The White House released on June 22 the first half of its long-awaited Middle East peace plan, the so-called deal of the century, which President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and other members of the administration had reportedly been working on since November 2017. Of the $50 billion in the economic portion of the plan, the lion’s share would be invested in the Palestinian territories over the course of 10 years, while the rest would be given to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Kushner presented the plan at a workshop in Manama, Bahrain, on June 25-26, and ruled out any political discussions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until the political portion of the plan is released in the fall of this year.
Palestinian leaders had already stated they would be boycotting the workshop in May, and Lebanon joined them by declining its own invitation to Manama. The Lebanese and Palestinian Working Groups on Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon both roundly rejected the deal June 25, and the next day, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri did the same in Lebanon’s parliament.
While certain analysts state that the economic benefits of the deal could conceivably be a boon for Lebanon, they and government officials maintain that the deal ignores several key factors related to internal politics in Lebanon, and fails to consider its relationship to the surrounding region and its stance on Palestinian refugees. In addition, it overlaps considerably with existing pledges from the international community that come with less baggage for Lebanon, and does not offer sufficient concessions in exchange for the costly demographic changes that politicians fear the political portion of the deal could require.
Lebanon would receive $6 billion under the proposed plan, the smallest amount out of any of the potential recipient countries. According to the plan, these funds would be geared primarily toward connecting Lebanon with Gaza and the West Bank and other parts of the region, and would allegedly boost its transportation infrastructure, trade network and tourism sector in hopes of jump-starting the Palestinian territories’ economic output.
Yet with the political portion of the plan still officially under wraps, Lebanese leaders and members of the public have voiced fears that the Kushner deal would require Lebanon to naturalize the country’s estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees — something that Kushner himself reportedly hinted at during a conference call on Jul. 3 with Arab media.
“I also think that the Palestinian refugees who are in Lebanon, who are denied a lot of rights and don’t have the best conditions right now, would also like to see a situation where there is a pathway for them to have more rights and to live a better life,” Kushner was quoted as saying.
In a country with a delicate sectarian balance, where Palestinian militias have played a major role in fomenting conflict during the Lebanese Civil War and in recent years, the absorption of any refugee populations, especially ones that may tip the sectarian scales in favor of Sunni Muslims and against Christians, is seen as a red line.
“Our constitution is clear and forbids resettlement and emphasizes the right of return,” Hariri stated during a meeting of the Council of Ministers on June 27.
Hasan Mneimneh, the chairman of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, told Al-Monitor that past US statements and actions, including cutting off funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), suggest that Lebanon and other Arab host countries would eventually be asked to absorb their Palestinian refugees. He added that Lebanon remains committed to the two-state solution with other Arab countries and will not accept anything the Palestinians have already rejected.
“We have been asking for land for peace, and land cannot be replaced by development for peace,” Mneimneh said. “Whatever amount of money that will come over the years will go. But the land and the rights of the Palestinian people remain.”
Although Lebanon has staunchly defended the Palestinian right of return for decades, Palestinians in Lebanon live in some of the worst conditions of any Palestinian group outside of Gaza in camps that are often plagued by poverty and violence. Yet Taysir Yassin, a member of the Popular Committee in Mieh Mieh camp, where clashes took place in October 2018, told Al-Monitor that despite the realities of life in Lebanon, he was glad the government had rejected the deal. He was not alone — Palestinians across Lebanon’s camps have expressed opposition to the Kushner plan, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas thanked Hariri for his support for Palestinians on July 1.
Trump has taken a number of steps throughout his presidency that boosted Israel’s position at the expense of long-held Palestinian interests. These and other moves have convinced Palestinians and Lebanese alike that the Trump administration is not an unbiased actor.
It appears clear that the monetary incentives Kushner and Trump have offered have so far been insufficient to assuage such fears in Lebanon, which considers Israel to be its primary state enemy. According to the plan’s details, the majority of the $6 billion Lebanon would receive as part of Kushner’s deal, over $4.6 billion would come from loans, while another $1.25 billion would come from the private sector. This means that the deal would further increase Lebanon’s ballooning debt, and a large part of these funds would come from the business community in the Arab world rather than from the United States itself. In addition, out of the 179 funded economic development projects in the deal, only five would be located in Lebanon.
“Having a fiscal settlement that includes the naturalization of Palestinian refugees should definitely offer a lot more than what the Kushner plan offers,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Al-Monitor. “For quite a while the myth was that Lebanon’s debt would be paid off for naturalizing Palestinian refugees, so it was kind of a disappointment.”
Although some leaks about the peace process had mentioned the possibility of canceling Lebanon’s debt, which has reached 150% of Lebanon’s gross domestic product in 2018, as part of the plan, according to Haaretz, such proposals did not make it into the final economic portion of the plan.
Lebanon has already secured $11 billion in foreign loans in April 2018 as part of the CEDRE conference in Paris, and Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the Kushner plan seems redundant because both plans include investments in infrastructure and implicit incentives to help Lebanon shoulder its refugee populations — CEDRE being relevant primarily to the economic impact of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Unlike the US plan, which would unfold over 10 years, the CEDRE loans will arrive more quickly, and will not require Lebanon to potentially make demographic and geopolitical sacrifices.
Yet Nader claims an economic peace plan could be beneficial for Lebanon, if done right.
“If the minimum political measures are taken in the right direction, I think, yes, Lebanon can benefit from it,” Nader told Al-Monitor. “But you have to get the horses in front of the car, not the other way around. Get the two-state solution adopted, and you can afterward negotiate on the other things.”
Mneimneh said he believes that the US side will continue to exert pressure on Lebanon and other Palestinian host countries to accept the deal. But by and large, given both the Palestinian and Lebanese rejections of the deal and the meager incentives offered to the Lebanese state, it seems that Kushner’s moment in Lebanon has passed. Without a political solution to the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and especially Lebanon’s role in it, economic solutions are unlikely to succeed.