Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Bahrain readies to host Trump’s much-maligned bid for Middle East peace

Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis will be in attendance for part one of the US plan

A handout photo of Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain Bay, Manama, Bahrain. Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay
A handout photo of Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain Bay, Manama, Bahrain. Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay

US, Arab and global financial officials will meet in Bahrain’s capital Manama on Tuesday for the “economic workshop” of US President Donald Trump’s much-maligned plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Peace to Prosperity conference is Washington’s bid to attract $50 billion (Dh183.6bn) of investments, consisting of 179 economic projects, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It seeks to halve Palestinian poverty rates and reduce unemployment to single figures over the next decade.

The political half of the plan will be unveiled after Israel’s September election, US officials say.

After its launch the economic document, which advocates for economic empowerment of Palestinians as a path to peace, was derided across the Middle East.

Its document used images of smiling Palestinians from projects to which the Trump administration has cut aid.

It omitted mention of Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It also left out the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank, and Hamas, the group that rules the Gaza Strip.

Expectations for Bahrain were low before the document launch took place. After its release, they appeared to fall even further.

The Palestinians, who are boycotting the event, rejected the plan as “delusional”. The US decided against inviting an Israeli government delegation because of the Palestinian absence. An Israeli business delegation will attend instead.

“I’m relieved. They have proven to be amateurs,” a Palestinian official told The National.

But Arab states including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar will attend to give the plan a fair hearing.

On Sunday the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Al Jubeir, said the kingdom would continue to support the two-state solution and would not accept any plan rejected in Ramallah.

“The Palestinians are the ones who have the ultimate decision in this because it’s their issue, and so whatever the Palestinians accept I believe everybody else will accept,” Mr Al Jubeir told France 24.

Cairo and Amman are sending senior finance ministry officials rather than ministers.

Both have remained silent for weeks, causing fear in Washington. The two Arab states are the only ones to have peace treaties with Israel, and their absence could cause the workshop to collapse.

Their announcements that they would attend came with statements supporting a Palestinian state with borders from before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Lebanon and Iraq are boycotting the workshop in solidarity with the Palestinians.

It will begin with opening remarks by Jared Kushner, the architect of the plan, who is the son-in-law of Mr Trump and his senior adviser.

The two-day event will include a series of panels, according to its official agenda.

Speakers will include Mr Kushner, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, former British prime minister and Middle East envoy Tony Blair, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and Fifa President Gianni Infantino.

Palestinian Ashraf Jabari will be attending the summit along with a delegation of smaller businessmen.

Mr Jabari is held in low regard by his people because of his close ties to Israeli settlers and to US ambassador David Friedman, who is a major supporter of the illegal settlements.

But the mainstream Palestinian business community has refused to attend the workshop.

“Why should they?” asked Raja Khalidi, research co-ordinator at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute.

“Everyone who is familiar with the Palestinian economic situation knows that the root cause of the stagnant economy and of de-development is the Israeli occupation.

"To talk about economic plans that ignore the reality of occupation is a waste of time.”

The White House remains publicly optimistic in the face of such criticism.

“We believe this plan is an opportunity to change history and start the transformation of the region to a place where people respect each other, live together peacefully and have economic prosperity,” one official said.

But the Palestinians say they did not seek US mediation on any plan and could have themselves asked Arab states for funding.

It is also galling for them that of the $50bn, $23bn is allocated for neighbouring states, leaving just $27bn, or $2.7bn a year, for the Palestinian territories.

“We said we did not mandate anyone to speak on our behalf, so such an announcement about the workshop is adding insult to injury," said Shaddad Attili, Minister at the Palestine Liberation Organisation's negotiations department.

The plan may damage the cause of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government in Israel, which has in recent years benefited from the split between Palestinian factions.

The Trump administration has inadvertently rallied and unified Palestinians in opposition to Washington and Israeli pressure.

“Palestinians, who seem to disagree on almost everything, are in total agreement on this," said Ghassan Al Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank.

"That includes the PLO, Palestinian National Authority, Hamas, civil society groups and the private sector.”

Mr Attili said there might be relief within the Trump administration that the Palestinians have not signed up to attend, allowing them to continue supporting Israel and blaming the Palestinian Authority for refusing to attend.

“Please enjoy the coffee break as this is what really matters," he said. "They can drink a toast in our absence."

Updated: June 25, 2019 10:15 AM

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