By Arab News
By Ronald S. Lauder*
US President Joe Biden is about to embark on what might be the most important trip of his presidency so far. He will visit the oil-rich Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia, to convey to the Kingdom the fact that it remains a strong ally and that the entire region is still vital to US strategic interests.
I believe this visit presents an even greater opportunity that the President should consider, which could solve one of the longest-running historical conflicts — one that is preventing stronger partnerships and long-term peace in the region. I am referring to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
A growing number of Arab leaders are saying in private that they would very much like to take the same steps toward reconciliation with Israel that we witnessed with the Abraham Accords in 2020, but that they cannot do so until a solution is reached with the Palestinians. One official I met went so far as to say he would be happy if he at least “saw a greater effort on the Israeli side.”
We have also heard public statements of a kind never voiced in the past. In a stunning interview with Al Arabiya in 2020, veteran Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former ambassador to the US, spoke candidly about the mistakes made by Palestinian leaders over the years in failing to accept Israel’s peace proposals.
A recent secret military summit that took place in Egypt between the US Central Command and Israeli and Arab military officials is another indication of the changing attitudes due to the unifying threat from Iran.
It might seem counterintuitive, given the decades of failed peace efforts, but I believe this is exactly the right time to offer the Palestinians a new initiative — one that they cannot turn down. What I am suggesting is a “Marshall Plan” that would offer the next generation of Palestinians a future of wealth, success and self-reliance, rather than the dismal prospects of the past.
The original Marshall Plan, named after US Secretary of State George C. Marshall, formed the basis for rebuilding a shattered Europe after the Second World War and has been used ever since as a model for healing other conflicts. This is because it might have been the most successful foreign policy initiative in history.
It accomplished many things at once. It rebuilt and modernized European industry destroyed during the war and it restored the confidence of an entire, demoralized continent. But its most important benefit was that it helped pacify Europe, which in the space of less than 40 years had endured two world wars that killed more than 100 million human beings.
If peace between the Israelis and Palestinians seems intractable, we should bear in mind that the strong, stable Europe we have known for the past seven decades was never a forgone conclusion after the Second World War.
Just as the Marshall Plan put Europe on a sound financial footing, the Palestinian plan should focus on the creation of small businesses, home building, hotels, restaurants and job creation that would offer a positive future to the next generation.
A fixed sum of money could be given to young entrepreneurs to create new businesses, which would be closely monitored. If they prove to be viable but need a financial boost after a year, another small infusion could be given. In other words, provide Palestinians with all the things that made Israel and other countries financially viable, which would help create a new and successful Palestine.
Within three-to-five years, I believe per capita wealth would double annually. The wealthier a future Palestinian nation becomes, the more likely it is that it could be the viable, successful country it should be — and every country in the region would benefit from this change.
The funding could be shared by the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, including Israel which, along with the Palestinians, would be the chief beneficiary.
Israel is one of the leading high-tech incubators in the world. Younger Palestinians know this and are very interested in being involved in this sector. Palestinian parents would have to decide whether their hatred of Israel is so strong that they would prefer their children to grow up in poverty and die as “martyrs” — or share in a better economic future with their Jewish neighbors and have fuller lives and happier families.
In the past there has not always been adequate accountability in terms of the aid money given to Palestinians. The new plan would have to be closely monitored by an organization that is trusted by all sides, which would keep an eye on where the money goes and how it is used.
Many of the details still have to be worked out, as problems are sure to arise. But issues cropped up with the original Marshall Plan and had to be ironed out as it progressed. Nothing ever runs completely smoothly, especially when dealing with long-standing and visceral hatreds; there was enough animosity between Britain, France and Germany immediately after 1945 to fill volumes. If those countries were able to focus on a brighter, shared future then that is the model we can use today.
The Marshall Plan focused on bridge builders. I know there are bridge builders in the Middle East right now. I have met them. I know they want to move forward.
In the end, the Marshall Plan did not help Europe alone, it helped the entire world. In the same way, a new future for Palestinians and Israelis would have benefits that extend far beyond the immediate region.
President Biden and his team have, with their upcoming visit to the Middle East, a moment in which to create the same kind of opportunity for peace in a troubled region that the Marshall Plan represented 75 years ago. It is a moment that could change the world for the better.
• Ronald S. Lauder is President of the World Jewish Congress.