Jared Kushner, US peace team face credibility test in Bahrain

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-24 07:00:38-04

In the Trump administration’s vision of the future, Gaza City looks a lot more like Tel Aviv: a bustling metropole with scintillating beaches, beckoning tourists from around the world who have no reason to fear the potential for Israeli airstrikes.

Palestinians — who today face stringent travel restrictions — would be free to travel between the West Bank and Gaza thanks to a $5 billion highway and railway connecting the territories. And major international investors spooked by instability and roadblocks to trade would inject billions of dollars of capital into the Palestinian economy, doubling GDP and cutting the poverty rate in half.

But when President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner takes the stage at the Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain’s capital on Tuesday to paint that picture, he won’t be addressing the most pressing questions that need answers if that distant dream has any chance of becoming reality. And as of yet, neither he nor Trump have built up enough good will with Palestinians to convince them this vision offers anything more than a financial tradeofffor their aspirations of achieving a sovereign Palestinian state, something they have made clear they will not accept.

US officials, international businesspeople and government officials from the Middle East and beyond will convene Tuesday in Bahrain for the “Peace to Prosperity” conference to discuss the White House’s detailed $50 billion proposal to spur the Palestinian economy. But while the proposal is contingent on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, US officials will not discuss the political component of their plan.

The release of that component, which would need to address central issues of the conflict like the status of Jerusalem, borders and security, Israeli settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, has been delayed until at least next fall following a new round of Israeli elections.

But the absence of that part of the plan became an immediate point of criticism from Palestinian leaders.

“We need the economy and we need the money. And practically, we need aid,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday. “But before everything, there should be a political solution. When there is a political solution, when we see a state of Palestine along the 1967 borderline, then we can say ‘Dear world, come to assist, we are ready to receive assistance.'”

For now, the White House hopes to gin up support for its initiative from Arab states attending the conference and get Palestinians to consider the economic possibilities of peace with Israel — and little else. A senior administration official said the peace team does not expect countries or investors to make concrete financial pledges at the end of the conference nor sign onto a sweeping joint statement.

But appealing to Palestinians will be a challenge on the heels of a consistent stream of US policy decisions that have favored Israel and its right-wing government while forsaking Palestinian needs.

After recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Trump also shuttered the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington and cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for aid projects for Palestinians, we well as for UNRWA, the UN agency white provides health care, education and other services to millions of Palestinian refugees.

“What you’re offering is a vision for the future, but who’s going to believe in that vision for the future when they don’t see anything being done practically that sets the stage for it?” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former top US negotiator in Middle East peace talks under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

To that end, Ross suggested the White House propose tangible, immediate investments in the Palestinian economy. But a senior administration official said there are no plans for a short-term economic package.

Trump administration officials argue that the detailed economic proposal should be a clear sign to Palestinians that the administration is committed to improving the lives of Palestinians and hope the plan will prepare the terrain for the release of its political counterpart.

The economic proposal is detailed, outlining 179 specific projects that would be funded through a combination of grants, subsidized loans and private capital investments totaling just over $50 billion over 10 years. The 95-page plan describes each investment and infrastructure project, its cost and provides economic projections outlining White House estimates for how the plan impacts Palestinian GDP growth, job creation and unemployment.

And White House officials insist the outlines of the plan have been well received in the Middle East, where Kushner and special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt — both architects of the plan — traveled earlier this year to drum up support for their initiative in the hopes of eventually securing financing from those countries.

It was on that trip that officials from several Arab Gulf states advised the peace team to present the economic part of its peace proposal first because it would be better received than addressing the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a senior administration official and person familiar with the discussions said.

The conference in Bahrain will now become a key barometer of the support the administration can hope to receive from Arab states, whose growing alignment with Israel in the face of threats from Iran has been central to the Trump peace team’s approach. The White House hopes those countries’ leaders who hold sway with the Palestinian public will tout the proposal and help sell it directly to the Palestinian people over the objections of the Palestinian National Authority, a senior administration official said.

The White House was able to overcome a Palestinian boycott of the summit and entreaties from Abbas, the Palestinian National Authority President, for Arab leaders to do the same. Senior administration officials touted the attendance of official government delegations from more than a half-dozen Arab countries as an accomplishment in and of itself, but after the Palestinian boycott, the White House scrapped plans to invite Israeli government officials.

And the Arab countries attending have also offered only tepid support for the administration’s approach while focusing on publicly reaffirming the imperative that the peace process lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Whatever support they express in Manama is expected to be conditional on seeing the rest of the peace plan.

“There’s no doubt that these convergences (between Israel and Arab Gulf states) are the new X-factor,” said David Makovsky, a former member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace team. “That doesn’t necessarily translate into: the Arab states will twist the Palestinians’ arm.”

A senior administration official said the conference in Bahrain will be just a first step to finalizing its economic proposal.

With at least five months until the release of the political component of the plan, the White House hopes to continue discussions in smaller working groups and plans to reconvene conference attendees in several months to agree to a framework for economic solutions for the region, the official said.

The peace team’s decision to address the economic aspects of its plan without first outlining its vision for a political agreement is also emblematic of the administration’s unconventional approach to the conflict — one they and their supporters argue has a better shot at than how successive US administration have approached the peace process.

“Once you put down political parameters, that becomes the only conversation,” said Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Security Studies Group who supports the administration’s approach. “No one makes money betting on Middle East peace and I think the administration understands that very well, but they were elected to solve really difficult problems and…I think they’re giving it their best effort.”

Critics of the Trump administration’s approach — which includes most former US peace negotiators — argue it is fundamentally wrongheaded and worry it will damage US credibility in the peace process long term and push Israelis and Palestinians farther apart from reaching a peace deal than ever before, particularly because it is expected to stray from longstanding US support for a two-state solution.

“It’s kind of like saying, you’ve got a baseball batter who’s in a slump and so — what they’ve been doing — they look at the videotape and instead of like doing a better swing, they just start hitting the umpire with the bat. Yeah, doing something different — but it has to make sense what you’re doing,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal group advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t think anybody who’s been involved with this will say what we did worked … but that doesn’t mean that this is the right approach.”

Ross, the former US diplomat, said the Trump peace plan at least has one element on its side: low expectations.

“Right now the expectations are extremely low,” Ross said. “The good news with low expectations is it’s not that hard to exceed them.”