Summary: Bahrain workshop on the economic tranche of the deal of the century a near flop. Next stage uncertain.
Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, launched the economic part of the “deal of the century” at a two-day meeting in Bahrain on 25/26 June. The White House published the “economic plan” under a general title “Peace to Prosperity” which includes “three initiatives that will support distinct pillars of the Palestinian society: the economy, the people, and the government…With the potential to facilitate more than $50 billion in new investment over ten years”. A brief summary by Reuters mentions a $5 billion corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza and 179 infrastructure and business projects, with more than half the total spent in the Palestinian territories and the rest in Egypt (including the Sinai Peninsula), Lebanon and Jordan. Kushner said that the US hoped that the wealthy Gulf states, nations in Europe and Asia, and private investors would foot much of the bill. A Bloomberg article behind a pay wall is headed “Mnuchin Says U.S. Wants Countries to Join Its Middle East Plan”.
As had been made clear the meeting did not address the political problem of Palestine (which makes the choice of “Peace to Prosperity” as overall title an odd one), but Kushner told Al Jazeera “I think we all have to recognise that if there ever is a deal, it’s not going to be along the lines of the Arab peace initiative. It will be somewhere between the Arab peace initiative and between the Israeli position.” President Mahmud Abbas said the economic situation should not be discussed before the political one, and there have been numerous Palestinian statements and demonstrations against the
A USAID image of Abu al-Rub and his daughter, taken from the White House website promoting the “Peace to Prosperity” plan (whitehouse.gov)
plan. A Palestinian strawberry farmer whose photograph features in the White House brochure complained that he is insulted and angry because he and his family have been used to promote a “dangerous political project”.
Attendance was thin: the US and Saudi ministers of finance, the UAE minister of state for finance (but not the minister, who is a member of the Dubai ruling family), the foreign minister of Bahrain, ministry of finance officials from Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, some representative from Qatar, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and World Bank president David Malpass. The Israeli government was not invited, nor was Palestine (which had refused in advance, as had Russia), and nor it appears were European and other non-Arab governments which are expected to chip in, although the EU sent an observer and some reports mention low-level officials from EU nations. One of the few to make a significant public statement was Christine Lagarde, who said that peace, stability and trust were essential prerequisites for any economic plan. A few business tycoons were there: Reuters mentions Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group (a friend and supporter of Trump), Emirati real estate billionaire Muhammad al-Abbar, and Haim Taib, Israeli president of British-based Mitrelli. Tony Blair and Gianni Infantino of FIFA were there.
Media comment ranged from cautious to negative. Haaretz points to the billion dollar question “How does the administration think it will get the money?” One report in the Saudi Arab News is headed “Kushner: Door still open to Palestinians despite Bahrain boycott”, another (picking up a comment by Hanan Ashrawi) “Israeli occupation the elephant in the room in Bahrain”. NPR: “U.S. Mideast Plan Rejected By Palestinian Leaders, Panned By Former U.S. Envoys”, (London) Times “Jared Kushner’s peace workshop robs Palestinians of their dream”, Washington Post “Palestinians want freedom, not Trump administration bribes”, Guardian “The US’s Middle East ‘peace summit’ is nonsense. Palestinians are right to boycott it”. Al Jazeera spoke the unspeakable, three things the three architects of the plan Jared Kushner, David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt have in common: they are Orthodox Jews, they have no prior political or diplomatic experience, and they have connections to Israel and specifically to the illegal settlements.
The Egyptian foreign minister said in Moscow on 24 June that Egypt’s participation in the conference did not mean it approved the plan, and that “Cairo would not cede a single grain of Sinai sand, and that the Palestinians would not accept living on land that does not belong to them.” Lebanon has rejected the idea of settling Palestinian refugees permanently in Lebanon, something it has resisted since the Nakba 70 years ago; “Those who think that waving billions of dollars can lure Lebanon… into succumbing or bartering over its principles are mistaken.” King Abdullah II of Jordan had already said in March he rejected the idea of Jordan as an alternative state for Palestinians: “Don’t we have a voice in the end?”
All the Arabs who attended emphasised their continued support for a two state solution and for Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. A number of statements from those not attending the meeting suggest an intention of dissociating the speakers from it without openly snubbing Kushner or Trump. On 25 June the UN secretary general speaking at a pledging conference for UNRWA “underscored the efficiency of UNRWA operations” and said that the international community must “rise to the challenge” so that it could continue (the US recently ceased to contribute to UNRWA). The UK minister of state Andrew Murrison announced a new package of £19 million aid for UNRWA, and also said in Parliament that a mention of the conference in Bahrain “gives me the opportunity to say again, so that there is no confusion, that Her Majesty’s Government are fully behind the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital.” The Omani foreign ministry announced in a tweet the decision to open a new Omani embassy to Palestine, apparently in Ramallah. On 26 June King Abdullah telephoned Abbas to repeat the usual mantra about an independent state and East Jerusalem.
What is the next move? It will hardly be possible to launch the political part of the proposed deal before a new Israeli government can be formed, which may well mean September or later (former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced on 26 June that he is returning to politics). Only the vaguest hints have been given about its content, and the US administration has shown its willingness to take steps which disregard long-standing political and legal commitments. The US ambassador to Israel David Friedman said before the conference that Israel had the right to annex some but “unlikely all” of the West Bank. Kushner, asked in an interview which seems to be full of ambiguity whether Palestinians were capable of governing themselves said “The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of governing.” He also said they should have self-determination.
Trump’s attention will be more and more concentrated on his re-election prospects. Will the deal simply be dropped? That would be difficult without doing irreparable damage to Kushner’s standing, and Kushner will not be so easy to sack as members of the White House staff. Stephen Walt of Harvard University, co-author in 2007 of the bestselling book “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”, tweeted on 25 June, People who say “Kushner’s ‘peace plan’ won’t work” are missing the point. It wasn’t supposed to work–if that means facilitating a just & lasting peace. Its purpose was to buy time, kick dust, shift blame, & thereby facilitate permanent Israeli control of W. Bank.
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