewed in Kushner’s rhetoric?

When one reflects upon the political economy of Palestine, one realizes that any reform package to ameliorate the lives of ordinary Palestinians must necessarily face powerful opposition from vested interests—otherwise such reforms would have happened already. Any blueprint for change, then, must articulate not merely the policy “what” but also the political “how”—how to help Palestinians acquire sufficient political force to break the opposition of vested interests. On this matter, of course, the Kushner plan is silent.

 

Unlearned Lessons of Fayyadism

The Kushner plan’s prioritization of technocratic policy over political power is reminiscent of another ill-fated reform program championed roughly a decade ago in the West Bank by then-PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (2007-2013). The failure of Fayyadism constitutes a lesson—as yet unheeded—on the limits that vested interests can impose upon policy reform, and the necessity to equip such reforms with force.

Salam Fayyad was presidentially appointed prime minister of the PA in June 2007 at a time when the flow of international aid to the Fatah-controlled PA was widening. Equipped with a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas, and years of experience first as the IMF country director to Palestine and later as the PA’s finance minister, Fayyad was perfectly poised to envision and enact technocratic reforms like those outlined in Kushner’s plan. Here was a vigorous, intellectual man, widely acknowledged for his integrity and fully trained and immersed in the international development paradigm, ready to steer his country forward. The international development community could scarcely have scripted a more favorable test of its methodology.

True to form, Fayyad launched energetically into a series of technocratic reforms to reassert rule of law, build up governance institutions and encourage economic growth—many of the same items now prioritized by the Kushner plan. In its best light, Fayyad’s plan was for Palestinians to stop waiting for a formal peace deal with Israel and seize the initiative to begin building their state in the here and now. For a few years, the plan worked: the domestic security situation stabilized to an unprecedented degree, donor aid poured into Ramallah and the international community was delighted. Thomas Friedman even wondered aloud if Fayyadism was the new way forward for the Middle East.

But then Fayyadism ran up against the political reality of vested interests. Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to reciprocate Fayyad’s initiative by freezing settlement construction, easing its draconian restrictions on Palestinian movement or encouraging Palestinian statebuilding in any way other than augmenting security cooperation to fight what Israel determined to be terrorism. Beyond the Netanyahu’s government’s obstructionism, the Israeli electorate had itself been drifting rightward since at least the time of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, if not before.[2] Fayyad found himself making the case for Palestinian statehood at a time when Israel’s voters were less inclined than ever to permit their leaders to oblige, even if they were willing.

Added to Israel’s rightward trend, Fayyad’s own efforts to restore domestic law and order, though clearly a sine qua non for institution building and economic growth, effectively crushed West Bank Palestinian militancy against Israel. With no real security threat from the West Bank, the Israeli electorate and consequently its leadership lost its stated impetus for making political concessions at the negotiating table. The old “land for peace” logic was further eroded by Hamas’ rocket campaign against southern Israel. For Israeli society, it seemed clear that in the West Bank where no land had been conceded to the Palestinians violence against Israelis had subsided—whereas in Gaza, from where Israel withdrew in 2005, violence against Israelis had subsequently increased. These trends understandably decoupled territorial concessions from peace in the minds of many Israeli voters.

Added to all of this, donor aid slumped not only in Palestine but across the board in the wake of sovereign debt crises across Europe. The PA fell into debt and after attempting to implement austerity measures, Fayyad—now deeply unpopular—was forced to resign.[3]

 The lesson from Fayyadism’s failure is that policy reforms are like nails that require the force of a political movement to drive home. Fayyad did not build or emerge from a grassroots movement; he was a presidential appointee. His technocratic reform agenda, though intellectually his own, was paid for by temperamental outside donors, with Israel’s sign-off. These realities quietly circumscribed how far his agenda could really go. If he ran too far afoul of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, his appointment could be revoked. If his reforms upset Israel or donor nations (chief among them, the United States), then he would be de-funded. His security reforms are a prime example. So long as he was restoring law and order in the West Bank, Israel was delighted, since it meant fewer Palestinian militant attacks against Israelis; and the US State Department was happy to fund, arm, and train his gendarmes. But when he tried to convert this security success into a bid for Palestinian statehood, he was abandoned.[4]

