The Bahraini capital Manama has been hosting a long-awaited “Peace to Prosperity” workshop this week, widely seen as the launchpad for the economic part of a new US peace plan designed to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The plan, part of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” in the Middle East, is supposed to be in two parts, with the political part to be proposed later in the year, most likely after the Israeli elections in November.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) boycotted the Manama meeting, along with most of the Palestinian businesspeople invited. Only a few Arab delegations took part, with Iraq declining the US invitation altogether and boycotting the meeting.
On Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his rejection of the proposal, which calls for a mix of public and private financing of the Palestinian economy and intends to create at least a million new jobs for Palestinians, according to the White House website.
The plan foresees more than doubling Palestinian GDP, reducing the Palestinian poverty rate by 50 per cent, and cutting the sky-high Palestinian unemployment rate to nearly single digits in 10 years, according to the documents.
The US delegation to the meeting was led by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, but the main personality was Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner. The delegation included Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
More Western personalities were apparent than Arab delegates. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), took part in the Manama meeting along with working-level representatives of other international organisations.
The meeting started on Tuesday night with a reception for participating delegates and Kushner as the leading figure behind it.
Sessions will cover the proposed plan, unveiled by the White House only days before the Manama meeting. It seeks finance for dozens of projects in West Bank and Gaza Strip, focusing on infrastructure and building a corridor between the two Palestinian territories.
A special fund is to be set up to receive the financing — grants, preferential loans and credit lines — and manage the projects.
An estimated $50 billion will be needed for the plan, with the bulk invested in Gaza and the West Bank and some of it in neighbouring countries hosting Palestinian refugees.
American sponsors of the proposal expect most of the money to come from wealthy Arab Gulf countries, and some from European donors and international financial bodies like the IMF and World Bank.
One reporter covering the meeting in Manama noted that the Arab participants were not talking to the media, probably as they fear their comments could give the impression of the workshop as a peace conference, which it is not.
This reflects the dwindling expectations of the Manama meeting, with many seeing the plan unveiled on Saturday as a rehash of an old proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu dubbed an “economic peace” as a way round the two-state solution agreed in the Oslo Accords of 1993.
The workshop, first promoted as a “Marshal Plan” for the Middle East that will persuade the Palestinians to accept a final settlement with Israel following the economic aspects of the deal, aims at “exploring possibilities for the economic development of the Palestinian Territories”.
But according to one observer, it has been reduced from a peace deal to just a “vision” for peace by the US, and it is not clear what will happen to it next.
As one Arab commentator put it, “the Marshal Plan was introduced by the Americans to Europe after liberating it from the Nazi occupation, but the ‘Kushner Plan’ is being offered while the Israeli occupation is still active.”
Oxford University’s Andrew Hammond from the UK did not expect much to come out from the meeting. “Trump thinks money can solve everything. But the Palestinians have no sovereign representation, no passports, and no vote in the Israeli parliament that controls their lives — the Knesset,” he said.
Hammond, a researcher at Oxford who has written numerous books on the Middle East, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the economic plans proposed at Manama might fade out like previous proposal for “economic peace” made by Netanyahu, “especially if Trump is out of office” in 2020.
Former American Ambassador Richard Lebaron, who has served in some Arab capitals, described the economic plan unveiled by the White House as having “the look of something junior McKinsey people would put together as a training exercise, replete with smiling Palestinian children, earnest students, and ambitious-looking business men. A number of the photographs are recycled from former USAID programme materials despite the closure of that programme by the United States.”
McKinsey is an international consulting company. USAID is the aid organisation of the US government.
“The Manama workshop is not part of a serious peace process. It is not really even about Palestine or Palestinians. It is one minor element in a concerted effort by the Trump administration to wholeheartedly support the policies of right-wing Israelis and to realise the vision of some of their influential supporters in the United States,” Lebaron wrote on the website of the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.
As the Palestinians have already rejected the plans and the Israelis are focusing on their own internal political crisis, the Manama meeting seems to be just another inconsequential gathering. Whether it will yield anything concrete to help settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is in doubt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: From mission to vision