Old Oslo illusions

30/05/08

Promises of money and jobs are not enough to hide the
brutal reality of occupation, writes Khaled Amayreh in
Bethlehem

Amid lavish settings and tight security, hundreds of
investors and entrepreneurs from around the world last week
gathered in the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem to
discuss and plan joint business ventures.

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials described the
“Palestine Investment Conference” as a “mega event” in
light of the large number of attendants, many of whom were
businesspeople from expatriate Palestinian communities in
the Gulf region.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas opened the conference on
Wednesday 21 May at the InterContinental Hotel with a brief
speech in which he appealed to investors from the Arab
world to invest in Palestine and in peace.

Abbas sought to strike a delicate balance between the
anti-business and investment environment emanating from the
entrenched Israeli occupation and the need to maintain a
semblance of economic well-being in the occupied
territories if only to enable Palestinians to withstand
systematic Israeli repression aimed at killing Palestinian
aspirations for freedom and independence.

Abbas carefully avoided any bleak assessment of “peace
talks” with Israel, ostensibly in order to maintain the
“positive atmospherics” of the conference. However, Abbas’s
artificial optimism did little to reassure sceptics worried
that investing in Palestine while still under military
occupation may not be a good idea.

Former British prime minister and Quartet envoy to the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process Tony Blair, a key
proponent of the economy-first agenda in Palestine, sought
to foster optimism, saying Palestine deserved a prosperous
economy. Some Palestinian intellectuals and journalists
accused Blair of trying to use economic inducements to
bribe the PA into giving political concessions to Israel,
especially with regard to keystone issues of the
Arab-Israeli conflict such as Jerusalem and the right of
return of Palestinian refugees.

Blair, who undertook laborious efforts to convince Israel
to ease up restrictions strangling the Palestinian economy,
has hardly succeeded in getting Israel to remove even two
or three roadblocks in the West Bank. Indeed, a recent
report by the United Nations pointed out that Israel
actually increased, not decreased, the number of barriers
and roadblocks in the West Bank, a fact likely to generate
despair among those who think that no viable economy can be
sustained in an environment of roadblocks, checkpoints,
military curfews and closed military zones.

According to organisers, as many as 1,500 local and foreign
investors and business representatives participated in the
three-day conference. Participants included a high-level
delegation from the United Arab Emirates that arrived
aboard a Jordanian army helicopter that flew them directly
from Amman, apparently in coordination with Israel. Many
other participants had to receive special access permits
from the Israeli army, a grim reminder that accessibility
to the West Bank, including its business market, is tightly
controlled by Israel.

A number of invitees, especially Palestinian expatriates,
were barred for political reasons. Some of the more
sceptical participants said they only came to visit
families and in order to be able to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque
in Jerusalem. Others said they wanted to enjoy the holiday
setting and meet old friends.

Yet despite the omnipresent spectre of the Israeli
occupation, epitomised by army barriers and roadblocks near
the conference venue, the gathering itself was successful.
According to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the man behind
the conference, around $1.4 billion was pledged for joint
business projects, which could create up to 35,000 jobs in
the West Bank. The sum reportedly includes about $550
million from major Arab investors for the construction of a
new Palestinian town near Ramallah.

In a press conference marking the end of the conference,
Fayyad announced a joint strategy between the private
sector and the government “to strengthen coordination and
integration” for the purpose of bolstering the national
economy. “The Palestinian National Authority believes in
the leading role of the private sector and the importance
of integration with the efforts exerted by the government,”
he said, adding that he hoped that the conference would
lead to “economic recovery”, “sustainable social and
economic planning and management”, “developing services”
and “tackling Israeli impediments to strengthening the
Palestinian economy”.

Responding to critics who have argued that foreign-induced
economic investment was inherently artificial and designed
to bribe Palestinians to give political concessions to
Israel, Fayyad said there was a total separation between
peace talks with Israel and efforts to attract foreign
investment into Palestine. “This is not an economic
conflict that requires an economic solution. This is a
political conflict that requires a political solution. And
I assure you that we won’t meet any political demands
attached to efforts to revive our economy,” he said.

Recognising the fact that the Israeli occupation was the
ultimate spoiler of an investment- friendly environment,
Fayyad argued that Palestinians had no choice but to cling
to life. “We want to live, and we can’t live normally
without creating a minimum of economic normality. Every
year, 50,000 young men and women enter the labour market.
We must create jobs for those people. We want permanent
development, but realising this goal depends on the removal
of Israeli barriers and restrictions. Hence this conference
is a message to the world, a message of defiance — a
positive defiance.”

Despite the optimism, the stark contrast between the
illustrious surroundings of the conference on the one hand
and the abject poverty haunting large sectors of
Palestinian society on the other seemed to serve as a
metaphor reflecting the vast gap between the high
expectations raised and bleak political realities on the
ground.

Mohamed Shtayeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council
For Development and Reconstruction (PICDAR), acknowledged:
“Investment in Palestine is unlike investment in any other
country.” “In the US, they say ‘Business as usual’. Here it
is ‘Business as unusual’.”

Shtayeh denied that the conference was an economic bribe
that comes at the expense of Palestinian rights, saying it
“is always better to light a candle than curse darkness.”

Adel Samarah, a leftist Palestinian economist, disagreed.
“This is not a matter of lighting candles or cursing
darkness. Talking this way is poetry, literature and
emotions, not economics. During the Oslo era they told us
that Gaza would become the Singapore of the Middle East and
the West Bank would become like Hong Kong. What actually
happened is that Gaza became a concentration camp and the
West Bank sank deeper and deeper in the quagmire of the
occupation,” he said.

Samarah lashed out at the PA, calling PA leaders and
officials “a gang of money-grabbing careerists who are
sacrificing Palestinian national interests for the sake of
their immediate financial interests.” Samarah further
accused the PA of “pimping Arab investors to normalise with
Israel while Israel is decapitating Palestine and its
people.”

“This is a disgraceful economic normalisation between the
Arab states and Israel and it is happening at the expense
of the Palestinian national cause. They are simply trying
to reproduce the Oslo- era illusions,” Samarah added.

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