 

Lessons of Israeli Statebuilding

All policy initiatives, above a certain threshold of scale and intensity, invariably jeopardize vested interests. When that happens, powerbrokers with a stake in the status quo will use their power to thwart or divert the initiative. Sooner or later, then, every reform agenda faces a reckoning with social and political forces vested in the status quo. That reckoning must be resolved by force or the credible threat of force. Every ambitious policy agenda, whether it is the Fayyadist reforms or the Kushner plan, or even a UN-sponsored peace plan, must be backed by force.

Thinking about force, and how to build it, requires one to step out of the mindset of international development—from which Fayyad originated, and to which the World Bank, USAID, McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and the development economics community belong—and step into the political world of statebuilding. Development interventions succeed by remaining modest and ecumenical, improving people’s lives at the margin without ever trespassing the boundaries of the political status quo. Statebuilding, on the other hand, lies beyond the feasibility frontier. Statebuilding involves taking actions that are not feasible, not permissible and often not legal in the ruling terms of the day. Statebuilding upsets vested interests. It crosses their red lines. And because of that, statebuilding requires force and involves conflict, almost always leading to kinetic violence to overcome the intransigence of entrenched interests vested in the status quo.

Israel’s own statebuilding experience is a highly relevant example of the imperative of force. When Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat in 1896, the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine was totally implausible. No international development technocrat could ever have seriously proposed carving out a chunk of Ottoman Palestine and filling it with a diverse mixture of Jewish immigrants communicating with each other by way of reviving their two-thousand year-old ancestral language. That proposal was wildly infeasible in 1896, and yet a half-century later it became a reality. The birth of Israel required vision to think far beyond what is feasible.

And it required lots of violence. It is no exaggeration to say that the state of Israel was brought into being—and has subsequently insulated itself and expanded its statebuilding—by writing in black ink the names of its adversaries, and then crossing them out one by one in their own blood.[5] In this regard, Israel is by no means the exception, but merely the pre-eminent example for Palestinians to reflect upon. If one delves into the history of any state—the United States, China, Russia, Germany or England, for example—one discovers copious bloodletting on the road to consolidating statehood. As Charles Tilly famously concluded: “war makes the state.”  Statebuilding, as Israelis discovered firsthand, is first and foremost about convincing foreign and domestic audiences of one’s capacity and willingness to exercise force to achieve or preserve its state. Such an undertaking cannot be polite, nor ecumenical, nor pleasing to all parties.

Peace of the Strong

But Tilly’s pithy comment that “war makes the state” is not quite accurate—it is not the exercise of force that makes a state, but rather the threat of force, made credible in part by demonstrating it in limited doses, which eventually convinces one’s adversaries to grudgingly accept one’s existence (if not one’s right to exist). Adversaries will never negotiate if they can easily murder or repress instead. What brings about negotiations, compromise and ultimately peace is the realization by entrenched interests that maintaining the status quo will impose an unacceptably high cost on themselves. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phrased it most lucidly last August as he reflected upon Israel’s history: “peace is made with the strong,” while “the weak crumble, are slaughtered, and are erased from history.” Though his self-serving observation is anathema to liberal sensibilities, his assertion could not be more emphatically affirmed by history.

The notion, then, that the Palestinian struggle for independent statehood can somehow be different or that Palestinians can skip past Netanyahu’s observation and obtain a state by way of a UN resolution or by consumer boycott or by deconstructing the discourse or by enacting a laundry list of policy tweaks, is just anti-historical. History did not end when the United Nations was established, nor when the Soviet Union collapsed. The world is not different now than it used to be. The way to statehood is through force.

