After many months of delays and obfuscation, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, senior advisor, and designated Middle East policy czar, announced on May 19, 2019, with little advance notice or fanfare, the convening of an economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain. The meeting, dubbed “Peace to Prosperity,” will be hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain on June 25-26, 2019. The purpose is to discuss a framework for a “prosperous future” for the Palestinian people and, according to Reuters, “to drum up international investment for the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” the latter of which is controlled by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
The Declared Objective
According to a joint statement issued by the governments of Bahrain and the United States, the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop “will facilitate discussions on an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region, including enhancements to economic governance, development of human capital, and facilitation of rapid private-sector growth. If implemented, this vision has the potential to radically transform lives and put the region on a path toward a brighter future.”
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner summarized the objective of the proposed workshop as presenting “an exciting, realistic and viable pathway forward that does not currently exist.” The White House made it clear that this meeting will be the first phase of its long-touted Middle East peace proposal, often referred to as “the deal of the century.” Stage one, according to administration officials, will deal only with economic details of the plan. They specified that the participants will not discuss the political or security components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such topics, traditionally referred to as “permanent status issues,” will be deferred to a future, yet to be specified phase of the anticipated talks. Kushner was quoted by CNN news reports that the Manama agenda will focus on four major items: infrastructure, industry, empowering and investing in people, and governance reforms “to make the area as investible as possible.”
The List of Participants
The “Joint Statement” announcing the Manama event described the potential participants as including “government, civil society, and business leaders” from the region, in addition to Europe and Asia. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed that “This workshop will engage leaders from across the entire Middle East.” The US administration was hoping that other finance ministers and international business executives would also attend.
In addition to Bahrain hosting the event, all Gulf Cooperation Council member states will most likely participate. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) enthusiastically welcomed the announcement and declared that it will join the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) at the Manama workshop. Qatar, on the other hand, acknowledged the US call for the investment conference to deal with regional economic challenges, but insisted that “Effective tackling of these challenges requires sincerity of intent, concerted efforts from regional and international players and appropriate political conditions for economic prosperity.”
Although other Arab countries have expressed a halfhearted and tepid response to the US invitation, most of them will be hesitant to skip the meeting despite their official apprehension and negative public opinion toward the event.
Although other Arab countries have expressed a halfhearted and tepid response to the US invitation, most of them will be hesitant to skip the meeting despite their official apprehension and negative public opinion toward the event. As a direct beneficiary of the proposed investments, and in light of its strong alliance with KSA and UAE, Egypt in particular will find it extremely difficult to resist participation, even though it has not declared officially its readiness to do so. Jordan, however, is having a difficult time accepting the US invitation due to serious apprehension on the part of the government and the public about the impact of this workshop on the Jordanian economy and national security. This prompted Kushner and Greenblatt to add a stop in Amman to their current itinerary in the region to market their plan.
Business leaders and civil society representatives are also targeted by the Trump Administration. Except for Palestinian and Jordanian business leaders who have already expressed their aversion to participating, certain Arab corporate sector representatives who tend to take their governments’ lead on such matters are also anticipated to attend. Some, like UAE real estate tycoon Khalaf Al Habtoor, who is closely affiliated with the Trump Organization, appealed in a Haaretz op-ed to fellow Arabs, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas, to attend the workshop “for Palestine’s sake.” Participation by civil society groups, however, will be more complicated and restricted since most of the enthusiastic state participants lack a vibrant and independent civil society.
The Palestinian Response
The Palestinian response to the American invitation has been predictable and understandable. Palestinians from various economic and political backgrounds have generally perceived the proposed encounter, since its inception, as part of a broader US attempt to institutionalize the Israeli occupation of Palestine and delegitimate Palestinian political rights. Official Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh declared immediately that “Any plan without a political horizon will not lead to peace.” Palestinian legislator and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi characterized the Manama event as “just an economic workshop … [and] another way of rewarding Israel again and maintaining Israel’s control of our land and resources.”
Other Palestinian leaders have unequivocally rejected the proposed workshop and urged all Palestinians, in the private or public sector, against participating in it. On May 22, PLO Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat issued an official statement on behalf of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority (PA), all political factions, the private sector, and civil society in general, emphasizing that “Palestine’s full economic potential can only be achieved by ending Israeli occupation, respecting international law and UN resolutions.”
