Money first, politics later. Did Bahrain advance Mideast peace?

Why We Wrote This

After decades of disappointments in Middle East peacemaking, it’s easy to be skeptical about new initiatives. President Trump has vowed to succeed where others have failed. Here's how his approach is working.

Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Reuters
Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T, and other dignitaries attend the 'Peace to Prosperity' conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The Bahrain conference that marked the long-awaited first phase of the Trump Middle East peace plan unveiled a $50 billion aid package to the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The conference had come under substantial advance criticism in the Arab world, especially among Palestinians, with many declaring it a failure from the start.

In the aftermath, there certainly is a sense of a missed opportunity. The conference failed to secure funds from the oil-rich Gulf Arab countries or win over the Palestinians and their neighbors. The main sticking point for many was the lack of discussion so far of a political solution. Senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner admitted in Bahrain that “this is a very executable plan if we are able to get a political solution.”

But the White House has insisted on a media blackout to prevent “spoilers” from undermining the plan. So diplomats are all working from a trail of hints, leaks, and speculations as to what the plan may be. Read the full version for answers to five questions, including whether the conference brought Arabs and Israelis any closer to peace, and where the Palestinians go from here.

At the Bahrain conference that marked the long-awaited first phase of the Trump Middle East peace plan, senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House envoy Jason Greenblatt unveiled a detailed $50 billion aid package to the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Among the initiatives: a road and rail corridor between Gaza and the West Bank, regional desalination and energy projects, international investment, and easing borders to integrate the West Bank and Gaza into the global market.

But the conference had come under substantial advance criticism in the Arab world, especially among Palestinians, with many declaring it a failure from the start. One week later, what do we know?

Was there progress, or was it a missed opportunity?

There certainly is a sense in Washington and in European and Arab capitals of a missed opportunity.

The conference failed to secure funds from the oil-rich Gulf Arab countries or win over the Palestinians and their neighbors, leaving many to wonder whether the last two years of political pressure and posturing could have been better spent achieving progress on both the economic and political fronts.

“There is nothing wrong with the ideas. They are wonderful. [Secretary of State John] Kerry and [President Barack] Obama embraced them before,” says Hady Amr, who served as deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, specializing in economic issues, under the Obama administration. 

“What is new is that they refused to discuss sovereignty and two states. The Palestinians are not interested in a discussion about economic growth unless it is side by side with a conversation on freedoms and sovereignty.”

Without a discussion on a political settlement allowing for Palestinian self-determination and free movement of goods and people, the proposals fell flat. Adding to this was the fact that no Palestinian or Israeli officials were present; only a handful of Palestinian businessmen came.

“There was never even an opportunity,” says Mr. Amr. “You don’t have a conference on a topic if those people won’t talk to you.”

Bahrain was economics. What is the political plan?

Good question. Mr. Kushner admitted at Bahrain that “this is a very executable plan if we are able to get a political solution.” The White House says it will unveil this solution toward the end of this year, insisting on a media blackout to guard against “spoilers” bent on undermining the plan.

Diplomats in Brussels, London, the State Department, and the foreign-policy establishment in Washington all say they are in the dark. Instead, they work from a trail of hints, leaks, and speculations as to what the plan may be.

These include Mr. Kushner’s stated doubts about a two-state solution, Mr. Trump’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing it as the capital of Israel, shutting the Palestinian Authority consulate in Washington, and cutting funds to the Palestinian territories and the refugee organization UNRWA. This has led many to conclude that the plan will call for semi-autonomous cantons in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, short of a state.

On Wednesday, speaking to reporters, Mr. Kushner hinted that the plan would also promote settling Palestinian refugees in host Arab countries rather than grant them a right to return to ancestral lands in Israel, suggesting that the U.S. again would come down on the Israeli side of a hotly disputed point. He said the U.S. would announce next steps as soon as next week.

“I think it is clear that whatever the political solution is, it will be short of an independent state for Palestinians and will make Jordan and Egypt step in to carry the security responsibilities currently held by the Israelis in return,” one European diplomat in the region said.

Are Israelis on board with what the U.S. is offering?

It depends on the offer and what emerges from Israel’s political paralysis in September’s repeat elections. Israelis broadly support economic development in the Palestinian territories, believing it contributes to regional stability and Israeli security. “Economic Peace” is a core concept pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since 2008.

But the devil, and the difficulties, are in the details. Linking the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by railway and roads, a core tenet of the Kushner plan, is seen by Israel as a security threat due to the militant Hamas’ control of the Strip.

“I don’t know if it is possible to connect the West Bank and Gaza though rail and roads. As long as Hamas controls Gaza, it is just not going to happen,” says Gen. Michael Herzog, a veteran Israeli negotiator and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It would be very hard for any Israeli PM to say no, but if the plan happens to touch core Israeli interests such as security, it might be the case that Israel does not go along.”

Are Arabs and Israelis closer to peace?

Arabs and Israelis met together publicly in the Gulf for the first time, and it certainly looks very positive: Israeli businessmen chatting up Emirati and Saudi investors; Israeli and American delegates praying in a historic synagogue in Manama. This week, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz visited Abu Dhabi, while Israel announced it will open a representative office in Oman. Mr. Katz was the most senior Israeli minister to publicly visit a Gulf Arab country, but these steps forward do not necessarily mean full ties between Arab states and Israel are imminent.

High-level Israeli visits to the Gulf have occurred on a semi-frequent basis over the last decade unpublicized. But Gulf officials’ enthusiasm is tempered by popular opposition to normalizing ties among Arab publics, politicians, and even royals who demand the establishment of a Palestinian state as a precondition to Arab-Israeli peace. Kuwait, Lebanon, and Iraq boycotted the Bahrain conference.

Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab states with peace treaties with Israel, sent low-level delegations to Bahrain due to public opposition at home, while Morocco sent a ministry employee. Activists at the “Bahrain Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy” publicly mopped the spot where an Israeli delegate took a selfie outside its Manama headquarters to “cleanse” the building. All this underlines the urgent need for a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians in order for peace with Arab states to follow.

“Gulf states want to move ahead, but they have restraints in the public opinion and cannot rush ahead with normalizing ties with Israel as long as there is no progress on Palestinian-Israeli issues,” General Herzog, the veteran Israeli negotiator, says. 

Where do the Palestinians go from here?

After boycotting the Bahrain conference in the face of considerable pressure from Washington, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Palestinian leaders have emerged like bloodied victors of a marathon prize fight. They have undermined the legitimacy of the Trump peace process, damaged the Gulf’s credibility as brokers, and limited Arab participation by playing up the emotive issue of Palestinian statehood and victimhood. But they hold no other cards.

Palestinian officials say privately they plan to “run down the clock” on the Trump administration, boycotting, obstructing, and protesting the White House’s statements and diplomacy until either the inhabitant of the White House changes or the president becomes distracted with an international or domestic crisis.

But obstructionism will not make their problems go away. Gaza is home to the highest unemployment rate in the world at 52%; the West Bank’s hovers at 19%. The Palestinian Authority is deeply unpopular in the West Bank, while Hamas is facing its own domestic opposition with crackdowns. Corruption is rampant. Gaza is one step away from another conflict, and the West Bank remains dependent on international aid. Passing up the billions at Bahrain looks like a steep price to pay, but for now, Palestinians say it is worth it.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the precedent of an Israeli minister’s visit to the Emirates.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.