What does $4.3 billion buy? Leveraging results, not process, with Israel and Palestine
In the depths of this pandemic, nearly 14 million American children are not getting enough to eat. Yet, by my count, the Biden administration has approximately $4.3 billion in the treasury for assistance to the Israelis and Palestinians. That buys a lot of meals.
Of this total, the U.S. will spend $3.8 billion for, predominantly, military assistance to Israel. Clearly, the U.S. has many geo-political and economic intersection points with Israel, including intelligence sharing, military cooperation, and countering Iran and non-state terror groups. This partnership is deep and mutually beneficial.
Still, $3.8 billion merits review. Israel is a rich country with an average life expectancy that is well above the life expectancy in America. Overall, Israel has a similar ranking on the human development index as the United States. Our long-time ally is no longer that plucky little nation birthed in conflict in the aftermath of World War II. For the past 50 years, Israel has been a regional power, increasingly now at peace with its neighbors.
For the Palestinians, there is roughly $500 million from unspent 2020 appropriations and new appropriations in 2021; together these funds provide security assistance, economic development, and a return to traditional levels of support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The bottom line: $4.3 billion is being transferred from the United States to Israel and Palestine.
So, what exactly is America buying with this aid?
When I was leading the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission to the West Bank and Gaza Mission, assistance was tied to a clear foreign policy goal. Every project linked to supporting a two-state solution. Biden’s goal now is to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution until, perhaps, the parties are more inclined to negotiate a comprehensive settlement in the future. But — there is a risk that these funds simply subsidize the current dysfunctional status quo.
Can the Biden administration leverage these funds to achieve meaningful results toward peace? Here are a few suggestions to deliver better outcomes.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu must demonstrate commitment to a two-state solution by transferring substantial portions of the West Bank to full Palestinian control in 2021. The West Bank’s three zones include: Area C with 61 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control; Area B with 21 percent of the West Bank under Israeli security and Palestinian adminstrative control; and Area A, with 18 percent of the West Bank under full Palestianian control. Israel should reconfigure this arrangement to reduce Area C and expand Area A to validate that it still accepts a viable Palestinian state.
The second Israeli move requires that the Netanyahu government facilitate Palestinian trade across the Green Line into Israel and through the Allenby Bridge to Jordan and the rest of the Middle East. Further, the Israelis can support significantly improved upgrades to facilitate export trade out of Gaza. In all of these instances, Palestinian traders should have better access to external markets.
U.S. assistance can be used to help design and support the transfer of substantial authority from the Israelis to the Palestinians in the West Bank. This change coupled with fundamentally improved trade facilitation would be a worthy result.
Partners also deserve respect. President Biden has not forgotten when Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to undermine him during his 2010 trip to Israel by announcing further Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Or, when the Prime Minister tried to humiliate the Obama-Biden administration by delivering a 2015 speech in opposition to the Iranian deal to a joint session of Congress, without a White House invitation.
Netanyahu would do well to course correct with Biden — and he can begin by showing appreciation to the president for America’s unwavering support, affirming the goal of a two-state solution, and recognizing Palestinian aspirations.
The Palestinian Authority must demonstrate a commitment to the world as it is in 2021. Recently, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced that parliamentary elections would be held May 22, followed by presidential elections on July 31, 16 years after he was elected for a four year term. These elections must go forward in order to re-establish democratic legitimacy. When the results are finalized, the Palestinians will bear the consequences of future donor funding and prospects for statehood if, for instance, Hamas maintains its base in Gaza or further expands into the West Bank. The U.S. should support these elections with direct assistance to civil society, human rights organizations, and a free press.
Additionally, the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relationships between Israel and the United Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, is the new reality for the Palestinians. The Palestinians aspire for independence, not to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. And yet, in a competitive global economy, the Palestinians’ comparative advantage is that they are sandwiched between high-end markets to their east and west. Ramallah, a town of perhaps 60,000, is not big enough to be a stand-alone tech hub. U.S. economic development in partnership with U.S. businesses and Middle East equity could improve the Palestinian private sector environment by increasing connectivity between Ramallah, Tel Aviv, Dubai, and Riyadh.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has been the death knell of big ideas, including the notion that America is the indispensable peacemaker. Yet, the Biden administration remains committed to a mutual settlement between the parties.
Given the extraordinary challenges America now faces at home, every tax dollar spent on Israel and Palestine has to produce meaningful results. Without this discipline and accountability, America would be better off buying more meals for its poorest children.
R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.