Petra Marquardt-Bigman
The Guardian
October 16, 2008 - 8:00pm

With the potential repercussions of the global financial crisis still hard to imagine, Middle East commentators have begun to wonder how the economic turmoil will affect the region and particularly the chances to achieve success in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and Syria. Unsurprisingly, the outlook seems gloomy: it isn't just that the money needed to bolster any peace agreement will probably be much more difficult to raise, but there is also the concern that politicians preoccupied with urgent economic problems will have little time and energy left to focus on the pursuit of peace.

Against this backdrop, the idealistic view that peace is priceless is already beginning to look like a luxury, because realistically, peace won't come cheap. As Herb Keinon put it bluntly in the Jerusalem Post:

The disappearance of trillions of dollars worldwide will … make it difficult for the international community to pay for an Israeli-Palestinian, or Israeli-Syrian, agreement, even if they miraculously appear. Who would pay for the tens of billions of dollars worth of new early-warning systems Israel would have to set up following deep withdrawals from the West Bank and Jordan Valley, or a complete withdrawal … from the Golan Heights? Who would pay compensation to Palestinian refugees if an agreement were reached that would deny them a "right of return" to pre-1967 Israel, but would recognise their right to compensation? Who would pay for the Palestinian security services or fund the infrastructure if a Palestinian state were agreed upon?

But while there is widespread pessimism about the impact of the current financial crisis on the Middle East peace process, the tendency to focus now on the costs of peace could all too easily result in a miscalculation, because the status quo also comes with a price tag attached. Earlier this month, Israeli prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni argued in her first foreign policy speech since her appointment to form a new government that Israel must press ahead with peace talks because "doing nothing has its own price". The "price" Livni had in mind was primarily a political one, namely a strengthening of extremist forces in the region; yet, such a development could obviously also entail a very real price tag in terms of defense spending.

As expensive as peace may seem in the current economic crisis, it is hard to believe that giving up on the peace process now could turn out to be somehow more "affordable". While the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations initiated almost a year ago in Annapolis have not yet produced any tangible results and expectations for a breakthrough by the end of this year are very low, there have been some positive developments away from the limelight. Some of these developments were highlighted by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at the Palestinian Business and Investment Forum in Washington on Tuesday. The meeting was organised by the US-Palestinian Partnership, which was established in the wake of last year's Annapolis meeting to stimulate investment and promote economic development in the West Bank. It is easy to belittle such initiatives as a mere palliative, since the large-scale economic development needed in the Palestinian territories will continue to depend on the progress made in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; at the same time, it is clear that risking the momentum that has been created would be costly in more than one sense.

Unfortunately, given the current economic turmoil, concerns that the peace process may falter due to a lack of funding and a lack of the necessary sense of urgency and engagement seem all too justified. But perhaps this is also a good moment to draw attention to the plans of a billionaire who has decided to dedicate himself to "the business of peace". According to a Ha'aretz report from August, Daniel Abraham has "a practical, financial proposal for solving the Palestinian refugee problem – an offer even Benjamin Netanyahu would have trouble refusing". Abraham's plan is apparently still a tightly-guarded secret, and one can only hope that it has not been rendered impractical by the recent developments in the global financial markets. But in any case, even a pricey peace must seem like a real bargain compared to the almost unlimited resources that are so often required to wage war.


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