As the Trump White House prepares for the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week, it’s worth asking ourselves a few questions: Why do efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace continue to fail? How can we at least get back on the pathway to an agreement? And is there anything that Donald Trump can help to do conclude the biggest real estate deal in modern history?
I had been working the issue for some years at the U.S. Department of State, when one night seeking some comic relief in America’s most popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, it hit me.
What Israelis and Palestinians now need is a better “Roommate Agreement.” Since its inception, the show has featured four quirky Caltech scientists, two of whom rent an apartment together: A obsessive and socially bizarre Sheldon and a more acclimated but still awkward Leonard.
A reoccurring theme on the show is Sheldon’s need to have Leonard update their “Roommate Agreement” on a range of issues: When each can use the bathroom, the kitchen, and how they will relate to one another socially. The agreement is regularly updated, as the relationship evolves and new issues are uncovered. And Sheldon even asks his girlfriend Amy to sign a relationship agreement.
Just as Sheldon and Leonard live together in the same apartment, Israelis and Palestinians still live together in the same land.
The 1993 Oslo Accords and 1994 Paris Protocols were an initial take at a “Roommate Agreement,” but nearly a quarter century has gone by — and updates are needed. Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, could be just the person to help them reach it.
After all, he’s described a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement as “the ultimate deal.” An updated “Roommate Agreement” could at least be a step in the right direction.
Fortunately, Israelis and Palestinians themselves realize they need and update.
And we in the U.S. government spent a few years nudging along a series of agreements signed including: an agreement to expand telecommunications access to the West Bank, an agreement to help resolve the outstanding electricity and health insurance relationship in the West Bank, an agreement on how to resolve some of the water infrastructure relationship in the West Bank, and even an agreement on postal services.
Now none of these deals are perfect, and President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE knows better than most that signing an agreement isn’t the end of the road it’s the beginning. Implementation and communication are key. And that’s where a Trump administration can come in.
First, just like constructing a building or launching a hotel, there are years of diligent work that are needed to make any enterprise successful. And if Trump can ensure that these agreements succeed, he will have removed a series of irritants from the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, that if properly communicated, could lay the groundwork for an even larger deal.
And there’s a way for Trump to take this further. One solution which has been proposed by business leaders and NGOs would be to embrace a deal that gives Palestinians more control over their own lives in the West Bank — in a way that does not impact Israeli security.
This wouldn’t be a final deal, but one which helps further advance the cause of peace.
Here’s the status quo: Palestinians only have control — in round figures — of about 20 percent of the West Bank, and partial control of another 20 percent, with the remaining more than 60 percent under full Israeli control.
Meanwhile the World Bank estimates that if Palestinians could boost their economy by as much as by 33 percent — adding $4 billion to their $12 billion economy by gaining control of most of this 60 percent — that would be in the context of that elusive “ultimate deal” which is currently out of reach.
But there is a way: Some have calculated that if Israel were to transfer just a few percent of the West Bank from full Israeli control to partial Palestinian administration — carefully selecting land for its economic value to the Palestinians — while still retaining Israeli security control, this would lead to a boom in the Palestinian economy. And we all know that a thriving economy leads to a happier citizenry, and less violence.
Indeed with per capita incomes more than ten times higher in Israel ($38,000) than they are in the West Bank and Gaza ($2,800) the situation is already a cause for alarm to the Palestinian leadership and Israeli generals who seek security, stability and prosperity.
With this additional land, the burgeoning Palestinian population — currently 2.7 million in the West Bank — could more rapidly grow their own economy: tens of thousands of desperately needed housing units could be built; new agribusiness ventures could be developed; new stone and marble mines could be opened; solar fields and power plants could be developed; and tourism could prosper at holy sites and along the Dead Sea.
Furthermore, the economy in general could prosper if Palestinians were allowed to exit the West Bank 24 x 7 — instead of only during prescribed hours. Such an approach could possibly add about a billion dollars to the $12 billion Palestinian economy.
“The ultimate deal,” that Trump spoke about, this is not. But full implementation of existing roommate agreements, and signing a new big one, does hold out the possibility of significantly advancing Israeli-Palestinian relations in a way that brings prosperity to the Palestinian economy, and in turn, one can hope, more peaceful relations on the ground.
And that should be something we can all cheer — Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, and even Democrats and Republicans here in America.
Hady Amr concluded over six years in the Obama administration in early 2017. Most recently he served as Deputy Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. Before that he was deputy head of the Middle East Bureau at USAID which implemented over $1.6 billion in annual U.S. foreign assistance. Follow him on @HadyAmr on Twitter.
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