White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the 'Peace to Prosperity' conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25 2019. Picture: REUTERS
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the 'Peace to Prosperity' conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25 2019. Picture: REUTERS

Manama — Palestinians poured scorn on a $50bn economic formula launched by the Trump administration for Israeli-Palestinian peace as the US on Wednesday sought to win support for the plan as a foundation to ending the decades-old conflict.

US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner opened an 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 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 burnt posters of Trump and Netanyahu.

“No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame” read one banner.

Ismail Haniyeh, the chief of Islamist group Hamas, criticised 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 of our enduring rights, or at the expense of Jerusalem, or the right of return, or at the expense of sovereignty and resistance.”

US 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 US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, said the Kushner plan was an “opportunity not to be missed”.

‘Game-changer’

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 US-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 said.

The event is taking place 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 $50bn to Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies.

Saudi minister of state Mohammed al-Sheikh told a panel that Kushner’s plan was bolstered by the 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 the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel and is backed by the UN 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 that 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 longstanding 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 recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating the Palestinians and other Arabs.

IMF MD 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’s rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Some of the 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects in the plan, including a $5bn 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 business people. 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.”

Reuters