Palestinians poured scorn on a $50 billion economic formula launched by the Trump administration for Israeli-Palestinian peace as the United States sought on Wednesday to win support for the plan as a foundation to ending the decades-old conflict.
U.S. President Donald Trump‘s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner opened a international meeting in Bahrain on Tuesday evening by urging Palestinians, whose leadership is boycotting the event, to think outside the “traditional box” for an economic pathway that he said was a precondition for peace.
Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments are attending the event, which the Palestinians and many other Arabs dismiss as pointless without a political solution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the proposal.
“The Manama workshop is quite disingenuous. It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the (Israeli)occupation itself,” senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday.
Several thousand Palestinians demonstrated in the Gaza Strip and burned posters of Trump and Netanyahu. “No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame” read one banner.
The chief of Islamist group Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, criticized the plan as “attempted ruses and word-play at the expense of the historical and extant rights of the Palestinian people”.
“This money must not come at the expense on our enduring rights, or at the expense of Jerusalem or the right of return or at the expense of sovereignty and resistance.”
U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates discreetly support the plan, but several Arab states stayed away while others including Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have reached peace with Israel, sent deputy ministers.
The foreign minister of Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, said the Kushner plan was an “opportunity not to be missed”.
He reiterated the need for a two-state solution, which has underpinned every peace plan for decades, but Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it.
“I think if we take this matter seriously it could be a very important game-changer,” Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told Israeli public broadcaster Kan, in English.
The presence of Sunni Muslim Gulf states in Manama showed they want to encourage closer ties to Israelis – with whom they share a common foe in Shi’ite Iran – that have largely been under the table, said David Makovsky, a U.S.-based Middle East expert attending the event.
“(But) it’s clear they won’t bypass the Palestinians and do anything they don’t want,” he told Reuters.
The event is taking placed amid high tensions between Tehran on the one hand and Washington and its Gulf allies on the other.
Washington hopes wealthy Gulf states will bankroll the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies.
Saudi minister of state Mohammed Al-Sheikh told a panel that Kushner’s plan was bolstered by inclusion of the private sector as a similar proposal, relying heavily on state funding, had been attempted during the Oslo interim peace deals of the 1990s that eventually collapsed.
But the “economy first” approach could be a hard sell as the political details of the plan, almost two years in the making, remain secret.
It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the two-state solution, which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and is backed by the United Nations and most countries.
Riyadh says any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.
Kushner has said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.
Any solution must settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, Israel’s security concerns, Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory where Palestinians want to build that state.
Palestinian leaders are refusing to engage with the White House, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with the international consensus, Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating the Palestinians and other Arabs.
ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE
International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, told the gathering that the Fund’s experience in conflict-riven countries around the world showed it can be a struggle to generate economic growth in such an environment.
The IMF says unemployment stands at 30% in the West Bank and 50% in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival in the Israeli-occupied West bank.
Some of the 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects in the plan, including a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, have been floated before and stalled for lack of underlying political or security agreements.
The workshop brings together 300 delegates including Israeli and Palestinian businessmen. At a break between sessions, differences between the two sides of the Israeli-Arab divide could be seen.
Israeli businessman Shlomi Fogel was conversing with a UAE businesswoman. Asked for their views on Kushner’s approach, he said: “If we wait for the politicians, it will take forever. We could do parts of this economic plan with the right support.”
The Dubai-based businesswoman suggested, however, that the plan was too ambitious to be put into effect anytime soon.
“There were efforts like Oslo that didn’t work out – and that was because of the Israelis,” she said. “You can’t assume the economics will work if the politics don’t move.”
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Manama, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Rami Ayyub in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Davide Barbuscia, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nafisa Taher in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)