Palestinian snub of Kushner’s conference highlights failure of admin’s outreach effort

Posted at 11:22 PM, Jun 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-26 02:22:05-04

As the architects of the Trump administration’s Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative meet in Bahrain to discuss the economic aspect of their plan — which aims to attract ideas and boost the Palestinian economy before they reveal their political blueprint at a later date — those who are supposed to benefit are absent.

The main stage in Bahrain will be dominated by representatives from US allies including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Palestinian political and business leaders are boycotting proceedings due to their aversion to the administration’s approach to formulating what has been widely dubbed President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.”

The architects of the plan — Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman — have sought to bypass the Palestinian leadership and reach out to “everyday” Palestinians and business leaders, explain White House officials and sources in the region.

They hoped this effort would result in a public counterweight to the plan’s rejection by the Palestinian political leadership. But critics point out that even those who have met with the three architects are not supporting the Bahrain conference, and some of the Palestinians the administration have spoken to have links to the Israeli government.

Kushner, speaking in New York at the Time 100 event earlier this year, claimed his team was employing a bottom up strategy to “make the lives of the Palestinian people better” by ensuring that their homeland is “investible.”

Kushner’s ‘new reality’

During his opening speech in Bahrain. Kushner laid out his vision.

“Imagine a new reality in the Middle East. Imagine a bustling tourism and commercial center in Gaza and the West Bank,” Kushner said, as he encouraged attendees to “begin thinking about these challenges in a new way.”

But Zahi Khouri, a prominent Palestinian business leader who has visited the Trump White House for meetings, opposes the administration’s approach.

“We just don’t believe that economic comes first. That is why we won’t go,” explained Khouri. “I just find it a bit lunatic, the whole thing. Either we are in delusion, or the architects are in delusion.”

Khouri says he does not know any well-respected influential business leaders who will be attending and predicts low investment pledges.

Khouri’s advice to Greenblatt and Kushner was to focus on a “people to people pact” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He says they smiled when he delivered the advice — but ultimately ignored him.

A White House official described contacts with Palestinians who are not part of the leadership from “across all ages and occupations” and added that those meetings have provided new insights and perspectives. Many of the Palestinians believe “their leadership is making a big mistake on this and they want their voices heard,” the official claimed.

Over the last two years a number of closed-door, secretive meetings have happened. One Palestinian who sat down with Greenblatt last year said that the White House official was seeking to sell his team as “honest brokers.” Another Palestinian said that they just “sit and smile” and don’t ask very specific questions. Sources could not quantify the number of Palestinians that have met with the Trump team, and administration officials declined to do so as well.

The Trump administration has, at least in part, leaned on Israeli contacts to setup these meetings, according to multiple sources familiar with the planning. And many describe those who have been ready to engage as being on the periphery of Palestinian society.

“There are a few outcast Palestinians who work with Israeli settlements and accept it de facto for their own interests,” says one Palestinian familiar with the meetings. “They are completely isolated.”

Yet many Palestinians point to the administration’s policies as clear evidence they are not serious about respecting their longstanding interests. These include the moving of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the cutting of funds for Palestinian refugees, as well as aid projects, the closure of the PLO office in Washington, and the dissolution of the US diplomatic mission to the Palestinians into the US embassy to Israel.

‘They have lost control of the message’

“The administration is starting with a major disadvantage. The number of steps they have made, whether with Jerusalem or cutting aid, have basically created a narrative that the (administration) is anti-Palestinian. And because the administration cannot talk about the details of the plan, they have lost control of the message,” says Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Kushner also recently suggested Palestinians are unable to govern themselves.

“I think that’s a high bar … if you don’t have proper government structure and proper security when people are living in fear of terror, that hurts the Palestinians,” Kushner told Axios HBO earlier this month when asked about Palestinian statehood. “The hope is that over time they can become capable of governing.”

The Trump administration has also alienated some Palestinians who had previously worked for the US government.

Ibrahim Dalalsha was the go-to interlocutor for sensitive messages between the Palestinian government and the US government for almost 20 years. As a locally employed political specialist for the State Department, who grew up in the West Bank, he served as a blunt messenger — giving the US advice on policies, informed by the views of Palestinian leadership. His work had both political and security ramifications.

“It was difficult, sometimes it was bleak, there were disagreements and problems but there was energy,” Dalalsha explains of his career working on one of the most sensitive issues in the Middle East. “The process was not dead. Now it is.”

Earlier this year, Dalalsha quit. He felt he had to quit because there was no place for him at the embassy after the US mission to the Palestinians shut down.

“I could no longer do my job. I felt like if I continue supplying information to a US ambassador who is not engaged with the Palestinians and doing it to serve Israeli interests from his perspective, then I am, as a Palestinian, just an informer. I am not a political operator as I used to be,” Dalalsha explained. “I am not a bridge between two sides. I have no dual commitments. The feeling is very bad.”

When asked about Dalalsha’s departure a State Department official said, “The Department of State does not comment publicly on specific local staff personnel matters.”

One former US ambassador who worked with Dalalsha, who is now the director at the Horizon Center for Political Studies and Media Outreach, described him as “indispensable.”

“He was probably the most important local employee we had in the consulate in those days,” said Jake Walles, the consul general and chief of the US mission in Jerusalem from 2005 to 2009. “Given his contacts, and the fact that for the past year before the consulate closed there were not any high-level discussions between Israel and Palestine, he would have been valuable. The President’s team working on this was basically flying blind. Now [without Dalalsha] they are really flying blind.”

Despite the Palestinians showing almost no appetite to engage, the White House is hoping that the Palestinian Authority will do so when their plans are released. This week they will lay out their economic plan — a $50 billion plan to boost the Palestinian economy if a peace process is agreed to. At a later unspecified date they promise they will release the plan’s political component.

“We have always remained open to meeting with the Palestinian Authority, but they are the ones that made the decision to not have any contact with us since the end of 2017. Our hope is that when our plan is released, the PA will choose to engage on it constructively,” said a White House official. “They owe it to their people to do so.”

It is unclear if the official meant that the Palestinians will change their tune after the economic plan is out, or after the political plan is released.

But for now Palestinians seem united in their rejection of a plan to “buy” their cooperation, even though the Trump White House has rejected that characterization.

Given that the administration has signaled the political plan will likely not emphasize a two-state solution, Palestinian leadership has reiterated that they are unlikely to be any more sympathetic when that is released later this year.

“The Palestinian people and leadership will not deal with any peace plan that does not comply with international law i.e. two states solution including East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state based on 1967 lines,” Majdi Khaldi, Diplomatic Advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas, told CNN.