The Trump administration has just rolled out the economic part of its new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. It will facilitate some $50 billion in socioeconomic development, with over $27 billion going to Gaza and the West Bank. The balance will go to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
The plan is nation-building on steroids. It would fund everything from roads, power, water, ICT and border infrastructure, to governance, to health and education, to regional economic integration. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s comprehensive. There’s just one problem. As we’ve learned repeatedly since World War II, development doesn’t buy peace in ethnic and religious wars.
That we continue to entertain that notion reflects a lack of understanding about the nature of the wars we fight. Development can be a potent tool of war, to be sure. The Marshall Plan and its Asian analog both proved its value in the early years of the Cold War. As an element of broader military strategy, development is especially important in counterinsurgency and stability operations. But its success varies greatly depending on the nature of the conflict.
In 1965, for example, in an ideological war in southeast Asia, the U.S. cooked up a billion dollar TVA-like hydroelectric program to bring power, water and rural development to southern Indochina. Thinking that the Mekong River Project would deliver peace, Lyndon Johnson allegedly remarked, “Let’s see old Ho turn this down.” Old Ho did turn it down, and ran out the clock on U.S. support at home for fighting in Vietnam.
More recently, the Colombian civil war shows that development can play an essential role in the kinds of political and economic wars that have long plagued Latin America. What brought the FARC to the table after 51 years of fighting was sustained application of hard military action, followed by economic development and support for local governance.
Ethnic and religious wars, however, are different. Socioeconomic development doesn’t bring either peace or stability, because social and economic issues aren’t driving the conflict. We see this today from Mali to Mindanao.
An object lesson is Afghanistan, where I worked on development from 2006 to 2012. After the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, Afghanistan quickly morphed into a largely ethnic war waged by Pashtun on both sides of the Af-Pak border. More recently, with the entrenchment of ISIS there, religion has become as important as ethnicity in driving the war.
The U.S. and our allies have poured tens of billions of dollars into full-spectrum development in Afghanistan, from roads, power and water, to economic policy reform, to health and education. At the start, those of us who had been to this rodeo in other conflict countries thought the notion that development could bring peace there was shaky at best. Later, when the writing was on the wall, we’d joke among ourselves that we could give every Taliban fighter “a dacha” in Qatar and they’d still continue the war.
Which is not to say that the Pashtun don’t love development. Quite the contrary. They hate Western ideas on social development and governance, but in 49 countries I’ve never seen a people so hungry for economic infrastructure that they would actively kill for it.
The geography, history and circumstances are different in West Bank and Gaza, but the root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian war is not. This is not an ideological war, nor is it a politico-economic war where development and governance are required for peace and stability. It’s a religious war. Only strength can secure stability there, and only future generations will find a way to peace.
I spent a lot of time on the ground in West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s, working on USAID road, water, housing, business, trade and other economic development projects. The projects did some good, but no one was living under the illusion that they would significantly change the calculus for peace. Time has, of course, validated that thinking.
The Trump administration deserves a lot of credit for taking a fresh look at how to cut the Gordian knot there, and bring the Palestinian problem to a stable conclusion. But it won’t get there by ignoring experience. The Palestinians will happily take every nickel of U.S. taxpayer money, but trade, investment and economic development won’t incentivize them to moderate their hatred for Israel. That hatred is too much a part of their cultural identity.
The ugly truth — and it’s time we faced it — is that you don’t get to either peace or stability in religious wars through economic development. Especially Islamic wars. Instead, the U.S. should focus on military strength and help Israel protect itself from our common enemies. The time for us to broker a peace deal is when the Palestinians are ready to bargain in good faith. Which may, or may not, be in our lifetimes.
Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. foreign service officer. In 29 years with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he worked on the ground in 49 countries worldwide. He was deployed to Afghanistan three times for a total of 31 months, including as chief of staff at USAID/Afghanistan (2006 to 2007) and director of Development at ISAF Headquarters under General David Petraeus and General John Allen (2010 to 2012). The opinions in this article are his alone.