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Kushner's Mideast peace gamble puts economics ahead of politics

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FOR those who'd come to doubt that the Trump administration actually had a Middle East peace plan in the works, Jared Kushner proved them half-wrong on Saturday.

Washington

FOR those who'd come to doubt that the Trump administration actually had a Middle East peace plan in the works, Jared Kushner proved them half-wrong on Saturday. The president's son-in-law released a detailed US$50 billion road map for the future Palestinian economy, but said nothing about resolving the region's political troubles.

Mr Kushner's "Peace to Prosperity" economic blueprint was revealed in a glossy brochure ahead of a two-day workshop the US is hosting in Bahrain, where the Trump administration hopes to persuade other countries to pick up the tab and put the heat on Palestinians to accept the blueprint.

Mr Kushner, a White House senior adviser who is President Donald Trump's point man on Middle East peace, said in a statement that Palestinians have been "trapped in inefficient frameworks of the past". He called the proposal "a vision of what is possible if there is peace".

There is, of course, no peace yet - and the US hasn't signalled how it will get there. On the contrary, Mr Trump has alienated the Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the American embassy there and then cutting off aid to the territories after Palestinian leaders complained.

Mr Kushner further perturbed the Palestinians by expressing doubt, in an interview that aired this month, about their capacity to govern themselves. "The hope is that over time they can become capable of governing," he said in an interview with Axios on HBO.

Palestinian leaders largely broke off contact with the Trump administration after the Jerusalem moves and weren't consulted on Mr Kushner's plan.

But even sceptics acknowledged a seriousness of purpose to Mr Kushner's economic proposal, which outlined more than 200 programmes and projects to connect Gaza and the West Bank, expand exports and the Palestinian internet and increase access to drinking water, natural gas, hospitals, education and job training.

The plan includes at least one proposal that could prove difficult for Israeli leaders to accept: a US$5 billion transit corridor cutting across the Jewish state to connect the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Mr Kushner's blueprint is silent about who would administer the investments, and the White House faces a pervasive sense from experts in the region and in the US - not to mention the Palestinians - that it has put the cart before the horse. There are deep doubts that an investment-first approach, without a political solution, can lead to peace.

"Even an ambitious vision of much-needed economic development cannot substitute for a political agreement that will finally resolve the core issues driving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the progressive Jewish group J Street, said in a statement.

In effect, Mr Kushner started with the easiest, most achievable part of a full peace plan.

The economic document was put forth without any proposed resolution for the many political disputes between the Palestinians and the Israelis, including territorial boundaries, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, or Palestinian demands for a "right of return" to land they lost in wars against Israel. That half of the US peace plan is expected to be delayed at least until September, with Israel facing new elections after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to assemble a governing coalition.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Mideast peace negotiator, called the economic plan a comprehensive, detailed proposal.

"In a galaxy far, far away" the plan would be "a very good approach to the economic components of peacemaking", he said. There are exceptions, he said, including provisions to develop a Palestinian tourism industry that he called unrealistic and out-of-touch. "But I can't see under these circumstances that this could possibly work. There is no confidence or trust to support this."

The Palestinians, who've criticised the US approach to focus first on economic development, are boycotting the Bahrain workshop. As a result, Israeli government representatives weren't invited either. Questions remain about whether either side could agree to any two-state solution and whether Israel will pursue annexing some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Kushner-led plan aims to generate more than US$50 billion in new investment over 10 years, doubling the size of the Palestinian economy, creating more than one million jobs and cutting the poverty rate in half. More than half the money - US$27.8 billion - would go to Gaza and the West Bank. Egypt would get US$9.2 billion; Jordan US$7.4 billion and Lebanon US$6.3 billion.

The transit link between the Palestinian territories would "fundamentally change the Palestinian economy", according to the White House. BLOOMBERG