The harsh realities of statebuilding are directly at issue with the Kushner plan. The status quo in Palestine is not the result of missed opportunities that clever plans devised by the World Bank, McKinsey, or Jared Kushner can help us overcome. There is no slack waiting to be drawn taut. What we see in the Palestinian Territories and across the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan is the best possible life Palestinians can achieve under the current political balance of power. The lives of ordinary Palestinians will improve if and only if they acquire further power to compel political concessions from vested interests, both foreign and domestic.

Of course, there are many states that came about not by their own volition, but by way of great power politics. Indeed, many states across the Middle East and Eastern Europe were born by way of the breakup of larger, supranational entities, namely, the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet Union. While this is an important alternative channel to keep in mind, waiting around for an empire to collapse does not constitute much of a self-determination strategy. A somewhat less implausible option is to seek the intervention of a foreign superpower or the international community to exert pressure on Israel to make concessions. But such assistance is not arbitrarily bestowed, and comes with its own strings attached that may undermine the benefits.[6] And at this time, the current international constellation of power does not appear inclined to mobilize the force needed to compel vested interests in Israel to reverse course.

Lacking at present a plausible channel to statehood by way of great power politics, Palestinians must build power of their own. Yet while militancy and violence have often been a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful self-determination movements, as things currently stand, Palestinian militancy seems guaranteed to fail spectacularly if pitted against Israel’s overwhelming military might, buttressed as it is by PA security collaboration. Moreover, the international community has largely adopted the Israeli position that any expression of Palestinian militancy, whether violent or not, is an act of terrorism which disqualifies the Palestinian bid for statehood, whether that is promoted by Palestinian Islamists or secular nationalists, or even explicitly non-violent protestors who seek to extract some cost on Israel for its continuing violations of international law.

If the international community wishes to involve itself seriously in Palestinian statebuilding, then it must forthrightly accept that this pursuit will require the threat, if not the actual exercise, of force—whether political, social, economic, cultural or even military—to confront entrenched interests that prefer maintaining and even expanding Israel’s domination over the entirety of historic Palestine. Otherwise, any proposed plan or blueprint is merely an empty gesture; a false opportunity that, as on previous occasions, will be unfairly held against Palestinians later for having passed up; and ultimately, a way to provide cover for Israel’s perpetuation of the status quo.

While the international community wrings its hands and dithers, however, Palestinians and their allies need not wait. Fayyadism, for all of its flaws, was right on the essential matter of agency, and this kernel of truth ought to be saved even as the technocratic chaff burns away. Sovereignty, Fayyad rightly saw, is not something one patiently waits for others to bestow. It is something grasped, seized, claimed, possessed, wrested from history by force of will, by the imposition of one’s active principle upon the world. It is not granted in advance but rather acknowledged after the fact as a fait accompli. If the sobering lesson of Fayyadism was that policy without politics is futile, then its liberating spirit was that Palestinian self-determination begins with Palestinians themselves, without reference to and without waiting for others; and like the Zionists before them, Palestinians possess within themselves the creative genius to go beyond what is feasible, and make the unthinkable inevitable.

 


Endnotes

[1] For example, see by Melani Cammett, Ishac Diwan, Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East, Fourth Edition (New York: Routledge, 2015) or Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[2] See Dan Ephron, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel (New York:  W.W. Norton, 2015).

[3] See Alexei S. Abrahams, “Not Dark Yet: The Israel-PA Principal-Agent Relationship, 1993–2017,” in Eli Berman and David A. Lake, eds. Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence through Local Agents (Ithica, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2019).

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Ronen Bergman, Rise and Kill First (New York: Random House, 2018) or Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford, UK:  One World Books, 2007); among many others.

[6] See most notably David Lake, The Statebuilder’s Dilemma: On the Limits of Foreign Intervention (Ithica, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2016).

Cancel

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This