Israel Takes Steps to Help Palestinian Economy as Trump ArrivesBy and
Package aims to ease border crossing, develop industrial zones
Israel prepares to welcome Trump after two days in Riyadh
Israel passed a series of measures aimed at bolstering the Palestinian economy as a confidence-building gesture before U.S. President Donald Trump arrives and elaborates on his plans for addressing the Middle East conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday with the message that Israel would welcome the American leader “with open arms,” while discussions would focus on strengthening security ties and “how to advance peace,” according to an emailed statement. Trump is coming to Israel Monday after visiting Saudi Arabia, where he signed multi-billion dollar deals in defense, energy and infrastructure, and urged Muslim leaders to combat terrorism.
The government’s policy-making security cabinet approved by a 7-2 vote a package of economic steps designed to ease travel for Palestinians on the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and Jordan, develop two new job-producing industrial zones, and increase the number of building permits issued to Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C, where most of the Jewish settlements are located amid Arab towns and villages.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition government, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, have expressed their concerns that entering new peace talks would force Israel to give up territory and curtail construction in West Bank settlements.
“The Trump administration is focused on materially enhancing the quality of life and the economy for the Palestinians,” Michael Oren, a parliament member who works as an adviser at the prime minister’s office, said in an interview before the security cabinet vote. “They don’t see economic peace as a substitute for real peace, but they see it as setting an agenda that would make conditions conducive toward peace.”
Netanyahu late Sunday kicked off a week of events celebrating Israel’s victory in the 1967 war in which it captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The prime minister lashed out at the unwillingness of most countries, including the U.S. to recognize the city as Israel’s capital. “Fifty years ago, we returned to the heart of our capital and our land,” he said at ceremony. “We didn’t conquer it, we liberated it,” Netanyahu said.
Among those at the speech were Trump’s new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who also attended a party celebrating the Six Day War victory sponsored by Arutz 7, a radio station run by the settler movement. Before his appointment as U.S. envoy, Friedman was the chief fund-raiser for the Beit-El settlement, which neighbors the Palestinian city of Ramallah and headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians were also preparing for Trump’s visit to Bethlehem on Tuesday, where he’s due after meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to greet Trump with a bagpipe-playing color guard and deliver assurances that his people want peace.
With Trump on the way, Palestinian groups across the political spectrum, including members of Abbas’s Fatah party, called for a “Day of Rage” in support of hundreds of prisoners carrying out a hunger strike in Israeli prisons.
Palestinian security officers will be out in force to make sure the president isn’t harmed, Abbas’s office said.
Abbas, known by his nickname Abu Mazen, is ready to return to the negotiating table with Israel, largely because the Gulf Arab states that have supported the Palestinians for seven decades are running out of patience, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
“Abu Mazen has realized that the Arab countries are so tired of this issue and more focused on other problems, like the threat from Iran,” he said. “They’re not willing to wait forever.”
White House Invitation
Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with his Palestinian counterpart Shukri Bishara last week as part of efforts to come up with economic measures aimed at helping the Palestinians.
Trump has cultivated Abbas recently by inviting him to the White House, adding him to the Mideast trip’s itinerary, and playing down early signals that he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, said Nimrod Novik, a longtime strategist for Israeli politicians and corporate executives.
“In the right context, the same deflated and passive Abu Mazen could look like Popeye after he eats the spinach,” said Novik, now Israel fellow for the New York-based Israel Policy Forum.
On the other hand, Trump “may not be willing to spend the amount of political capital needed to get the deal done,” Novik said. “Once he bumps into early difficulties, he may walk away.”
— With assistance by Fadwa Hodali