U.S. to Present ‘Economy First’ Approach to Mideast Peace at Bahrain Conference

MANAMA/YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -
Workers place a banner Monday at the pavilion where the U.S.-hosted event “Peace to Prosperity” is to take place outside Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, Bahrain. (Reuters/Matt Spetalnick)

The first stage of President Donald Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan will be launched in Bahrain on Tuesday at a conference the White House touts as a bid to drum up $50 billion in investment but which Palestinians deride as an “economy first” approach doomed to fail.

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to be announced at a later date.

But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in Bahrain’s capital Manama.

There will be close scrutiny as to whether attendees such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states show any interest in making donations to a U.S. plan that has already drawn bitter criticism from Palestinians and many others in the Arab world.

Although the event is supposed to focus on economics, Gulf Arab states hope it will also be used to show their solidarity with the Trump administration over its hard line against Iran, a senior Gulf diplomat said. Trump on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other officials after Iran downed an U.S. drone last week.

Under the Kushner plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50 billion to the region, with $28 billion going to the Palestinian territories as well as $7.5 billion to Jordan, $9 billion to Egypt and $6 billion for Lebanon.

Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5-billion transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘deal of the century,’” Kushner told Reuters, referring to Trump’s claim for the plan.

“This is going to be the ‘opportunity of the century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”

Kushner, a Trump adviser who, like his father-in-law, comes from the world of New York real estate, is presenting his plan in a pair of pamphlets filled with graphs and statistics that resemble an investment prospectus.

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes that the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

In an interview with Al Jazeera set to air on Tuesday, Kushner offered a rare glimpse into the plan’s possible political contours, saying a deal would not adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-led plan that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.

“I think we all have to recognize that if there ever is a deal, it’s not going to be along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative. It will be somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and between the Israeli position,” he said.

The Arab Peace Initiative calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders that predate Israel‘s liberation of territory in the 1967 Six Day war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees, points rejected by Israel.

Hanging over the initiative are questions about whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But the Trump team – led by Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy; Jason Greenblatt; and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a secret.

“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. No Israeli ministers will attend, but an Israeli business delegation is expected.

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. Kushner told Reuters that “some” Palestinian businessmen would attend.

Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli business officials and journalists with their counterparts from the Arab world would be significant.