Palestinian observers and political analysts agree that the purpose of the economic workshop that convened in Manama, Bahrain, on 18 June is to pressure countries opposed to the “Deal of the Century” into accepting that project which aims to initiate a process of widespread normalisation with the Israeli occupying power, introduce that country into the region as a strong economic ally, and promote economic mega projects that serve US-Israeli interests first.
The observers argue that US President Donald Trump’s approach to solving the conflict effectively demands Palestinian unilateral capitulation and the abandonment of their fundamental principles.
This, they say, explains the US administration’s prioritisation of economic incentives over political progress. But, they add, this project will remain an illusory peace process as long as Washington is unwilling to assert meaningful pressure on Israel and to treat Palestinian objections seriously.
“The Manama workshop is doomed to fail because of the US’ refusal to respect international law,” said Palestinian political analyst and writer Mazen Safi.
“It is impossible to understand any economic agreements or development plans independently of politics. It is apparent to all that, despite the fact that some Arab countries are taking part in this workshop, they are angry at US policy, especially with regard to the Palestinian cause. These countries have repeatedly stressed that there can be no solution without the recognition of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.”
Safi believes that the Manama conference will increase Washington’s isolation and hamper any possibility of declaring a “deal” or building a strong political and economic alliance. Also, whatever resolutions emerge from the conference, they will be ineffective because they cannot stipulate deadlines for implementation.
“What all this means is that the workshop is a public relations stunt to serve Israel in the midst of its electoral difficulties. Trump also wants to use it to score an international breakthrough in order to boost his election campaign for a second term, on the one hand, and to weaken and extort Arab oil producing countries, on the other.”
In the opinion of Abeer Abdel-Rahman Thabet, a professor of political science and international relations, the Bahrain conference is meant to be a major step in the implementation of the “Deal of the Century”.
“This workshop is expected to come up with $64 billion, half of which is to be allocated to investment projects in the West Bank and Gaza. This is not about peace for prosperity. Such a sum is an outright bribe to induce the Palestinians to surrender. It is patently clear that the deal is a slap in the face to the justice of the Palestinian cause. But the US administration wants that slap to be delivered by an Arab hand, especially since that money is to come from the coffers of Arab Gulf countries, most of which welcomed the workshop and the opportunity to take part. Palestinian opposition to the conference may have caused some problems for it, but did not impede it. This, in itself, is a clear reflection of the ends that conference seeks to achieve.”
One of the most important aims of the conference, she said, is to marginalise Palestinian political influence and to drag its official representation four decades backwards to when Arab governments were politically responsible for the Palestinians.
“This would effectively put paid to the PLO’s role as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people which, in turn, would strip the process of a crucial component of solution to the conflict, namely the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.”
She stressed that the US and Israel could never have pursued this strategy of marginalising the Palestinian political role had they not been given a strong and reliable Arab green light.
According to Thabet, another aim of the workshop is to link the US led drive to settle the Palestinian- Israeli conflict — a long festering, multidimensional conflict — to this region’s other conflicts and to exploit the contradictions between them and use offers of US support in those conflicts in order to coax the Arabs into backing the US peace plan. This plan “is a comprehensive vision for establishing US influence by means of an indispensable Arab-Israeli alliance to confront the growing influence of other great powers and other regional powers which the US and Israel perceive as threats to their strategic interests,” Thabet said.
The economic workshop was not only being used to pressure the Palestinian leadership, but the Egyptian and Jordanian leaderships as well, according to Thabet.
“The pressure comes in the form of the financial inducements in the settlement package that would help solve the economic crises in both countries.”
As for the Palestinians, “the purpose of these financial inducements is to create a conflict of interests between the Palestinian public and their leadership by casting the latter as the obstacle that obstructs the path out of the economic plight that weighs on every aspect of the Palestinian people’s lives in the West Bank and Gaza.”
