September 19, 2019

Report From the Peace to Prosperity Workshop

Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner speaks outside the West Wing of the White House on July 24. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

I have read much about the Peace to Prosperity Workshop in Bahrain, and the economic plan that Jared Kushner, senior adviser to President Donald Trump, presented at that workshop. Most of what I have read or heard is far different from what I witnessed in Bahrain.

I attended the entire workshop, read the plan and moderated a panel on “Unleashing Economic Potential” of the West Bank, Gaza and the surrounding region. Clearly, if the Peace to Prosperity Plan is successful, it will transform the region, improve millions of lives and bring peace to the people who live in the region. I don’t understand why so many are unfairly attacking a plan that was so well received at the workshop and that the White House appears so committed to making work.

Kushner opened the workshop with a very focused and thorough presentation of the plan and its goals. The plan addresses in great detail exactly how the money would be invested, where it would be invested (the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan — a truly regional plan) and the measurable outcomes to be expected from the plan. The plan is based on extensive research and an attempt to learn from past efforts that have and haven’t been successful in this region and elsewhere. For example, the plan states that it is based on the study of business-friendly countries that had built modern economies with an emphasis on investment-led growth such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan; models used by Germany and Sweden to train, develop and employ men and women as business and civic leaders; countries that had used strategic locations to flourish as regional financial hubs such as Dubai and Singapore; and lessons from Poland from the 1990s and, more recently, Egypt and Tunisia, where enterprise funds have had proven success promoting growth by using public sector seed money for investment funds targeting private equity and credit.

If the Peace to Prosperity Plan is successful, it will transform the region, improve millions of lives and bring peace to the people who live in the region.

Kushner’s presentation was followed a discussion titled “The Time is Now: Building a Coalition for Middle East Prosperity” featuring Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of New York-based investment firm Blackstone, and Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of United Arab Emirates-based Emaar Properties PJSC. Schwarzman and Alabbar could not have been more positive or optimistic about the plan and its goals. This environment of optimism and goodwill continued with every panel throughout the workshop and in the conversations during lunch and in the hallways.

The final session was a discussion lead by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with his colleagues from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, again emphasizing support of the plan as a regional strategy with a key element being private-sector investment and a business climate that will encourage such investment.

In between, attendees heard from the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the president of the World Bank, the chairman and CEO of AT&T, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many other experienced business leaders and government officials from various countries. Participants at the workshop included a number of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen.

I had the privilege of moderating the panel titled “Unleashing Economic Potential” with Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and who is poised to become the next president of the European Central Bank; Mohammed Al-Sheikh, minister of state, member of the Council of Ministers and member of the Council of Economic Development Affairs for Saudi Arabia, who also during his career worked at the World Bank; Tony Elumelu, an experienced and accomplished investor and banker from Nigeria and founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation; and Willem Buiter, special economic adviser to Citigroup, former chief economist at Citigroup, as well as an experienced economist with expertise in finance and political economy. Each of the panelists made it clear that the plan had the proper focus to provide adequate capacity building, as well as policy initiatives to provide a reliable rule of law and property rights where there could be a free flow of investment, people and materials.

An environment of optimism and goodwill continued with every panel throughout the workshop and in the conversations during lunch and in the hallways.

The panelists discussed successes and failures that they had seen in their own and other countries. The plan provides for infrastructure development in the areas of transportation, water, health and education. One of the most valuable resources of the area is a highly intelligent, young work force. It was pointed out that in the 1990s, a similar effort to provide economic opportunity in the region did prove successful without private investment; and if there were successes 25 years ago with little private investment before a fading hope for peace, the plan could be and should be successful now with far broader participation as long as the people of the region feel included, respected and that there is a real hope of a meaningful future with peace, dignity and prosperity. This will require goodwill by all involved including private, public, international organizations, the parties on the ground and their neighbors.

I left the workshop with far more optimism than I had when I arrived. I commented that the plan and the remarks by so many of the panelists prompted me to recall the teachings of my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z”l), who used to talk about “is” and “ought.” He would say “is” faces me toward the present, “ought” turns me toward the future. “Ought” challenges my creative imagination, opens me to the realm of possibilities and to responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dreams. Without “is,” the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. “Ought” demands not only knowledge of history, but of exciting expectation. “Is” is a being; “ought” is a becoming.

The Peace to Prosperity Plan is all about moving from what “is” to what “ought” to be. With bold leadership and a will to succeed, the plan has a chance and would forever transform that region. I wish more of the commentators could focus less on what has been and more on what could be. I see no downside and tremendous upside in supporting the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Plan. I commend Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative on international negotiations, on the thought and effort behind this plan, and remain hopeful that this plan can be successful, where other attempts haven’t been.

Richard Sandler was the previous chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America and past chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.