Middle East

How Trump Can Have an Impact in the Holy Land

A visit to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi would send a positive message to all sides.

Gleaming, new city on a hill.

Photographer: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

In planning for President Donald Trump's first trip abroad White House, staffers will be looking for images and achievements that will reinforce the president’s agenda, appeal to him personally, and present him to the world as a global statesman. While in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on May 22-23, there is an easy stop he should make to accomplish all three goals: President Trump should visit Rawabi.

Rawabi is the first new, entirely planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, long heralded as the advent of the Palestinian economic future. Located on a picturesque hillside 10 kilometers north of Ramallah, it is now at a sufficiently advanced stage of development for Palestinian families to begin to move in. Hundreds already have, with more purchasing apartments each day. It could eventually support up to 40,000 residents.

Heavily subsidized by Palestinian developer Bashar Masri and his main financial backer, the government of Qatar, these housing units represents something unavailable to Palestinians anywhere else: brand new high-end apartments at affordable prices. The new city boasts amenities like parks and playgrounds, and top-notch municipal services and unheard of recreation facilities for Palestinians, including a 15,000-seat amphitheater, horseback riding, all-terrain vehicles, and a zip line. Quality schools, shopping, restaurants, a large central mosque and a church are on the way.

Rawabi is important not only for what it is, but what it represents: an alternative Palestinian future. Palestinians who have been stuck for generations in refugee camps or dilapidated cities with old-economy industries and poor prospects for expansion are stunned at the quality of life available to them. Quite a few first-time visitors sign mortgages at the bank branches located on site. Some foresee commuting to jobs in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, others anticipate working in the high-tech companies -- Israeli, Palestinian and multinational (many with Israeli branches) -- that Masri is working hard to attract, and which will be critical to the project’s success. 

Others come to Rawabi as an entertainment destination. Rawabi has even become attractive to wealthy overseas Palestinians and Arab Israelis, who want to maintain a residence in the West Bank for visits and vacations, a phenomenon Masri welcomes, but in moderation to avoid the city becoming a ghost-town with no tax base.

What would Trump get out of a visit? Since taking office, he has surprised observers throughout the region by his devotion to pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace. As part of that effort, he has emphasized the need to improve Palestinian economic conditions, as his envoy, Jason Greenblatt, did at a donors’ conference last week in Brussels. No site provides greater testament to the improved quality of life available to Palestinians than Rawabi. As Masri emphasizes, if Rawabi succeeds it could be replicated four or five times elsewhere in the West Bank.

But its success has not been assured, and here Trump could also make a difference. The project has been slowed by Israeli security, bureaucratic and political obstacles. While formally supporting its progress, Israel spent years delaying development of the city by failing to approve a critical access road which passes through Israeli-controlled space. At a key moment, the project nearly failed because Israel refused to provide a steady water supply unless it could also provide water to Israeli settlements. Both challenges have been resolved, but similar problems could arise, stoked by Israeli politicians opposed to a Palestinian state. 

Palestinian political leaders, meanwhile, have been apathetic at best toward the project. Rawabi suffers from a uniquely Palestinian insult -- that it “beautifies the occupation.” The idea that economic development could be used to actually retard rather than advance progress toward statehood runs deep in Palestinian society. The PA’s attitude is changing, however, as a recent visit from Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and discussions about the PA taking over the provision of key services attest. Finally, further Qatari financing is needed to see the project through to completion, and to attract additional investment for similar projects.

By associating himself with Rawabi’s future, Trump can instantly incentivize Israeli, Palestinian and Gulf leaders to ensure its success; none will want to be blamed for the failure of a project with Trump’s stamp of approval. He should tie his support for Rawabi to a vision of a future that serves the peace and prosperity of both peoples in a two-state solution.

It's hard to find better optics too. Only a short helicopter ride from Jerusalem or Bethlehem, Rawabi's grand scale will appeal to Trump the real estate developer. He and Masri, a smooth and successful Palestinian developer who eschews boycotts of Israel, will no doubt hit it off.

President Trump, if you want to leave a positive legacy for Israelis and Palestinians on your first visit to the region, come to Rawabi.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Shapiro at dans@inss.org.il

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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