Was Blair’s “sweatshops for Palestine” agenda shaped by a Labour donor?

Tony Blair attending a World Economic Forum event in 2011. (World Economic Forum/Flickr)

It is eerily apt that the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum coincides with Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president.

The business leaders and their political lackeys who huddle together in Davos, Switzerland each January write and then dispense prescriptions that have caused inequality levels to soar. Eight men possess as much wealth as the poorer half of the globe’s population, according to a new analysis by Oxfam.

Trump’s ascent can be directly attributed to the disillusionment that ensues when the wealth gap widens – notwithstanding the irony that Trump epitomises the super-rich and all its vulgarity.

The establishment figures against which Trump pitted himself were very much identified with what the writer and activist Susan George has dubbed the “Davos class.” Trump’s campaign team even zoomed in on comments made by Hillary Clinton at the forum when ranting against trade policies that her husband implemented and that she had favored. (Bill Clinton became the first sitting US president to attend the Davos jamboree in 2000 and has been a frequent participant since then.)

Palestine has not been spared from the World Economic Forum’s activities.

Conflict of interests?

In 2012, the forum established an initiative called Breaking the Impasse. Its ostensible goal was to hook up Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs with major corporations so that they could discuss how to prime-pump the economy of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Responsibility for a follow-on initiative was given to Tony Blair the next year. Blair was supposed to represent the Middle East Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – at that time.

Yet he was given this responsibility by the most powerful of those four players – the US; Blair’s assignment was announced by John Kerry, then secretary of state.

Blair, in turn, appears to have recommended to Kerry that Kito de Boer, a director of the consulting firm McKinsey, should steward the whole scheme. The recommendation raises ethical questions, which have not been previously scrutinized.

Before being recommended by Blair, de Boer had worked on a project about private sector investment in Palestine run by the Portland Trust, a London-based organization. Portland is headed by Ronald Cohen, a venture capitalist who had been a major donor to Britain’s Labour Party when Blair was its leader.

In an interview published by the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) – a corporate club – de Boer said that Blair “knew of the work” he had undertaken for Portland. De Boer was “approached” when Kerry asked Blair “for an economic strategy for rebuilding the Palestinian economy,” according to that interview.

Those comments indicate that Blair’s work for the quartet was influenced by Ronald Cohen.

Cohen had been a Labour donor when Blair was the party’s boss (and prime minister). So Blair has, to put it mildly, some explaining to do here.

Was de Boer headhunted by Blair based on Cohen’s advice? If so, is this a case of jobs for the boys? Is there a conflict of interests?

I contacted de Boer, enquiring if Cohen had introduced him to Blair. I also enquired if he was aware that Cohen had helped bankroll Labour when Blair was in Downing Street.

De Boer sent me a convoluted reply, which did not answer those questions directly. He did, however, confirm that Blair had been aware of his work for Cohen.

He confirmed, too, that Blair had “steered” Kerry to McKinsey when the secretary of state wished to have a blueprint for the Palestinian economy drawn up. “I also led that work,” he stated.

Neither Blair nor Cohen replied to requests for comment.

Exploitation

The blueprint which de Boer was tasked with drawing up was titled the “Initiative for the Palestinian Economy” and published in 2014. De Boer has confirmed that he was appointed by Kerry to oversee the blueprint’s implementation that same year.

One proposal made by de Boer’s team was that industrial estates in the areas nominally under Palestinian Authority control should be designated as “special economic zones.”

The “special” ingredients of this recipe have not been spelled out in detail. But there is enough evidence from how “special economic zones” have functioned elsewhere to regard the proposal as highly problematic.

“Special economic zone” is a euphemism for a sweatshop. Generally, such a designation allows companies within the zones to pay lower wages and less taxes than those applying in the wider economy.

A de facto ban on trade union activism, for example, has been introduced in Cambodia’s “special economic zones,” according to a 2016 investigation by the magazine In These Times.

Put simply, de Boer’s blueprint would, if put into practice, potentially enable corporations to reap vast profits, while paying no more than a pittance to Palestinian workers. It should really be called the “sweatshops for Palestine” initiative.

Blair stepped down as the Quartet’s representative in 2015. But the operation he led in Jerusalem is still in place.

When Blair resigned, de Boer took over as head of the office. Because Blair has not been replaced, that means de Boer is now running the show, although he told me: “I am not the [Quartet] representative because I am not a politician.”

De Boer is still intent on putting his plan into practice and has assembled an outfit named Shurook for that purpose.

“Our mandate is economic not political,” de Boer stated.

Who does he think he is kidding? A plan to increase exploitation of workers in an area subject to a brutal military occupation is inherently political – and extremely dangerous.

It is the kind of plan likely to win approval within the Davos bubble and inflict great harm in the real world.

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Comments

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I think the reason de Boer replied to you was because, like most people, he has no idea who you are or what the ei is. if he did, I am sure he would have ignored your inquiries.

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Putting aside the issue of sweatshops in "special economic zones", has there actually been any inward investment arising from this work?

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David Cronin

David Cronin's picture

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada. His latest book is Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto, 2013). His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto, 2011).