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The White House has finally announced part one of its long-awaited Middle East peace plan. It is a proposal to invest about $28 billion in the Palestinian economy, a plan for how it could flourish if Palestinians reached a peace deal with Israel. This week, the U.S. is inviting business leaders to a conference in Bahrain to discuss the plan, but most Palestinian business leaders are boycotting the conference, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Ibrahim Barham is the main distributor of Microsoft and HP computer equipment in the West Bank. He reads from an email he received signed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
IBRAHIM BARHAM: (Reading) Dear Mr. Barham, I am pleased to invite you to the Peace to Prosperity workshop.
ESTRIN: The Peace to Prosperity workshop - it's how the White House is billing the Bahrain conference on the economic benefits of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The invitation says the workshop will quote, host, "conversations about how to unleash economic growth for the Palestinians." But this comes after the Trump administration's steps that angered Palestinians - siding with Israel's claims to Jerusalem, cutting aid money to the Palestinians, closing the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington. Barham calls it insulting.
BARHAM: They want to speak about our economy, and on the same time, you are making those decisions.
ESTRIN: So he's not going, and neither are any top Palestinian business leaders. He knows there will be regional executives there to discuss how to invest in the Palestinian economy. He says that misses the point.
BARHAM: Our main problem for us as a Palestinian economy is not resources, is not people, is not investing. You have to ask why the Palestinian economy is suffering.
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ESTRIN: He says the answer lies with Israel. Take his business, for example. Warehouse manager Mohammed Shehab gives a tour.
MOHAMMED SHEHAB: You are looking at printers, HP printers, HP monitors. We have also laptops.
ESTRIN: This is stacked one, two, three, four, five, six rows of laptops.
It can take weeks to get these laptops cleared through Israeli customs and defense officials because of a security protocol that began 19 years ago during a wave of Palestinian attacks. He says he's lost business to his Israeli competitor, who can clear his equipment in just hours.
SHEHAB: As a Palestinian, it's my interest to be 100% comply with the security measurements, but I cannot putting in a position to be what we call it, an unfair competition with Israeli counterpart.
ESTRIN: Israel also restricts dozens of goods to the Palestinian territories like fertilizers and machinery that Israel says can be converted into military purposes. The World Bank, whose president will be at the conference, says Israeli restrictions are the main impediment to Palestinian economic growth. Palestinian American businessman Sam Bahour alleges Israel's motives are political.
SAM BAHOUR: They want to ensure, without a doubt, that Palestine doesn't even have a fighting chance to create an economy that's state worthy. This is part of the political plan of making sure there is no state of Palestine produced.
ESTRIN: Palestinian leaders accuse the U.S. of offering money but dismissing their demands for independence. The White House says it's discussing economics first and will talk politics later. So far, the only Palestinian businessman who publicly says he'll be at the Bahrain conference is one who supports the U.S. approach, car dealer and food importer Ashraf Jabari.
ASHRAF JABARI: (Through interpreter) We have to look for a life of dignity for our children. We can't wait for a political path to lead somewhere because it won't lead to what the Palestinian people want. If the Palestinians have a strong economy, our political leadership will be stronger, not the opposite.
ESTRIN: Jabari is already an outlier in the Palestinian business community for agreeing to work with a joint chamber of commerce with Israeli West Bank settlers. The chamber's Facebook page has a video of U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman praising Jabari and explaining the administration's economics-first approach. He says they can't wait for a political solution.
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DAVID FRIEDMAN: To hold the Palestinian people hostage to a political solution when humanitarian business efforts are right in front of us is a grave mistake, and it's a great disservice to the Palestinian people.
ESTRIN: Some Israelis from the private sector are going to the conference, but Israeli officials are not invited. The White House said it didn't want to politicize the conference by inviting them. Palestinian leaders say politics comes first. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank.
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