Biden’s promises to Palestinians unlikely to help foster peace

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During a speech in East Jerusalem this month, President Biden acknowledged that peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems further away than ever. Instead of pushing the peace process, Biden offered economic aid and 4G access to the Palestinians. He also urged Israel to lift restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank.

With no prospect of a meaningful peace negotiation on the horizon, these actions aim to improve the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the hope that improving economic conditions will inspire them to abandon nationalist grievances. and adopting unattractive compromises. This American strategy of hoping that economic improvement can both replace and simultaneously promote political reconciliation between Jews and Arabs is not a new approach. In fact, the Americans have been trying this approach in the region for almost 100 years – with little success. And history indicates that while Biden’s proposals may marginally improve the lives of Palestinians, they will not lead to real rapprochement or peace.

In 1926, some of America’s most prominent Jewish leaders, including prominent banker Felix Warburg, future New York Governor and U.S. Senator Herbert Lehman, civil rights attorney Louis Marshall, and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis ( Brandeis’ role remained unofficial for political reasons) co-founded a society to promote economic development in what was then British-controlled Palestine. The Palestine Economic Corporation (PEC) was a for-profit organization designed to use capitalist investment and development practices to “modernize” Palestine, making it more suitable for Jewish settlement. Despite the mission to encourage Jewish settlement, the organization’s leaders insisted that they operated on a “strictly commercial basis” and that their work in Palestine had nothing to do with politics or even the Zionism, to which some of them were openly agnostic. , even hostile.

While there are reasons to be skeptical of this claim, historical records indicate that the leaders of the PEC were sincere – even naïve – in believing in the potential of apolitical capitalist development. Their main concern was to find a home for Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe (in 1926 mainly from Eastern Europe, but soon from Germany as well) who were mostly barred from entering the United States due to immigration restrictions. Despite a Jewish population of only around 100,000, Palestine seemed to be the most promising destination for these refugees. However, the influx of tens of thousands of new immigrants in 1925 and 1926 strained the economy and forced a dramatic reduction in immigration levels, a problem that PEC leaders hoped capital and Western expertise could solve.

Initially, the PEC, like so many Western organizations, almost entirely ignored the Arab population. On the rare occasions that society leaders have discussed the Arab presence in Palestine, they have expressed fear of Arab economic competition or concern about the negative impact of Arab culture on Jewish settlers.

However, this pattern changed dramatically in August 1929 with the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence. PEC leaders no longer thought they could ignore Arab grievances over Jewish colonization, but as an organization that vigorously pursued what it saw as an apolitical agenda, they had limited options on how to respond. .

PEC leaders decided to offer limited loans and technical expertise to Arab farmers and cooperatives. They believed that this work could bring Jews and Arabs together. Essentially, they hoped that by improving their economic lot, the Arabs would view the Jewish presence in Palestine not as a threat, but as a benefit, as they would value Jewish support to bring the benefits of modernization.

Yet, while the PEC devoted much time and energy to researching how to help the Arab population, its record was far from impressive. Although the company may have made a few loans through subsidiaries (the historical record is murky), it appears that between 1929 and 1936 the PEC itself made only one loan of $300 to Arab farmers.

The PEC’s efforts fell flat because its leaders lacked a serious commitment to the Arab economic improvement project; some of them were even hostile to the idea of ​​granting what they called “Arab loans”. Even this limited engagement faded when a semblance of peace returned to Palestine in the years following the 1929 conflicts. Some who had previously been supportive turned their attention to other possibilities. Warburg, for example, became increasingly interested in a plan to transfer the Arab population of Palestine to what was then Transjordan.

Although the PEC had continued its flirtation with lending to Arabs, it lacked the knowledge, networks and resources to offer meaningful assistance. Early in the process of reviewing Arab loans, PEC leaders realized they lacked personnel capable of assessing Arab farming or business practices. In fact, the PEC believed that its council of experts in Palestine (which appears to have had no Arab members) would be so hostile to the idea of ​​working with Arabs that it chose to keep the plan secret from them. This, combined with damaging fears that Arabs were inherently lacking in economic acumen, meant that the PEC assumed that Arabs would have a much higher default rate than Jews.

This perception was important because while profit had never been the primary motive for the PEC, support for Jewish settlement had generated consistent profit for investors. While the PEC leaders theoretically wanted to offer capital to Arab industries in Palestine, they did not think it was a cause worth losing money.

Finally, and most importantly, the very premise of the PEC approach was flawed. From the earliest days of Zionism, the Arabs of Palestine feared being locked into permanent subordination to the Jewish population. This included fears of Jewish economic domination. Some of the earliest Arab protests against Zionism were economically linked, notably the demonstrations in Jaffa in 1923 against the concession of electrification to a Zionist. This fear of economic domination was intrinsically linked to the political grievances of the Arab population that the Jewish newcomers ultimately held more power than the native Arabs.

Attempts like those of the PEC to separate the “political” from the economic did not address how political and economic power were intertwined – or that meager economic improvements would not assuage political grievances. systemic.

Even a century later, American leaders have never fully grasped this reality, which has doomed repeated efforts to use economic improvement to help bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

In 2010, for example, construction began on Rawabia West Bank city financed by private investment and designed to be the Palestinian “Silicon Valley”. dovish american backers touted the city as a model project because economic breakthroughs would herald a new era of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, however, Rawabi has only one a few thousand residences, and hardly anyone continues to tout it as promising for the future. Rawabi’s success was doomed from the outset by several factors, such as: a lack of continued support from the West, the weakness of the existing debt and mortgage economic systems, opposition from many Palestinians who believed the project normalized relations with Israel, and most importantly, Israeli actions to delay the mining project political concessions of the Palestinian Authority.

So why does the push continue for these types of economic projects that produce little results, including Biden’s new 4G plan? Again, the PEC provides historical clues. In 1936 he submitted a report to the commission to investigate the future of the British Mandate in the region. Although the PEC offered almost no support to the Arab population, the report mentioned Arabs nearly 20 times and claimed that the society’s work had benefited both Jews and Arabs – boosting friendships and bonds. between the two groups. Like Biden, the PEC understood that no matter how successful, these economic improvement efforts made great public relations.

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