MANAMA, Bahrain — Under a shadow of heavy criticism from the Palestinians and skepticism from others, the Trump administration will kick off its Israeli-Palestinian peace bid in Manama Tuesday, hoping to drum up billions of dollars to support a vision of a thriving Palestinian economy should a peace deal be reached.
The United States has attracted only lukewarm support from its traditional partners in Middle East peacemaking as it convenes the Peace to Prosperity workshop 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 lacks official Israeli or Palestinian delegations. It has drawn governmental and private sector participants from dozens of countries, though some have no known connection to regional politics or economics.
Among those on the agenda are former UK prime minister Tony Blair; Christine Lagarde; the managing director of the International Monetary Fund; and the boss of soccer’s world governing body FIFA Gianni Infantino.
Blair has long been deeply involved in the socioeconomic aspects of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Infantino and Lagarde have left no known mark on regional affairs.
The event also includes presentations from US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Some of the better known speakers at the Peace to Prosperity workshop include prominent members of the business community, such as Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and senior Goldman Sachs manager Dina Powell, both of whom previously worked for the Trump administration.
Powell in particular was deeply involved in Kushner’s early talks between the Israelis and Palestinians before leaving for the private sector.
Perhaps even more telling than who is on the agenda, though, is who, and what, is not.
Only one Palestinian speaker is mentioned. No Israelis are on the program and just a smattering of representatives from Arab states sending delegations will get up on stage at the Manama conference hall.
The program for the Bahrain conference 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.
Critics also note that 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. A 40-page document outlining a $50 billion plan to jumpstart the Palestinian economy has been derided by some as containing plans that are either “pie-in-the-sky” or a rehash of old ideas. One commentator compared it to a real estate brochure.
“I don’t think that they’re being realistic about how hard it is,” said Dave Harden, a former mission director for the West Bank and Gaza for the US Agency for International Development. “Even if you have the money, implementation can be an immense challenge.”
Palestinians have rejected the plan outright, calling it an attempt to buy them off, and are boycotting the conference.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that his transition government would give it a fair chance, but hours earlier one of his ministers, Tzachi Hanegbi, pooh-poohed an idea of a land link between the West Bank and Gaza as “irrelevant.”
The Trump 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.
Getting down to business
So what can those at the conference and following along on a YouTube livestream expect at the two-day confab?
The conference is scheduled to open on Tuesday evening with a brief speech by Kushner, followed by a panel discussion entitled, “The Time is Now: Building a Coalition for Middle East Prosperity.”
Schwarzman, who briefly headed Trump’s now defunct corporate policy forum, and Emirati businessman Mohamed Alabbar will discuss roles the private sector can play in “ushering a new era of prosperity,” according to the workshop’s schedule.
Wednesday morning will feature one panel between Lagarde — who met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year in Munich — Saudi Minister of State for Economic and Development Affairs Mohammed Al-Sheikh, and Nigerian businessman Tony Elumelu.
A second panel, with businesspeople from the US, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Kingdom, will focus on how the West Bank and Gaza can create an “economic renaissance.”
According to the workshop organizers, the renaissance “will demand not only significant financial commitments but also a favorable, pro-growth policy framework to incentivize investment.”
Later in the morning, Infantino and US-based filmmaker Fernando Sulichin will talk about how sports and entertainment can “energize the journey towards economic prosperity.”
“A thriving sports and entertainment industry would not only create high-quality job opportunities for the region’s population but would also have far-reaching, tangential benefits, including promoting creativity and healthy lifestyles,” the workshop literature reads.
More panels will feature businessmen and experts from various countries, including the United Arabs Emirates and India, and Powell will discuss women’s empowerment with Egyptian entrepreneur Reem Fawzy and American diplomat Josette Sheeran.
After a one-hour lunch break, World Bank president David Malpass, who is billed as a “development expert” as and the CEO of AT&T Randall Stephenson, will powwow on strategies with the goal of “strengthening public institutions, governmental processes, and the legal and regulatory environment” in the region.
Hebron-based businessman Ashraf Jabari — one of the few Palestinians who is not boycotting the event — will be interviewed about ways to develop a thriving local business environment.
Jabari is described in the program as chairman of the Palestinian Business Network, ignoring his role as co-chairman of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce, a pro-settlements group advocating closer cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Several other Palestinian business people are slated to participate, according to Israeli-American businessman Charles Tawil, who is leading the delegation, but have not given their names because of “security concerns.”
On Monday, another Palestinian businessman who had confirmed his participation pulled out after seeing the list of others participating, all of whom are linked to Jabari, according to Tawil.
“It brings me no honor to stand alongside them,” said Mohammed Massad, 54, a Jenin-area native working in agricultural development who has resided in Haifa for 22 years. He refused to elaborate.
The conference will close out with a discussion between Blair — who is recognized as a staunch friend of Israel but is also a strong advocate for a two-state solution — and Kushner, who has so far refrained from endorsing Palestinian statehood.
“In order to chart a path towards sustainable economic prosperity for the West Bank, Gaza and the region, stakeholders will have to engage the valuable experience of global leaders with an astute grasp of the region’s realities,” the program declares. “Only by reflecting upon lessons learned in other settings around the world can the West Bank, Gaza and the region build a strong platform for economic growth and development.”
The final panel promises finance ministers in conversation with Mnuchin.
However, the absence of other names on the agenda highlights the undercurrent of deep skepticism running through the conference, even among the US’s staunchest Gulf allies, who have refused to send representatives above low-level ministers or deputies.
Most have included the caveat that they will not support a peace deal that the Palestinians won’t accept.
Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s sole allies in the region, have also downplayed the conference and attempted to portray their participation in the workshop as simply informational. Their absence on any panels confirms that stance.
“We have the right to evaluate and review it,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in an interview with Russia Today on Monday, defending a move that is deeply unpopular on the Cairo street. But, he added, “the final decision is for the Palestinian Authority.”
Times of Israel staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.