White House senior advisor Jared Kushner arrives to join  President Donald Trump and the US delegation to meet with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh in May 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner arrives to join President Donald Trump and the US delegation to meet with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh in May 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s US$50 billion “Peace to Prosperity” Middle East peace plan appears to be an unwitting appropriation of the late American civil-rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s vision for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence.

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The genesis of King’s vision – only by addressing the Arab world’s poverty and social inequity through economic development can Jews and Palestinians live peaceably in a two-state solution – fortuitously came about after he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, both fell ill in East Jerusalem in the spring of 1959, necessitating an emergency house call by Armenian-Palestinian medical doctor Vicken V Kalbian.

When asked recently by this reporter about the similarity between “Peace to Prosperity” and King’s Middle East peace plan, Kushner said he was totally unaware of any similarities.

Dr Kalbian, who now lives in Winchester, Virginia, after emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s and will celebrate his 94th birthday next month, said King had never visited Palestine nor spoken with Palestinians before falling sick at the East Jerusalem YMCA.

After Kalbian treated the civil-rights leader and his wife, King asked him to stay and talk about Palestine and Palestinians, as he had only spoken with Israelis during his past visit to the Holy Land.  Kalbian said King asked him to arrange a meeting with other Palestinian representatives, and Kalbian immediately set up a dinner at the National Hotel in East Jerusalem, which was then under Jordanian rule.

It was at this dinner with Palestinian notables such as East Jerusalem mayor Ruhi al-Khatib, Filastin newspaper editor/publisher Raja El-Issa, Birzeit University co-founder Musa Nasir and Transjordanian statesman Anwar Nusseibeh that King garnered first-hand knowledge of the fate of the Palestinians and and the condition of the wider Arab world.

King’s “Arab prosperity for peace” vision – much based on the economic inequities faced by blacks in inner-city and rural America – was also influenced by Pope John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris” conference in New York and a proposal by Gordon Clapp, a New York City deputy administrator and UN official, Randolph-Macon College historian Michael R Fischbach said.

“Whatever he may have thought about the intricacies of the Arab-Israel conflict, King clearly believed that Israel had a right to exist as a state,” writes Fischbach in his book Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color, adding: “King therefore chose to balance his public assertion of Israel’s right to exist with an indirect acknowledgement of the Arab point of view – but in economic, not political terms. He chose to speak out about how poverty and the lack of economic development in the Arab world kept the pot of violence and war boiling, and he eschewed any overt discussion of the political bases of Arab grievances.”

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In fact, Kushner’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan with its pledged $50 billion investment fund for the West Bank, Gaza and areas inhabited by Palestinian refugees could go a long way to rectifying the fatal flaws of the 1995 Oslo Accords shepherded by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan.

While Rabin, Hussein and Arafat strove for political, diplomatic and military solutions during the Oslo peace talks, they completely ignored the precipitous decline in Palestinian economic well-being and living standards. In fact, Palestinians their economy decline during the Oslo talks as Arafat demanded economic “self-sufficiency” for Palestinians while Rabin and King Hussein focused on land-for-peace, right-of-return and security issues rather than the macroeconomic realities facing individual Palestinians and their families.

Today, the economic situation of the Palestinian territories, exacerbated by the walling of the West Bank and Gaza and severe restrictions on the movement of goods and people, is worse than it has been in decades.

The stark difference between booming Tel Aviv and the economically depressed West Bank could not be greater, or in fact, more troubling. In what should be a vibrant economic area, Bethlehem is marked by closed factories and countless unemployed, while Tel Aviv residents bitterly complain they can no longer  live in Israel’s financial capital as real estate now costs two to three times that of Manhattan and salaries are one-third those of New Yorkers.

Kushner’s unwitting adaptation of King’s peace plan – with its multibillion-dollar investment fund including contributions from the sovereign wealth funds of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, led by US Fortune 100 companies – could overnight create a new atmosphere of goodwill wholly independent of vagaries of politicians in Washington, Israel or the Arab world as hundreds of thousands of new private-sector jobs create an independent and prosperous Palestinian middle class.

No matter how he stumbled on Dr King’s peace plan, Kushner’s plan would economically empower Palestinians as business equals to their Israeli cousins, and subsequently as political equals.

Kushner may even want to rejig the name of the White House’s peace plan from “Peace to Prosperity” to “Prosperity to Peace.”

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