Bahrain conference may succeed, but not at bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace
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Bahrain conference may succeed, but not at bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace

Economic meet will bring Israelis and representatives of 6 Arab states together, an extraordinary feat. But don’t expect the same level of support once it’s time to talk politics

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, US Vice President Mike Pence, Poland's President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pose for a family photo at the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, on February 13, 2019. (Janek SKARZYNSKI/AFP)
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, US Vice President Mike Pence, Poland's President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pose for a family photo at the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, on February 13, 2019. (Janek SKARZYNSKI/AFP)

This month’s US-sponsored economic “workshop” in Bahrain now seems set to be a smashing success, so long as success is defined as getting Israelis and moderate Arab states talking openly.

As for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the conference may end up pushing that dream even further away.

The long list of countries planning to attend the conference — the first, economic,  stage of the White House’s wider plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal — marks an achievement for the US.

With Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar now signed up, Washington has managed to gather the Arab world’s most important countries in one place to discuss, under the auspices of the administration of Donald Trump, ways to improve the Palestinian economy — despite the implacable opposition of the intended beneficiaries, the Palestinians.

While Israel has yet to receive an official invite, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is widely expected to attend the June 25-26 meeting in Manama. Channel 13 reported earlier this week that the US organizers were waiting for more Arab countries to RSVP before they extend a formal invitation to the Jewish state. That was before Egypt and Jordan defied Ramallah’s boycott pleas and got on board. Given the strong ties between the administration and the Israeli government, there is little doubt that Israel will now be a welcome guest at the summit.

This Oct. 3, 2011, file photo shows an office tower in Manama, Bahrain, which bears images of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, center, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, left, and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, right (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

As this writer noted on these pages three weeks ago, the mere fact that Bahrain agreed to host a meeting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, held under the auspices of a White House widely seen as hostile to the Palestinians, and opposed by the Palestinians, was already extraordinary.

Since then, six Arab states, four of which do not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel, have indicated that they, too, are ready to sit in one room with representatives of the Zionist regime and the Trump administration — which has done nothing but anger Ramallah, including by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and cutting most financial aid to Palestinian causes.

Since Washington and Manama announced the “Peace for Prosperity” workshop with a joint statement on May 19, the Palestinian Authority has done everything it can to sabotage the event, repeatedly urging Arab governments to stay away — to little avail. Lebanon has unsurprisingly publicly repudiated the summit, citing the Palestinians’ refusal to attend, though it’s far from clear that Beirut was invited in the first place. Iraq is more politely staying away. (Iran, inevitably, has castigated the gathering from the get-go.)

Jared Kushner, left, meets with PA President Abbas in Ramallah, June 21, 2017 (PA press office)

But the Arab world’s most important players, including the Palestinians’ closest neighbors, are all going, leaving the PA with little to do beside express “deep regret” and keep calling on “all brotherly and friendly countries to withdraw from participating in the workshop,” as PA government spokesman Ibrahim Melhim said this week.

“How can the workshop take place in a brotherly Arab country,” senior Palestinian official Azzam al-Ahmad asked plaintively, “in the absence of the main stakeholder?” Acknowledging that this is precisely what is about to happen, he then added churlishly: “Whatever the results of the workshop, there is no legal value to it as long as the stakeholders oppose it.”

Some may argue that al-Ahmad’s complaint was both disingenuous and dryly amusing: How can the Palestinians protest about the main stakeholder being absent when it is they who decided to absent themselves?

Others will understand the decision of a leadership that feels it has gotten nothing but sticks from the White House and is now refusing to legitimize a conference that promises financial carrots as a prelude to a political plan it expects to constitute an even bigger stick.

Either way, the growing list of attendees shows that the cynicism with which many pundits initially dismissed the conference was premature. It may be a wedding without a bride, as some analysts sneered, but at least the groom gets to hang out, in public, with many members of the regional family he rarely gets to see.

How can the Palestinians protest about the main stakeholder being absent when it is they who decided to absent themselves?

Any gesture hinting at a normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world as a result of the conference can only be seen as a victory for both Washington and Jerusalem, regardless of the Palestinian nonattendance and the bleak message that sends for bilateral progress.

Further on down the road

But that bilateral deadlock, that refusal by the Palestinians to engage with Israel under the traditional US mediation, is why the Manama workshop is most probably also going to be a failure. A conference focused on the Palestinians but boycotted by Palestinians is unlikely to achieve much, even in its narrow goal of boosting the Palestinian economy.

According to the joint Bahraini-American announcement, the workshop will allow participants to “share ideas, discuss strategies, and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement.”

Pressured by the US, the likes of Jordan and Egypt have now agreed to take part in this, purely economic, part of the “deal of the century.” There can’t be much wrong with talking about ways to improve Palestinians’ lives, they will have said to themselves before agreeing to attend, when staying away would have meant infuriating the Americans.

US President Trump, right, and Egypt’s President al-Sisi in Riyadh, May 21, 2017. (AFP/MANDEL NGAN)

But the summit is likely to yield no tangible results, neither in the economic realm — as the Palestinians won’t be in the room — nor in the political area, as the Arab world stands united in its rejection of any peace proposal that doesn’t fulfill the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood, which the US peace plan is unlikely to satisfy.

“This conference in Manama will be the biggest setback and embarrassment for [Trump’s senior advisor and Middle East point man Jared] Kushner,” senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told The Times of Israel in an interview published Wednesday, “because I know that no Arab will [attend] without saying: ‘Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital living side by side with Israel on the 1967 borders.’”

Erekat is right about that last point. Six Arab nations agreed to participate in the upcoming conference not because they are about to defy traditional Arab positions on Palestinian statehood but because they don’t want to say no to the Americans and didn’t think they have to. In a very different area, with a very different US administration, much of the Arab world was similarly bitterly opposed to the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but largely kept quiet about it in order not to publicly antagonize the world’s only superpower.

The question is whether, when (or if) the US administration releases the political part of its peace plan, Cairo, Amman and Riyadh will defy the US and brusquely reject it, or whether the Trump White House will have the success it seeks in shifting those long-held positions, with Bahrain as a gentle starting point.

There is a real likelihood that even these Arab leaders who are going to Bahrain will, when the real core issues are being discussed, respond to the administration by saying, “We were open-minded enough to participate in your economic workshop, which did not make us popular among supporters of the Palestinian cause, but you cannot expect us to also support the second, core part of your proposal.”

If so, the success of Bahrain will be rendered irrelevant by the failure portended by the Palestinians’ boycott.

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