“The idea is to force the Palestinian leadership into a vice between outside pressures and domestic popular pressures that will grow harsher the longer this leadership persists in rejecting the American plan,” Thabet said, adding that popular pressures have been fuelled by a systematic campaign of spurious “leaks” alleging financial irregularities on the part of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
“The aim is to build up an image in the Palestinian public’s mind that their national authority is a political entity steeped in corruption and unqualified to govern.”
In the opinion of Palestinian political analyst and writer Talal Awkal, Palestinian rejection of the workshop put the situation in a nutshell: peoples and their rights are not for sale.
No amount of American pressure can compel the Palestinian people to relinquish their rights, which are enshrined in and upheld by international laws and resolutions, he said.
In an attempt to counter Palestinian resistance, Israel has been ratcheting up its financial extortion, Awkal said. It began by withholding the amount that Palestinians pay to the families of detainees and martyrs from tax transfers to the PA.
Then it deducted money equivalent to the amounts that Israeli courts ruled should be paid in favour of Israeli settlers. Now it is talking about deducting the costs of the sewerage project in Gaza.
The conference in Bahrain, which met beneath the rubric, “Peace and prosperity workshop: unlocking economic development and investment in the West Bank and Gaza,” was boycotted by both the Palestinian government and the Palestinian business community.
Nabil Abu Rudeinah, spokesman for the Palestinian president, described the workshop as a “strategic error” and an attempt to avoid reaching political solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of principles of international legitimacy.
He stressed that substituting economic solutions for solutions based on principles has been the source of “unstoppable disasters and wars that still persist”.
“The American conspiracy has faltered and changed direction,” Abu Rudeinah said. “The reason is that Palestinian rejection and President Mahmoud Abbas’ clear positions on Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and other national principles are the cornerstone over which the plot against the Palestinian people stumbled.”
“The Palestinian position reaffirms that Palestine is a land inhabited by history, heritage and faith and that Jerusalem embodies the spirit of sacred existence,” Abu Rudeinah said, adding that it was this position that compelled the Americans to scale down the “Deal of the Century” to a “workshop” that will probably conclude as a “document that violates international law and Arab legitimacy”.
Noting that the Manama conference was an attempt to “substitute the principle of land for peace by money for peace”, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, said: “The US has already implemented the political component of the Deal of the Century by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving its embassy there, legitimising the settler drive, trying to destroy UNRWA, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan, and eliminating the two-state solution based on borders prior to the occupation in 1967.”
Erekat suspects that the US will try to link its envisioned economic projects to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in order to “create coexistence with the settlers” and to promote “the prosperity of the settlements”.
Jason Greenblatt, the US president’s Middle East envoy, maintains that the Bahrain workshop is only the first part of the US peace plan. “This is not just an economic peace. It is not about buying Palestinians off,” he said in an interview with Israeli i24 News, adding that the second phase of the peace plan would deal with political issues.
He described Palestinian refusal to attend as a “huge missed opportunity” for the Palestinians and added that “the current focus is on attracting investors and looking for donors to build up the Palestinian economy.”
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said: “It worries us that no matter how often we say that [buying off the Palestinians] isn’t our aim, we hear it again from the PA.”
He added: “The Palestinians have aspirations that have to be addressed. The Israelis have issues that have to be addressed. This conflict needs to be resolved on a political level. But in order to create momentum... we need a significant improvement in the economy. That is the only way people on both sides will have faith that there is the opportunity for real peace.”
In Friedman’s opinion, peace cannot be realised in a society that suffers 70 per cent unemployment or even 30 per cent. You cannot build relations under the pressure of harsh economic circumstances.
On the question of attendance in Manama, Friedman said that since the Palestinian government was out of the picture in this initiative, it was logical that Israel would also be kept out of the picture at an official level.
This was so that the meeting would not become politicised, and in order to avert rumours that Israel was negotiating with other governments against Palestinian interests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No to cash for peace