Bahrain conference: Peace critical for US plan for Mideast
MANAMA — The Trump administration's $50 billion economic support plan for the Palestinians cannot succeed without addressing the political elements of a Middle East deal, international financial chiefs and global investors said Wednesday in comments that pushed back on the US insistence that the two must be separated.
Panellists at the two-day conference in Bahrain welcomed the proposal's ambitious investment and development goals, but warned it would fall short without good governance, rule of law and realistic prospects for lasting peace — which they said are largely missing from the initiative.
Their views were aired as the Palestinians repeated their outright rejection of the so-called "Peace to Prosperity" plan because it ignores their political demands, including an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of an independent state.
Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, suggested that peace is the missing part of the proposal, which was put together by President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
The Palestinians have great economic potential that can only be fulfilled with serious reform and protections for investors that must include serious anti-corruption efforts. But those alone are not enough, Lagarde said, stressing that a "satisfactory peace" is imperative for prosperity. "It's a matter of putting all the ingredients together," she said.
"Improving economic conditions and attracting lasting investment to the region depends ultimately on being able to reach a peace agreement," she said in a statement released later by the IMF. "Peace, political stability and re-establishment of trust between all the parties involved are essential pre-requisites to the success of any economic plan for the region."
Lagarde's comments appeared at odds with the views expressed by Kushner when he opened the conference on Tuesday. "Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving what has been a previously unsolvable political situation," he said.
The proposal depends heavily on private sector investment in the West Bank, Gaza as well as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, where it envisions creating a million new jobs, cutting Palestinian unemployment to single digits, doubling the Palestinian gross domestic product and reducing the Palestinian poverty rate by 50% through projects in the health care, education, power, water, tourism, transportation and agriculture sectors.
The plan acknowledges that its success hinges on the completion of a long-elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
But that necessity was driven home by participants who sprinkled their comments with repeated references to "Palestine," a "country" and a "nation-state."
Those words have not featured in U.S. officials' comments about a resolution to the conflict since Trump became president in 2017 and began cutting aid and political support to the Palestinians in what critics have cited as the U.S. administration's pro-Israel bias. The administration has also refused to endorse a two-state solution that has long been seen as the only viable path to peace.
"You are going to have to deal with the political thing in order to get investment," said Daniel Mintz, a founder of Olympus Capital Asia.
"Stability and security is key to investment in every country where we go," said Selim Bora, the president of the Turkish investment firm Summa. "Things don't have to be perfect, but we have to have a minimum level to go in."
Others said the plan could not succeed without the Palestinians having rights and dignity within their own state.
Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are represented by official delegations and many Arab nations that are attending the gathering have sent lower-level officials in a sign of their scepticism of the plan.
Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have been staging protests against the plan and the Bahrain conference since Monday. On Wednesday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization issued a scathing statement condemning the plan and the Trump administration for what it called blatant bias toward Israel. It accused the administration of showing "willful blindness to the occupation" and a "deliberate refusal to deal with reality."
"The workshop attempts to circumvent the real issues by peddling in recycled and failed ideas. It wants to sell a mirage of economic prosperity for the Palestinian people so long as they accept and endorse their perpetual captivity," it said. "This is a formula that no dignified people can accept."
In a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians, the Gulf Arab state of Oman used the second day of the conference to announce Wednesday that it would open an embassy to the "State of Palestine" in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Omani foreign ministry said the decision comes "in continuation of the sultanate's support for the Palestinian people."
Also speaking at the Bahrain conference on Wednesday were former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the head of the international football federation FIFA Gianni Infantino, and the lone Palestinian on the agenda, Ashraf Jabari, a West Bank businessman who is viewed with deep suspicion by many fellow Palestinians.
Infantino, who participated in the event despite a last-minute direct appeal from the Palestinians to reconsider, said he was hopeful that sports, particularly soccer, could have an important role in giving hope to Palestinian communities and improving relations with Israel.
"With football, though football, we can really build bridges," he said in a discussion about using sport and entertainment as catalysts for development. "Let's use football as tool to show what is possible. We play football in Palestine, we play football in Lebanon, it is possible. Football can play a little role, but an important one."
Infantino's co-panellist, film producer Fernando Sulichin, spoke of the need to change the narrative of "Palestinian victimization" through entertainment. "We need to stop the victimization and start telling new stories."
He suggested there could be a "Black Panther" or "Billy Elliott" hero for the Palestinians or an uplifting story like "Roma," the Academy Award-winning film about the life of a live-in housekeeper of a middle-class Mexican family.
"Why don't we have a 'Roma' in Palestine?" he asked.