Failure to launch? Economic workshop signals little appetite for US peace plan

With the Palestinians still boycotting the White House and the Gulf states busy with Iran, the ‘deal of the century’ is proving a tough sell for Trump administration

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian man stands next to an USAID billboard in the southern West Bank city of Halhoul, December 17, 2007. (AP Photos/Kevin Frayer)
A Palestinian man stands next to an USAID billboard in the southern West Bank city of Halhoul, December 17, 2007. (AP Photos/Kevin Frayer)

‘This isn’t the deal of the century. It’s the bluff of the century,” a senior Palestinian official told me this week. He was reacting to the US announcement Sunday that it would hold an international meeting in Bahrain next month on how to improve the Palestinian economy.

The official said that since the Trump administration’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace has little support in the Arab world, Washington is currently being forced to make do with a limited forum that will only address the economic aspects of the proposal.

Other leading Palestinian officials have told various media outlets that the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority intends to boycott the conference, which the White House is billing as a “workshop.”

PA Minister Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee and a close associate of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, declared in a post on his Facebook page that “any Palestinian who takes part in the conference will be considered a collaborator.”

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Abbas’s spokesman, clarified that only the PA leader would determine the Palestinian stance on taking part in the conference, though it’s hard to imagine the PA sending a representative after one of the president’s closest associates used such harsh terms to describe theoretical participants.

In this photo from June 21, 2018, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center, meets with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, second left, and Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt during a regional tour to discuss a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, in Cairo, Egypt. (MENA via AP)

At the moment, it does not appear that any major Arab country has agreed to get behind US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” One after another, they have rejected the formulas that Jared Kushner, the administration’s point man for Middle East peace, is trying to market.

Jordan has already made clear it has no intention of backing a plan that doesn’t include support for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with its capital in East Jerusalem. In Egypt, the tone toward the US plan has been less firm, but it seems doubtful President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi will publicly join the White House’s peace efforts.

One of the indications that the plan faces headwinds is the decision to hold the conference in Bahrain. Though it would appear that at least that small Gulf kingdom is partnering with the US, with the administration having said it would release the details of its peace plan in early June, a poorly attended economic workshop toward the end of that month seems anticlimactic to say the least. It is safe to say that Washington has a problem.

Preoccupied with Iran

Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states, meanwhile, have their own problems to deal with.

Counterintuitively, in recent years, one of the advantages for the US has been the marked lack of interest among Arab states in the Palestinian issue. Now that it is preparing to unveil its plan, however, that advantage has turned to a disadvantage.

These days, the most pressing matter facing the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf is tensions with Iran and the damaging of oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in what appear to have been Iranian attacks. Later this month, the Arab League will convene an emergency summit and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will meet shortly thereafter, primarily in order to discuss the tensions with Iran.

In short, there is no one in the region who has the appetite or real ability to deal with a US plan addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas speaks during the weekly PA cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 29, 2019. (Majdi Mohammed/Pool/AFP)

Abbas, who is now in Qatar, is also in no rush to capitulate to US threats to boycott him or cut off aid. American assistance to the Palestinians has already been extensively rolled back since the PA began its boycott of the US over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a year and a half ago.

Recently, Qatar agreed to give the PA $300 million (as part of $480 million promised to the West Bank and Gaza) to fill the funding shortfall in its budget.

Though Abbas may have to make do with less money for the PA, his popularity at home is expected to continue to rise as he maintains his defiance in the face of a US administration that is increasingly seen by his people as biased toward Israel.

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