Left to right: Arafat Asfour, chairman of PALTRADE; Osama Amro, chairman of the Palestinian Business Association; Bassam Walweel, CEO of Golden Wheats Mills; Amal Almasri-Moghrabi, head of Business Women Forum-Palestine; and Adnan Kerish, general manager of Kerish International Motors Agency Co., hold a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 28 to denounce the upcoming conference in Bahrain. (Mohammad Al-Kassim)

Top Palestinian Business Professionals to Avoid Bahrain (with VIDEO)

Osama Amro on upcoming economic ‘workshop’: The private sector rejects any attempts to circumvent the issue of sovereign rights of the Palestinian people

US President Donald Trump’s Mideast team is back in the region trying to garner support for the White House’s planned economic “workshop” scheduled to be held in Manama, Bahrain, June 25-26.

The team consists of Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner; Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s negotiator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Brian Hook, the special US representative for Iran.

Many believe the planned conference will usher in the first phase of President Trump’s Mideast peace plan – widely referred to as the “Deal of the Century” – through economic incentives to the Palestinians and other countries in the region. Yet West Bank and Gaza Strip business leaders say they will boycott the conference, insisting that their political aspirations come first.

“We wanted to make it very clear that we care about our freedom first, and not talking about economic projects or solutions while our rights are not protected and our freedoms guaranteed,” Osama Amro, chairman of an umbrella group with more than 300 members scattered across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, told The Media Line.

“We are under occupation and we are suffering because of that,” Amro said. “Our economy is suffering because of that, not because of a lack of liquidity or money.”

The groups represented include the Federation of Palestinian Businessmen’s Associations; the Palestinian Federation of Industries; Palestinian Trade Center-PalTrade; the Palestinian Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry; Business Women Forum-Palestine; and the U.S.-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce.

In shunning the conference, wealthy businesspeople are demonstrating much-needed support and unity to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who himself has publicly rejected the US invitation.

Amro said the decision by the association was part of its members’ patriotic responsibility.

“The private sector rejects any attempts to circumvent the issue of sovereign rights of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Zahi Khouri, a Palestinian-American businessman and chairman of the Palestinian National Beverage Company, which holds the Coca-Cola franchise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, told The Media Line that he didn’t get an invitation – and it didn’t matter.

“I will not attend,” he stated, “because I’ve said so many times over the last two years to my American interlocutors that what they are doing is basically wrong, unreasonable and not business-like.”

Khouri said that money can buy many things, except for one.

“You can’t buy prosperity while putting dignity aside,” he said. “Those policy-makers have to give the Palestinians some credit for what we’ve managed so far. We’ve created many jobs and we’ve invested more as a private sector than the whole donor community – probably more than twice as much.”

US officials have described the Bahrain workshop as the first step in the economic portion of President Trump’s vision on how to resolve the Middle East conflict. They assert that revitalizing the Palestinian economy should come first, to be followed by political aspects.

Palestinian-American business consultant Sam Bahour, based in Ramallah, harshly criticized this approach to the Palestinian issue.

“It’s rather unfortunate, but it’s not a surprise to the Palestinians,” he told The Media Line. “This is definitely not the first step in the ‘deal of the century.’ It’s maybe step No. 10 that the Trump Administration has taken to cause structural damage to the relationship between the U.S. and Palestine.”

Bahour explains his criticism by saying the main goal of the conference isn’t really to help the Palestinians, but to bring Israel closer to Arab states and achieve normalization. He argues that President Trump wants merely to bring the Palestinians to their knees.

“I’m sure it will have a lot of fanfare and so forth, but the actual substance of the conference will fail, and the aftermath of that failure is rather worrying for Palestinians because the U.S. will continue on the same path that the Trump Administration has started, which is trying to batter the Palestinians into political submission,” he stated. “What they [will be] doing in Bahrain is basically the financial molestation of the Palestinian community, and they will continue this with political molestation. This can’t work by any stretch of the imagination.”

Amal Almasri-Moghrabi, a leader of Business Women Forum-Palestine, said the issue was not money, emphasizing that the many challenges to the Palestinian economy stemmed from the lack of a political solution on the horizon.

“We don’t have a shortage of money,” Almasri-Moghrabi told The Media Line. “We don’t have control over our own resources. Seventy percent of the West Bank is under Israeli military control. People and goods can’t move freely. You need to take care of these things first.”

Many Palestinian business people claim that they are under pressure from Washington.

“Pressure is already being applied against the Palestinians. USAID, which used to sponsor Palestinian projects, has been suspended. The pressure is on,” Almasri-Moghrabi said.

Nabil Shaath, a foreign-affairs adviser to Abbas, told The Media Line that the Manama conference was nothing but a trap.

“What Mr. Trump has been doing in the last two years simply tells us ‘no’ to any idea that Mr. Trump can suggest for a peace process in the Middle East,” he said, “and we are not going to swallow the bait in Bahrain in order to accept the horrors of the political process put in black and white on pieces of paper.”

US officials say the Palestinians are doing themselves a disservice by not attending the conference, and that they are marginalizing their own role. But Shaath disagrees and predicts that the Manama meeting will be a failure.

“That’s what Mr. Trump would like to see happen, [and] we are not going to allow him that joy,” he said. “We [should be] at the center of the Bahrain agreement if there’s going to be an agreement, and without us, there will be no Bahrain agreement. Without us, there won’t be peace or a ‘deal of the century.’”

Shaath admits that a great amount of US pressure is being applied to the Palestinians and Arab countries to attend, but that won’t change a thing.

“The Arab world has showed a great deal of hesitancy,” he said. “Not one Arab country has said it will accept the ‘deal of the century,’ and we pray that the Palestinians do the same.”

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