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'Slightly illusory': Low expectations for US-led Bahrain workshop

Palestinian women in the southern Gaza Strip protest against the US-led economic workshop in Bahrain [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

As officials and businesspeople from the United States, Israel and several Arab states head to Bahrain for a US-led economic workshop on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expectations for constructive outcomes are low.

The two-day conference, which begins on Tuesday and will see White House senior adviser Jared Kushner present the economic part of a long-awaited US Middle East peace plan, has been dismissed by analysts as irrelevant and unlikely to yield progress regarding the decades-long Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Egypt and Jordan have confirmed that mid-level delegations will attend the event, while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are also sending officials. A delegation of Israeli businessmen was also due to take part.

But the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, is boycotting the event. 

“The workshop was meant to address the economic problems, but the real problem is the political one,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas said on Sunday.

Hamas, which controls the besieged Gaza Strip, has also rejected the workshop, with senior official Ismail Rudwan saying: “Palestine isn’t for sale.”

On Saturday, the White House released details of its economic proposal, dubbed “Peace to Prosperity“.

At its core is the creation of a $50bn global investment fund, that over the course of 10 years will be spent on 179 investment and business projects in the occupied Palestinian territories and surrounding Arab countries.

According to Kushner, who is also US President Donald Trump‘s son-in-law, the political aspect of the Middle East plan was intentionally separated and would be discussed at a later time.

But with the central political issues of the conflict not addressed, namely the 52-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and control of Gaza, analysts doubt the conference will achieve any breakthroughs.

Funnelling money

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The decision to task Kushner, who lacks political and diplomatic experience, with handling the Middle East peace plan was “astonishing”, said Zena al-Agha, a policy fellow at the Palestinian think-tank al-Shabaka. 

“Diplomacy and global governance are not financial questions,” al-Agha told Al Jazeera. “They are questions of respect, dignity and political craft.”

“If Kushner truly wanted peace, he would understand that funnelling money into this decades-long conflict is unacceptable for Palestinians who value their land, their rights and their dignity above all,” she said.

Hugh Lovatt, the Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said the US approach failed to address the causes of economic issues faced by the Palestinians.

“These causes are not economic and administrative as the US administration seems to indicate, but rather political and national in nature, resulting from Israel’s occupation and restrictions of Palestinian territory.”

According to a 2016 World Bank report, Israeli restrictions and policies are “the main constraint to Palestinian economic competitiveness”, accounting for a lost growth of up to half of the gross domestic product.

The PA has also faced increased financial strain since Israel’s decision in February to withhold part of the tax revenues it collects and transfers to the PA over its payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners.

In response, the PA has refused to accept any of the tax revenues, which account for around 65 percent of total PA revenue, triggering a financial crisis.

Ignoring politics

Rami Khouri, a senior public policy fellow and journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera that the economic plan appeared unreal.

“The whole thing seems slightly illusory, an idea that’s supposed to be so attractive at the material level that it’ll make people forget about the political core of the conflict,” he said. “Nobody believes that the fundamental practical structures have been worked out. The money clearly is not allocated.”

Khouri said the Bahrain workshop is an attempt by the US – with the full support of Israel and its allies – to bypass granting Palestinians the same rights that Israelis enjoy.


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“That’s the political method that comes from the actual actions of the United States,” he explained.

The whole thing seems slightly illusory, an idea that’s supposed to be so attractive at the material level that it’ll make people forget about the political core of the conflict.

Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow and journalism professor at the American University of Beirut

Trump has embarked on a series of anti-Palestinian measures, such as recognising the city of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, breaking with decades of US and international policy that its status should be resolved as part of a wider Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

The US president has also cut aid to Palestinians, stopped funding the main Palestinian refugee agency and closed the representative office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington, DC.

The White House has also taken a much softer tone than previous administrations on Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, urging restraint rather than issuing strongly worded condemnations, while it has substituted the term “occupied” in its official documents to “Israeli-controlled”.

Burning bridges 

The PA leadership severed ties with the Trump administration in 2017, following the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent relocation of its embassy to the city, but that did not stop the US from pressing forward with its new Middle East peace plan.

“The Americans have misread and mismanaged Palestinian political dynamics,” Lovatt told Al Jazeera. “Their belief that they can steamroll over the Palestinian leadership has backfired and left them without an effective implementing partner.”

According to Mohamad Elmasry, an associate professor of media and journalism at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, US efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict have consistently been biased in favour of Israel, with both international law and Palestinian rights undermined.

“Palestinians have been consistently sidelined in both Trump administration policy and discourse about the conflict,” Elmasry told Al Jazeera. “In their peace proposals, US administrations have always granted Israel the right to maintain its illegal settlements on Palestinian land and denied displaced Palestinians the right to return to their homeland.”

In such a situation, al-Agha said, it is not considered important for Palestinians to have a voice and a presence.

“The US has demonstrated that it considers Palestinian rights as desires or wishes which are easy to dismiss, despite their centrality for Palestinians,” she said.

Yet the current US approach, breaking from decades of its foreign policy in the Middle East and openly aligning itself with a far-right Israeli vision as expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s government, could raise questions about Washington’s credibility from other world leaders.

Turning away from the two-state solution and downplaying any prospect for a future Palestinian state was an attempt by the US to impose what Lovatt described as a “bankruptcy agreement” on Palestinians.

“The Trump administration has consistently undermined the viability of its own plan by burning each and every bridge with the Palestinian leadership through its actions on the ground and in the diplomatic arena,” he said.

“Based on what we know of the plan, it will not be taken seriously by the Palestinians, or for that matter by the international community.”

Israel-Gulf relations

The unconventional decision to hold the workshop in Bahrain, as opposed to either Jordan or Egypt – the only two Arab countries that have official diplomatic relations with Israel – is seen as an attempt by the US and Israel to forge closer relations between Israel and Arab states in the Gulf.

“It sends the message that the Gulf is the next frontier in Arab-Israel relations,” al-Agha said. “With Iran now presented as the regional bogeyman, rising Arab powers including Bahrain have demonstrated that the Palestine-Israel conflict is to be put to one side.”

The normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states is part of a Bahraini-Emirati-Egyptian-Saudi counter-revolutionary plan of action that began with the reaction to the 2011 Arab uprisings, Elmasry said.

“Together, the Saudi-led quartet is waging an all-out war on democracy and human rights in the region,” he said.

“In addition to their blockade against Qatar, they have aligned with Israel and effectively worked against Palestinian interests.”

The UAE and Saudi Arabia were the first Arab states to confirm their attendance at the workshop, which Lovatt said reflected a desire to curry favour from the US.

“Most of those participants at the workshop will be there to manage or improve their countries strategic relations with the US,” he said. “Few, if any, will realistically expect this to help the Palestinian cause.”