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Kerry announces $4b investment plan for the West Bank

Israeli President Shimon Peres (from left), US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shook hands during the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan.

Palestinian Authority/EPA

Israeli President Shimon Peres (from left), US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shook hands during the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan.

DEAD SEA, Jordan — In an effort to revive the moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a plan Sunday to invest as much as $4 billion to develop the economy of the West Bank.

Sketching out a vision of a transformed Middle East, Kerry said that an infusion of what is expected to be mainly private sector investment could boost the gross domestic product of the West Bank by 50 percent over three years and slash unemployment, which now hovers around 21 percent, by two-thirds.

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In highlighting the plan at a conference here of the World Economic Forum, Kerry’s goal was to spur Israel and the Palestinians to begin talks on a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement amid concerns that the window for initiating negotiations may begin to close.

“Negotiations can’t succeed if you don’t negotiate,” Kerry said. “We are reaching a critical point.”

Kerry said that the investments under the plan would be made in the areas of tourism, light manufacturing, agriculture, construction, energy and technology. The idea would be to give the Palestinians an incentive to negotiate and to assure a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be viable.

Neither Kerry nor his aides provided any details, such as what specific projects were envisioned, who might invest and what modifications might be required in Israeli restrictions on the West Bank for it to work.

Reporters traveling with Kerry were told to direct their questions to the “quartet,” a Middle East peacemaking group whose experts devised much of the plan. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain serves as the Middle East envoy for the group, which is made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

A statement issued Sunday night by Blair’s office said that the economic initiative was intended to run in parallel with the political process and not replace it. Officials from the quartet are still in the process of consulting experts on the Palestinian economy and will provide details about specific projects “in due course.”

As Kerry has tried to set the stage for negotiations, Palestinian officials said he had asked them to hold off on seeking membership in international forums to underscore their claim to statehood, which they said they will only do until June 7. The Israeli government, meanwhile, has quietly refrained from issuing bids for construction in West Bank settlements or from announcing major building projects.

“Time is not on anyone’s side in this,” Kerry said. “And changes on the ground could rob all of us of the possibilities of peace.”

After his speech, Kerry went to a private dinner at which his economic initiative seemed sure to be discussed. The guests included Blair; Tim Collins, a wealthy financier whom State Department officials have described as one of the advocates of the initiative, and the foreign ministers from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

Kerry has noted that there are skeptics about the peace process in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps, some of which was evident at the conference on Sunday. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, praised the business initiative while also noting that Palestinian youth had “started to lose their confidence in the two-state solution because what they see on the ground makes them truly have no hope.”

In a forceful and at times angry speech, Abbas assailed Israel for failing to release Palestinian prisoners as outlined in previous agreements and for refusing to discuss the issue of Palestinian refugees outside of negotiations.

President Shimon Peres of Israel, whose own speech to the meeting was largely a lofty discussion of the yearnings of a young generation, pleaded with Abbas to save such issues for the negotiating table.

“When I listen to the arguments on both sides, I could say, ‘Well, nothing can happen,’” Peres said, diverging from his prepared text to address his counterpart directly.

“All these differences, they are deep, they are moving, they are important,” Peres said to Abbas. “All of this should be really done around the table. Let’s sit together — you’ll be surprised how much can be achieved in open and direct and organized meetings.”

For all of those soothing words, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, has questioned Peres’ ability to forge peace, noting his largely ceremonial role.

“The only one who needs to be convinced, and I urge Mr. Peres to exert every possible effort to convince him, is the prime minister of Israel saying he accepts two states on 1967,” Erekat told reporters here Sunday. “He needs to say it.”

Before Kerry’s speech, a group of Israeli and Palestinian business moguls gave their own impassioned call for a return to negotiations, saying that the “the status quo, fraught with shattered hopes, is unsustainable and dangerous.”

The group, “Breaking the Impasse,” has met more than 20 times over the past year and includes some 300 executives of high-technology, construction, beverage and insurance companies as well as banks and many Palestinian investors from abroad. Representatives of the group said they met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Thursday and have also met with Abbas. Leaders of the group said at a news conference they would leave the specifics of how to resolve the conflict to the politicians.

But Munib R. Masri, the Palestinian billionaire who is one of the leaders of the effort, later told the conference that the two states should be drawn along the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital — the standard line of the Palestinian leadership and a position Netanyahu was sure to reject.

“They call us the silent majority,” Masri, chairman of the Palestine Development and Investment Corp., had said at the news conference earlier. “We are not silent anymore. We are going to say our opinion in order to have a better life, for us and for our grandchildren in the future.”

Yossi Vardi, a venture capitalist who is considered a godfather of Israel’s famous high-tech sector, said with emotion that he had lived most of his 70 years “in the shadow of this conflict,” and warned, “The biggest risk is that we begin to treat it like a chronic disease, we begin to lose hope that it can be solved, though everybody agrees that it should be solved.”

“Enough is enough, too much tears were shed by mothers,” Vardi told reporters. “You may call us naïve, you may ask us what is new, you may have lost hope. But we are cursed, we are going to continue to pursue it.”

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