The Palestinians, according to Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, were not consulted about the Manama workshop “neither over the content, nor the outcome nor timing.”
The Palestinians, according to Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, were not consulted about the Manama workshop “neither over the content, nor the outcome nor timing.” He added that they felt deliberately excluded from the process which they were certain is designed to ignore “the core issues of the conflict,” including final borders, the status of Jerusalem, or the fate of Palestinian refugees. Shtayyeh insisted that “Any solution to the conflict in Palestine must be political … and based on ending the occupation.” He told the cabinet, “Our national rights are not negotiable.”
In a carefully worded article published in Haaretz, Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official and international relations advisor to Abbas, characterized the Manama meeting as “one phase in a larger effort to undermine Palestinian rights and normalize Israeli violations, while promoting Arab-Israeli normalization.” He reiterated that Palestinians “will never accept economic bribes instead of freedom,” accusing Washington of seeking “to undermine both international law and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.” It is interesting to note that China and Russia, according to Chinese Ambassador Guo Wei, will also not participate in Manama. On May 31, the United Nations also announced that it will not be present at the meeting.
Nabil Shaath reiterated that Palestinians “will never accept economic bribes instead of freedom,” accusing Washington of seeking “to undermine both international law and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.”
Public criticism and boycott of the Manama conference was not limited to Palestinian officials. Many Palestinian representatives from the private sector and nongovernmental organizations also expressed their opposition to attending the conference. Entrepreneur and real estate developer Bashar Masri issued a statement confirming his invitation to Manama, which he turned down. Masri stated, “We will not work with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus.” Other prominent business leaders, including Zahi W. Khouri, owner of the Coca-Cola franchise in occupied Palestine, and Ibrahim Barham, chief executive of Safad Engineering & Electronics, followed suit. Khouri accused the Trump Administration of attempts at “bribing and buying off” Palestinians.
In addition, the Federation of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture and other private sector trade associations and business organizations, representing about 80 percent of the gross domestic product of Palestine and which expected to be key partners in achieving regional prosperity, have joined forces in issuing a detailed statement rejecting the US-brokered Manama conference. The joint statement confirmed the willingness of its signatories to participate in furthering the economic development of Palestine “in the right timing and context.” However, the group reiterated that it “will not be a party to a US economic vision designed to keep Palestinians ‘leashed’ to indefinite occupation and which denies us fundamental rights and human dignity.”
The Federation of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture reiterated that it “will not be a party to a US economic vision designed to keep Palestinians ‘leashed’ to indefinite occupation and which denies us fundamental rights and human dignity.”
Prospects for Success
Three fundamental developments in the region militate against the potential success of the proposed “Peace to Prosperity” workshop scheduled for June 25-26 in Manama, Bahrain.
First and foremost, the broad refusal of key representatives of the private and public sectors in Palestine to take part in the conference reduces it into something like a wedding party without a bride or a groom, thus limiting its chances for any meaningful success. This could have been avoided with direct communication by the US administration with the Palestinian side, the most concerned party to this conflict, to convince political leaders and the public alike that the effort is indeed aimed at ending Israeli occupation, implementing the fundamental right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and partnering with the Palestinians to build a vibrant, independent, democratic, and prosperous state.
Second, recent political developments in Israel, particularly the failure of Israeli political parties to form a functional coalition government, leave the Trump Administration without an Israeli partner for peace, should Washington indeed be heading in that direction. The recent decision to dissolve the Knesset and redo parliamentary elections on September 17, 2019, will not automatically resolve this dilemma in light of the continuing potential for indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust. By September, Netanyahu might own the record of longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, but he might also become the first Israeli prime minister indicted while in office.
Third, and in terms of substance, the Manama workshop as a gathering totally focused on economic development has not convinced potential participants, including potential donors, that it is organically linked to a second political phase aimed at creating the political and security context necessary as a foundation for economic prosperity. If the workshop were to proceed as planned this June, particularly on the same naïve and vague bases announced thus far, it is doubtful that the organizers would emerge with serious stakeholders committing to the significant amounts of investments desired, or more importantly, to what is needed to change the existing political deadlock.