‘Deal of the century’ gets off to rough start

The workshop, scheduled for June 25-26 in Manama, constitutes the first phase of the much-anticipated US Mideast peace plan.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh gestures as he arrives for a cabinet meeting in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 15. (Reuters)
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh gestures as he arrives for a cabinet meeting in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 15. (Reuters)

LONDON - After more than two years of diplomacy little is known about the content of the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This could be about to change after the White House announced that Bahrain would host an economic workshop dubbed “Peace to Prosperity.” Its stated goal is to “galvanise support for potential economic investments” in the Palestinian territories that could be enabled by a potential peace agreement.

The workshop, scheduled for June 25-26 in Manama, constitutes the first phase of the much-anticipated peace plan that is expected to be followed by a political part focusing on issues such as borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Jared Kushner, senior adviser to US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, has been tight-lipped about details of the plan but has said that a large part of it would focus on improving the economic situation of Palestinians and the wider region. However, Kushner, in a statement released May 19, said “economic progress can only be achieved with a solid economic vision and if the core political issues are resolved.”

Continuing its opposition to the Trump administration’s peace efforts, the Palestinian leadership rejected the Manama workshop. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that the cabinet had not been consulted about the workshop. Social Development Minister Ahmed Majdalani said there would be “no Palestinian participation in the Manama workshop.”

The Palestinian Authority has not talked with the Trump administration since the latter, breaking with decades of US diplomacy, recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017. Trump’s Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt told the UN Security Council that “it would be a mistake for the Palestinians not to join us” in Bahrain.

One apparent goal of the meeting in Bahrain is to secure the buy-in of Palestinian business leaders. Their support, however, looks in doubt because key members of the Palestinian business community confirmed they would not attend the workshop.

Prominent businessman Bashar Masri said on social media that the idea of an “economic peace is an old one… and just as our people have rejected it in the past, we reject it now.” Other business leaders also dismissed the event, stressing the primacy of political demands.

“The Bahrain workshop is a terrible idea for many practical reasons, including the fact that… investing in a politically volatile place is simply too risky for business,” said Nour Odeh, a political analyst and former Palestinian government spokeswoman.

Odeh said the United States had attempted this approach before without success. The event in Manama will, she said, “be one more failed attempt at replacing the political with the economic.”

Amid the criticism an important point was missing, said Israeli journalist Raphael Ahren. “The mere fact that the peace proposal’s rollout will take place in an Arab capital is nothing less than a sensation,” he wrote in the Times of Israel.

The announcement of the workshop in Bahrain comes as ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries have grown closer in large part because of their joint opposition to Iran. In a rare visit, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Oman in October and Israeli ministers have visited the United Arab Emirates. A delegation from Bahrain went to Israel in late 2017.

“It is important to understand that the economic piece of the Kushner plan is to be funded by Gulf Arabs,” said Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics. “Previous discussions of an Arab Marshall Plan for Palestinians were the precursor for this upcoming event.”

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia both announced plans to participate in the Manama workshop. Riyadh, state news reports said, is sending its minister of economy and planning. The UAE Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the workshop “aims to lift the Palestinian people out of misery and to enable them for a stable and prosperous future.”

Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said in a statement Manama supported the “brotherly Palestinian people” in their quest for a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The planned meeting had “no other purpose” than Bahrain’s continued support for Palestinians.

While endorsing the meeting in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also made clear their support for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Trump administration is hoping that the prospect of large-scale investment intended to raise living standards in the Palestinian territories and the wider region will get the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table. As the immediate reaction to the Manama workshop has shown, this is a risky gamble.

The idea that Palestinians would give up their “national aspiration,” said Odeh, “is not a realistic or workable expectation.”

This is especially the case, as the plan of Kushner and Greenblatt will, media reports indicate, not explicitly call for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, thus likely deepening the crisis in Palestinian-US relations. Strained relations with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would make the implementation of any agreement a difficult endeavour.

“Any solution to the conflict in Palestine must be political… and based on ending the occupation,” Shtayyeh said, adding that Palestinians “do not trade our national rights for money.”