The Middle East’s Arc of Prosperity

PRINCETON – As Egypt trembles on the brink of civil war, with alarming levels of violence and hardening divisions on all sides, it is hard to find a truly bright spot anywhere in the Middle East or North Africa. Syria’s agony continues unabated; sectarian attacks in Iraq are becoming more frequent and deadly; the threads of Lebanon’s fragile peace are fraying; Jordan is awash in refugees; Libya’s militias are running rampant and distorting its politics; Tunisia faces political crisis; and Turkey’s star as the embodiment of Islamic democracy has dimmed.

Yet even with this litany of problems, US Secretary of State John Kerry has decided to focus on Israel and Palestine. His justification – “if not now, never” – is almost certainly true. But there is another, equally strong (albeit often overlooked) rationale: the tremendous potential for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian economic zone that would drive the entire region’s growth and development.

In the immortal words of James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The dismal failure of Middle Eastern and North African economies to deliver the prosperity that their people desperately want is a constant factor pushing people into the streets. It is not the only factor, but rising food prices helped to spread revolutionary fervor from a small group of activists to much of Egypt’s population in 2011, and again this year in June, when the most frequent grievance against former President Mohamed Morsi concerned not his ideology but his indifference to ordinary Egyptians’ needs.

Against this backdrop, Israel and the Palestinian territories are relatively stable places. Israel’s high-quality infrastructure could easily be extended to the West Bank and Gaza if security could be assured, and a young generation of entrepreneurs and technologists has grown up on both sides of the border. Forbes magazine reports that “hundreds of Israeli[s] and Palestinians are becoming actual business partners and colleagues in startups that are slowly transforming the Palestinian economy, at least in the West Bank.”