The Bahrain Workshop in Retrospect: Critical Israeli and American Jewish Responses

Now that the dust has settled after the conclusion of the “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop held in Manama on June 25-26, it behooves Middle East analysts to reexamine and put into perspective the reactions to the controversial conference by various relevant parties. In general, the responses expressed—many since the inception of the idea—were quite predictable. The Palestinian one was the least surprising of all. Members of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, Gaza, and the diaspora were uncharacteristically unified in their opposition to the agenda and declared objectives of the workshop, which they correctly perceived as antithetical to their historical political aspirations and internationally recognized national rights. Except for the Trump Administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and their ardent supporters, very few credible parties questioned the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to participate in the Bahrain event.

Although the Netanyahu government was asked not to attend officially to avoid politicizing the conference, Israelis were generally satisfied by the arrangement, which was designed with their national interests in mind. The focus on economic matters, normalization with Arab states, and the intended marginalization of the Palestine issue on the agenda of the workshop were broadly welcomed by the government and most of the public in Israel. The Israeli approval, however, was not necessarily universal. Some Israeli peace groups and opinion makers, particularly in the liberal media, harshly criticized the workshop and pointed to its shortcomings vis-à-vis Palestinian participation and, most importantly, to the damage it might have caused to the prospects of comprehensive, genuine, and lasting peace in the region. Clearly, the Palestinians were not the only critics of the plan devised by President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

As expected, on the eve of the Bahrain workshop, those invested in peace between Israel and Palestine characterized the proposal released by the White House to stimulate the Palestinian economy as “amateurish, disingenuous, and dangerous.” Americans for Peace Now (APN) has actually called on the Trump Administration “to shelve its Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace plan.’” In a hard-hitting op-ed about the Trump plan, APN spokesman Ori Nir accused the administration of diminishing the hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace by “attempting to bury the long-term US policy of pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Nir concluded that the administration’s proposal “does not deserve to be taken seriously because it is not harnessed to a political strategy that would end the occupation and establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

In a joint article published by Politico, former director of the Israeli Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, former chief of staff of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Gilead Sher, and Israeli high-tech entrepreneur Orni Petruschka called the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop “immoral, impractical—and could blow up the Middle East.” The three co-founders of the Israeli NGO Blue White Future and principals of Molad, an Israeli think tank, argued that “Putting economics first, before the political process, is more than a tactical error, yet another in a long line of failed attempts to advance towards a permanent two-state solution.” “The Trump administration’s focus on economics,” they insisted, “is a strategic mistake that could stymie the negotiations before they begin.” Ayalon, Sher, and Petruschka held that “If the Palestinians could be ‘bought’ with economic benefits, we would be long past the need for talks.” They concluded that “To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, protect Israelis and Palestinians, and prevent more bloodshed and greater instability in the Middle East, Trump’s dangerous ‘economics first’ approach should be discarded—and, if not, opposed.”

In a policy paper titled “The Bahrain workshop and the dwindling prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace under Trump,” Nimrod Goren, the founder and head of Mitvim–The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a teaching fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, accused the current US administration of seeking “to change the rules of the game” while distancing itself from its predecessors who “sought a solution acceptable to both sides and were responsive to the interests of all involved.” Goren criticized the White House for advancing vague ideas, dangling ineffective economic incentives, organizing low-level events instead of a serious process, issuing confusing and irrelevant declarations through Twitter, and investing “a great deal of time and energy in tarnishing the image of Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders.” Such moves by the Trump Administration, according to Goren, “only serve to damage Israeli interests in the pursuit of peace.”

The Israeli media were not to be outdone by academic experts, activists, or political practitioners. It is noteworthy that some Israeli journalists, like Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13, were visibly intoxicated by the aura of a first-time visit to an Arab Gulf country and lost their professional bearing covering mushy interviews by a few Arab participants and the emotional discovery of the tiny Bahraini Jewish community and the Manama synagogue. Many others, however, maintained their focus on the substantive issues and offered serious analysis beyond the smoke and mirrors floated by Kushner and company. For example, Avi Issacharoff, a Middle East analyst for The Times of Israel, wrote a very critical blog of the Manama workshop, calling it the “bribe of the century.” He explained that “The Palestinian leadership’s unequivocal refusal to accept any part of the Trump plan dooms the plan to complete failure.”

Two weeks before Kushner addressed his guests, who had been pressured to convene in Manama, the diplomatic correspondent for The Times of Israel, Raphael Ahren, predicted that the planned economic workshop would succeed in getting Israeli and Gulf participants to talk openly. However, “As for Israeli-Palestinian peace,” according to Ahren, “the conference may end up pushing that dream even further away.” Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev went significantly further in his criticism of the Kushner plan, describing it as “an amateurish pie-in-the-sky, shoot-for-the-moon, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hodgepodge that promises projects that cannot be implemented, funded by money that does not exist and contingent on a peace deal that will never happen.” Shalev blames Trump’s approach on two main factors: first, Trump’s “own inexperience, arrogance and unwillingness to learn anything from a past in which he wasn’t in charge”; and second, “the anti-Palestinian prejudices prevalent in his peace team as well as his advisers and most of his political supporters.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ben-Dror Yeminidescribed the economic workshop in Bahrain as “a tired formula that will only fail again.” He suggested two reasons for his prediction. First, he believes that “Arab nationalism always trumps prosperity and development,” therefore, he concludes, “it is difficult to believe the economic workshop can produce a different result” this time. Second, he argues that the meeting in Manama did not offer any new ideas. After all, according to Yemini, the Palestinian and Israeli economies have received much more support over the years than the proposed Kushner fund, yet peace remained as elusive as ever.

Amira Hass, one of Israel’s most experienced journalists in Palestinian affairs, compared the Kushner plan as “a blueprint for a luxury yacht designed to sail on the desert sands.” She felt that readers have to divorce themselves from reality to accept “the empty promises and advertisers’ clichés” of the plan. She was not impressed by the tired vocabulary of bygone peace processing, such as “Empowerment, private sector, business environment, entrepreneurship, competitiveness of Palestinian exports, industrial zones, improved mobility, enhancing the educational system and bringing women into the workforce.” Understandably, Hass could not reconcile Kushner’s jargon with the harsh reality of “total Israeli control [i.e., occupation] of the space, land and what is under it, the water, the people, their marriages and lives, their freedom of movement, property, their hopes and freedom.” Hass felt the Trump Administration, which put an end in recent months to subsidies from the United States and the European Union, is now planning instead for “Arab countries to subsidize the Israeli occupation.”

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, who entertains some hope that the Bahrain workshop could present “an opportunity to re-enter a process which has the potential to propel the Middle East towards a better future,” had to wisely acknowledge that “the economic discussions cannot replace a genuine political process—one which must aim to resolve the core issues that [are] at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Rosen concludes that “A solid economic foundation can only be sustained if it is followed up by a good-faith effort to address the Palestinian aspiration for self-determination, and to ensure Israel continues to exist as a peaceful, secure democratic Jewish state. History has shown that disillusionment can lead to violence, and we caution all parties that unless steps are taken on the political track, the results may be highly destructive.”