Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser, speaks to reporters on June 26 at the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in the Bahraini capital of Manama. (Shaun Tandon/AFP/Getty Images)

Critics call Bahrain the ‘Peace Conference that Wasn’t’

Some argue it’s been all business for the Americans at their Bahrain ‘workshop’ – and as far as the Palestinians are concerned, that’s the problem

[Manama, Bahrain] To some critics, the US-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” gathering here looks more like a meeting of investors and less like a peace conference.

In a 22-minute opening presentation that was sleek, polished and businesslike, Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump, finally revealed the administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan in the form of an economic vision, pitching it to politicians and investors from the Arab world and farther afield.

“To be clear, economic growth and prosperity for the Palestinian people are not possible without an enduring and fair political solution to the conflict – one that guarantees Israel’s security and respects the dignity of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Kushner laid out the financial side of a plan that sarcastically has come to be known in the Middle East as the “Deal of the Century.” It includes more than $50 billion for investment in infrastructure, tourism and education in the Palestinian territories, as well as in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

He said the Palestinians must first embrace the money side, mocking the name given it and giving it a label of his own: “This effort is better referred to as the ‘opportunity of the century’ if the leadership has the courage to pursue it.”

President Trump’s Mideast peace team plans to roll out the political side of the plan later in the year.

“Today is not about political issues – that will come later,” Kushner stated on Tuesday as he kicked off an intimate two-day gathering at the luxurious – and heavily guarded – Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain’s capital city. “Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues.”

On Wednesday, attendees got down to the real business of the conference.

“[I]f there is an economic plan, if there is urgency, it’s a question of making sure that the momentum is sustained,” said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. “For that, it will require all the goodwill in the world on the part of all parties – private sector, public sector, international organizations and the parties on the ground and their neighbors.”

But there has been one overriding problem: Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are at the workshop.

Daoud Kuttab, an Amman-based Palestinian commentator, told The Media Line that what he heard from Kushner was an old, colonial approach that didn’t address the real issues.

“The Americans’ purely economic plan and attitude is a reflection of an orientalist approach that appears to claim that they know what is best for the ‘natives,’” he said, adding that the US had “the chutzpa of putting forward an economic-only plan that keeps the occupation while wanting the Arabs to pay for it.”

The Palestinian leadership and top business figures refused to attend the conference, which Team Trump dubbed a “workshop,” charging that the intent was to replace the political track. Kuttab agrees.

“A respected person would have cancelled or postponed such a meeting until making sure that the Palestinians were present,” the commentator said. “Going through with it without Palestinians reflects this paternalistic, hypocritical [out]look.”

Kushner’s speech avoided the difficult issues that have led to the breakdown of peace talks for decades. The “Peace to Prosperity” plan promises to create a million jobs for Palestinians within a decade while relying heavily on foreign aid, a large portion of it coming from wealthy Gulf countries, and other funding coming as loans.

“My direct message to the Palestinian people, is that despite what those who have let you down in the past say, President Trump and America have not given up on you,” Kushner said during his speech.

The Americans claim the workshop’s goal was to create the foundation for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They also believe the agenda entailed an offer that no one should reject. Yet the Palestinians continue to snub it even though many observers say its success hinges on them joining in.

Palestinian officials remained mostly quiet immediately after Kushner’s Tuesday presentation, but on Wednesday, during a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO, predicted with harsh words that the plan would fail.

“The American workshop in Bahrain is a failure and we thank the people, especially the Arabs, who supported our position and cause,” she stated, comparing the Trump team’s methods to those employed by mobsters.

“The Americans are using threats, blackmail, extortion and sanctions to defeat the Palestinians,” she said, stressing that Kushner deliberately made no mention of the Israeli occupation and avoided addressing the main issues.

Washington is hoping to persuade Palestinians to accept the plan. Nevertheless, thousands have been taking to the streets to castigate the Trump Administration. They accuse it of trying to impose its will on them and say it is attempting to liquidate the Palestinian cause.

In Ramallah, meanwhile, the criticisms echoed through the streets.

“The workshop in Bahrain is held for the purpose of starving and subjugating the Palestinian people. But we will not submit or recognize this conference,” Ayoub Mohammad Daghaish, a pensioner, said.

Ramallah resident Malik Qadi said: “What we see happening in Bahrain is not new, but the difference is that this time, everything is happening openly and will lead to normalization and recognition of Israel by the Arabs. Frankly, we should not be silent.”

Amal Abu Ali, a student, referred back to the 1993 Oslo Accords reached between Israel and the Palestinians.

“This summit is the faultless son of Oslo, the end of which is the same end of Oslo,” he stated. “There is no logic to holding an economic summit before [there is] a political solution. It is painful that there are Arab leaders participating in this farce.”

Also on Wednesday, Kushner said that the door remained open to the Palestinians – although he accused the leadership of failing its people.

“If they actually want to make their people’s lives better, we have now laid out a great framework in which they can engage and try to achieve it,” he told reporters.

“We’re going to stay optimistic,” he said. “We have left the door open the whole time.”

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