US moves forward with economic-centered Mideast plan

The U.S. is leading a two-day economic workshop it hopes will lay the groundwork for a Middle East peace plan. But without discussion of political disputes, or the presence of Palestinian or Israeli delegates, Arab nations are keeping their distance.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
A Palestinian man burns photos of U.S. President Donald Trump and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain near the West Bank city of Hebron June 24, 2019. Along the West Bank, hundreds of Palestinians are protesting against a U.S.-led Mideast peace conference being held in Bahrain.

Despite withering criticism, charges of hypocrisy, and outright rejection from the intended beneficiaries, the Trump administration is plowing ahead with a $50 billion economic proposal to aid the Palestinians and hopes it will drive a much-anticipated but unseen Mideast peace plan.

The United States has attracted only lukewarm support from its traditional partners in Middle East peacemaking and is convening the "Peace to Prosperity" workshop this week in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain under the shadow of rising tensions with Iran that could ignite regional conflict. The two-day conference that begins Tuesday in Manama has drawn governmental and private sector participants from dozens of countries, but lacks official Israeli or Palestinian delegations.

The event includes presentations from President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and the heads of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. But the seven-page program for the workshop contains no discussion of how to resolve the political disputes at the core of the long-running conflict.

The administration acknowledges that its ambitious economic proposals are contingent on acceptance of a political plan, which will not come out until the fall.

"How anything could come out of that agenda is hard to know," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar and the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

The program does not mention Israel or Palestine and refers to Palestinians by name only four times. One of those references is in the description of the sole Palestinian participant with a speaking role at the meeting, a West Bank businessman who works with Israeli settlers and is viewed with deep suspicion by many of his fellow Palestinians.

The administration has refused to endorse a "two-state solution," a goal long viewed by many as the only viable way to secure lasting peace, and the 40-page proposal and its longer annex do not use the phrase. Nor do the documents offer any hint as to who will pay for the programs, which include health, education, and public works projects in the West Bank, Gaza, and for Palestinian communities in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Lebanon is boycotting the conference. Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab nations with peace treaties with Israel, are sending only midlevel officials. Their acceptances of invitations to Bahrain, similar to those of other Arab states, include the caveat that they will not support a peace deal that the Palestinians won't accept.

Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said Monday that his country is participating to listen to the proposal. "We have the right to evaluate and review it," he said in an interview with Russia Today. But, he added, "the final decision is for the Palestinian Authority."

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is having none of it. "The workshop was meant to address the economic problems, but the real problem is the political one," he said Sunday. "The Palestinians are seeking an entity, statehood, and after that we look at the economy."

Hundreds of Palestinians on Monday protested against the conference, pouring into the streets of West Bank cities, from Hebron to Nablus; many burned effigies of Mr. Trump and Bahrain's king. Protesters in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, carried a giant coffin labeled "Bahrain workshop," and signs that said "The Deal of the Century is doomed."

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said his government would listen but he offered no guarantee he would endorse the plan. He said security, which must be addressed in political negotiations, will always be the paramount issue for Israel.

"We will hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness, and I cannot understand how the Palestinians before they even heard the plan reject it outright. That's not the way to proceed. We believe that peace is coupled and dependent on security," he said.

Many former U.S. officials who participated in earlier rounds of failed diplomacy have criticized the proposal on similar grounds. Without any insight into the administration's ideas on specific security and territorial intentions, they say the economic proposal is unrealistic.

Dave Harden, a former mission director for the West Bank and Gaza for the U.S. Agency for International Development, noted that the types of projects listed in the plan have been around for years.

"I don't think that they're being realistic about how hard it is," he said. "Even if you have the money, implementation can be an immense challenge." Mr. Harden said a road project in the West Bank and a 150-yard water line near the Gaza border took years to win Israeli approval.

Defenders of the plan say it should be given a chance.

"Administration critics adopt the odd view that, although all past efforts have failed, we must never deviate from them. They are offended by alterations to old formulas, when the old formulas achieved no peace," Jon Lerner, who served as deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under now-ex Ambassador Nikki Haley, wrote in an opinion piece distributed by the White House.

Critics point to the fact that many of the projects in the economic plan have been proposed before and came to nothing because donors did not come up with the promised money and address Israel's security concerns, and there were breakdowns in political negotiations.

"Pledges are free and people often don't follow through," Mr. Telhami said. "They are cheap ways to score political points and if you look back there is a history to this. It has been tried before with little result."

Still, Mr. Lerner and other supporters of the administration's approach argue that critics ignore Gulf Arab enthusiasm for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that they can concentrate on larger issues such as their own economic transformations and threats from Iran.

This, they say, is underscored by Qatar's participation in the conference despite a dispute with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Bahrain that has paralyzed the Gulf Cooperation Council for nearly two years.

"Now you see the Gulf as an active participant in the process and that is unprecedented," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, a longtime proponent of closer Israel-Arab ties and adviser to Bahrain's king. "The regional dynamic is very different than before," said Mr. Schneier, who is attending the workshop as a member of the Bahraini delegation.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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