Bahrain Conference: US Launches Economic Formula for Middle East Peace

Kushner Urges Absent Palestinians to Take the ‘Opportunity of the Century’

The Trump Administration’s two-day Peace to Prosperity economic conference, which calls for $50 billion of investment in the Palestinian territories and its neighbours within a decade, took place this week in Manama, Bahrain. The workshop, which discussed the economic chapter of Washington’s Middle East peace plan led by US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his envoy to the Middle East peace process, Jason Greenblatt, didn’t include representatives of Israel or the Palestinian Authority but international diplomats, officials and business people from several key Arab states including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan were in attendance. The political components of the deal have yet to be revealed, having been put off pending the formation of a new government in Israel, something which may not happen before the Autumn. However, Kushner has argued strongly that is is important to press ahead with economic proposals that can demonstrate to the Palestinians the practical advantages of accepting a peace deal.


Under the plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50bn over 10 years, with $28bn going to the Palestinian territories – the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip – as well as $7.5bn to Jordan, $9bn to Egypt and $6bn for Lebanon. Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5bn transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.


In an interview with Al Arabiya on the sidelines of the workshop, Kusher said the economic plan can “double the GDP for the Palestinian people, improve their standard of life, create over a million now jobs, reduce the unemployment rate to below 10%, and reduce the poverty rate by about 50%.”


Washington hopes Gulf states will support the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute to Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies. Finance ministers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which share a common foe with Israel in Iran, voiced qualified support for Kushner’s economic formula when interviewed at the workshop.


Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said Riyadh would support "anything that brings prosperity to the region" and that he was "very optimistic" about the prospects of the plan, but said that it was important that it be driven by the private sector.  Noting Saudi Arabia's support for the Palestinians, he said the conference had shown them there was an international commitment to bringing prosperity to the Palestinians.


The United Arab Emirates' finance minister, Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was more direct in his assessment. "We need to give this initiative a chance. In order for it to succeed, we need international institutions. If this is the only initiative on the table, we need to give it a chance. We supported the Palestinians over the past 15 years, in order to keep the issue on the table. But now we need to move forward," he said.


Saudi Arabia said on the eve of the conference that any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war. It envisages a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return - points rejected by Israel. Kushner said on Monday the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.


Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, speaks at the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. (Reuters)

Kusher told reporters on Wednesday that the conference proved that the economic issues of the conflict were “solvable” but conceded that the success of the plan hinges on reaching a long-elusive peace agreement. “The reason why we thought it was important to bring out the economic vision before the political vision is because we need people to see what the future can look like,” he said, adding that they would release the political plan when the time is right.


Palestinian leaders have boycotted the workshop, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias after a series of recent Trump decisions.  On Wednesday, while the workshop was underway, the Palestinian Liberation organisation (PLO) reiterated its rejection of the plan, saying the proposal’s lack of political vision guarantees its failure. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success. “Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” he said.

Kushner insists, however, that the economic plan is intended to help draw Palestinians back to the negotiating table by showcasing the benefits a peace deal could bring. Speaking at the conference, he said that the White House did not intend to punish the Palestinians for their decision to boycott.


Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli business executives and journalists with their Arab counterparts would be significant at a time of rising tensions with Iran. Six Israeli journalists were allowed to attend the conferences, despite the lack of diplomatic ties between Israel and Bahrain.


Speaking to Israeli journalists, Bahrain's foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa said that he would like to convey a message "to everyone": The conference is "an opportunity not to be missed.”


"If Camp David and the late President Anwar Sadat were game changers for the events of that day, I think that if we take this seriously this could be a very important game changer,” he said.


Asked whether he believed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved, he answered: "We need to see a two-state solution. As Israelis have a country in their region and the citizens enjoy their own citizenship in their country, we need to see a Palestinian country with Palestinians enjoying their own citizenship."  


In what was the first interview by a Gulf official with an Israeli media outlet,  Al Khalifa told Channel 13 news and Axios news site that the Bahraini government tried to convince the Palestinians not to boycott the conference. "It is always a mistake to miss an opportunity to achieve peace. … This was an opportunity that we wanted to see them here, but they chose not to come.”


Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund’s who participated at the workshop said that economic improvement in the West Bank and Gaza could happen under three conditions: that the Palestinian authority undertakes comprehensive economic reforms; that Israel eases restrictions on the movement of goods, people and capital; and with stronger financial support from international donors.“Improving economic conditions and attracting lasting investment to the region depends ultimately on being able to reach a peace agreement,” she said after attending the workshop.


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had a hand in earlier peacemaking efforts and has been supportive of Kushner's plan, also spoke of the need for the economic proposal to have a political component.


"Obviously, it isn't a substitute for the politics," Blair said in a conversation with Kushner. "There will be no economic peace. There will be a peace that has a political component and an economic component, but the economy can help the politics and the politics, of course, is necessary for the economy to flourish.”


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."


As the 'Peace for Prosperity' workshop in Bahrain came to an end on Wednesday, US Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt said that Washington was pleased with the summit. ”We changed the conversation," Greenblatt told i24NEWS, shrugging off criticism. "Nobody can create a situation that doesn't include an economic package. What we heard from the investors is 'we can make this happen. This is an investable type of project if the political solution is there.’"


Still, Greenblatt said the administration does not have a final timeline for the release of the political side of the US peace proposal, citing a "wrinkle" in its roll-out after a second Israeli election was called for September.


Wrapping up the two-day workshop, Kushner said he was cautiously optimistic about the potential for the economic aspect of the plan to succeed. He said that many people he spoke with during the conference believe the US plan could be implemented if the conditions are right. He said ideas for moving forward on economic development would be examined in the coming days.



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