Bahrain vows support for Palestinians after economic ‘workshop’ announced

Bahrain vows support for Palestinians after economic ‘workshop’ announced

FM Khalifa, known for pro-Israel stance, says Manama wants Palestinians to ‘live in stability and achieve their aspirations,’ as Ramallah appears to reject upcoming summit

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

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa attends the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa attends the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Bahrain, which is hosting the rollout of the first part of the US administration’s Middle East peace plan, on Monday reiterated its principled support for the Palestinian cause.

In a statement, the tiny Gulf state’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa “underscored the position of the Kingdom of Bahrain in support of the Palestinian cause and the aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

Khalifa, who in the past has raised eyebrows in the Arab world with his pro-Israel statements, stressed that his country “stands by all efforts that would lead to investment in infrastructure and the development of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and enable the Palestinian people to prosper.”

His statement did not mention Israel.

The Palestinian people “hold an important place in the hearts of all Bahrainis, and it is the Kingdom’s wish that Palestinians have the opportunity to live in stability and achieve their aspirations,” the statement went on.

On Sunday, Bahrain and the US jointly announced that they will host an economic “workshop” for international government, civil society and business leaders to “share ideas, discuss strategies, and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement.”

During the summit, set to take place in the Bahraini capital Manama on June 25-26, the US is expected to present the first part of its long-anticipated peace proposal. Its second part, which will deal with the political issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be revealed at a later stage, according to the White House.

Palestinians reacted coolly to the announcement, saying a political solution must accompany any economic initiatives.

“Any solution to the conflict in Palestine must be political … and based on ending the occupation,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said at a cabinet meeting. “The current financial crisis is a result of a financial war waged against us and we will not succumb to blackmailing and extortion and will not trade our national rights for money.”

Shtayyeh and senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat also said Ramallah was not consulted on the conference.

“All efforts to make the oppressor and the oppressed coexist are doomed to fail. Attempts at promoting an economic normalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine will be rejected,” Erekat said in a statement that did not mention Bahrain, with which the Palestinians have solid ties.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (bottom left), Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (top left), Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (second from right) and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (right) speak during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss a French peace initiative in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on May 28, 2016. (AFP/Stringer)

Manama does not have formal relations with Jerusalem, but clandestine ties between the two countries have existed for years.

In February, an Israeli report said that the Bahraini government had expressed interest in normalizing ties with Israel two years ago. Khalifa, who has been Bahrain’s top diplomat since 2005, was said to have asked then-MK Tzipi Livni to convey the message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a secret meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in 2017.

Also in February, at the sidelines of a US-Polish Middle East conference, Khalifa told The Times of Israel that his country would “eventually” establish diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

In a leaked video from the conference, the minister can be seen saying that countering the Iranian threat was a much more pressing concern than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last year, he backed Israel’s right to “defend itself,” after its military said it struck dozens of Iranian military targets in Syria. “Any state in the region, including Israel, is entitled to defend itself by destroying sources of danger,” he wrote on Twitter.

It is currently unclear if any Israeli representatives will be invited to the economic “workshop” in Manama later this month.

According to the joint US-Bahraini statement, this summit will “facilitate discussions on an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region, including enhancements to economic governance, development of human capital, and facilitation of rapid private-sector growth.”

White House adviser Jared Kushner waves, as he arrives at the Office of the United States Trade Representative, for talks on trade with Canada, in Washington, DC, on August 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/File)

A senior administration official told reporters that invitations to the workshop are being sent to individuals in the United States, Europe, the Gulf, the wider Arab world and “some” Palestinian business leaders.

The Trump administration decided to roll out the economic and political parts of the plan separately, the official said, adding that there will be no discussion about the political aspects of the plan at the upcoming workshop.

The Trump administration suggested the economic framework of the peace proposal would be debated before the resolution of core political issues, such as the question of Palestinian statehood.

White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner has already said that the team he is leading has refrained from even using the term “two-state solution.” The reason, he said, is that the term has different meanings to different people.

“Economic progress can only be achieved with a solid economic vision and if the core political issues are resolved,” Kushner said in a statement on Sunday. “We look forward to presenting our vision on ways to bridge the core political issues very soon.”

Kushner has said previously that the full contents of the plan will address all final-status issues, i.e., the major disputes to be resolved in negotiations, including borders, the status of Jerusalem, and what to do about Palestinian refugees.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, sits next to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during the US-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, on July 19, 2017, at the Treasury Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/File)

An unnamed US official told CNN that the political aspects of the plan would be released at a later date.

“We recognize that this needs to go hand in hand with the political plan, but this will be the first chance to roll out details of the economic plan,” the official said.

“We think this will showcase the potential of the entire region,” the official added. “If there’s peace, it will touch on not only the West Bank and Gaza but also Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The economies will become integrated.”

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a visit to Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. (Government Press Office)

Recent reports have said that the administration is preparing to offer a peace deal that will not include the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would be a non-starter for not only the Palestinian Authority but the rest of the Arab world and international community.

US President Donald Trump has been criticized by PA President Mahmoud Abbas as favoring Israel over the Palestinians. Over the last three years, the president has moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, cut aid to the Palestinians and United Nations Agencies that support the West Bank and Gaza, and recalled the Palestinian envoy to Washington.

In response, the Palestinians have refused to engage with Washington on diplomatic issues, and have preemptively dismissed the administration’s plan.

The rollout of the plan has been repeatedly delayed. Kushner said in March that the proposal would not be made public until after Israel forms a new government and the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which would put it at early June or later.

Eric Cortellessa and AP contributed to this report.

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