Kahlon intends to attend US-Bahraini economic peace confab

Finance minister has yet to receive a formal invite to Manama summit, but expects it to arrive any day, his spokesman says

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (L) meeting in his Jerusalem office with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on May 14, 2018. (Finance Ministry)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (L) meeting in his Jerusalem office with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on May 14, 2018. (Finance Ministry)

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon intends to participate in next month’s economic peace “workshop” in Bahrain, his spokesman Omri Sheinfeld said Tuesday.

While Kahlon has not yet received a formal invitation to the event, he expects one to arrive at his desk “in a matter of days,” Sheinfeld told The Times of Israel.

If he remains in his current post, Kahlon would certainly want to participate in the the summit, during which the US administration is expected to present its plan on how to improve the Palestinian economy, Sheinfeld said.

In recent years, Kahlon has worked extensively on the matter, including in several meetings with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is scheduled to attend the Manama summit.

Israeli ministers have visited Gulf states in the past — last year, Culture Minister Miri Regev was in the United Arab Emirates and Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz spoke at a conference in Oman — but a planned trip by an Israeli delegation to Bahrain last month was canceled amid security concerns.

Miri Regev, center, visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with UAE officials on October 29, 2018. (Courtesy Chen Kedem Maktoubi)

On Monday, Israel’s Channel 13 reported that the US administration’s invitation to Israel to participate was sent as a hard copy, which is en route to Israel in diplomatic mail channels.

The Finance Ministry told the Associated Press earlier in the day that it had not been invited.

The White House announced Sunday it will unveil the first phase of its long-awaited Mideast peace plan at the conference, saying it will focus on economic benefits that could be reaped if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

The plan envisions large-scale investment and infrastructure work, much of it funded by wealthy Arab countries, in the Palestinian territories.

But officials say the June 25-26 conference will not include the core political issues of the conflict: final borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees or Israeli security demands.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Monday that any American peace plan that ignores the Palestinian people’s aspirations for an independent state is doomed to fail.

His comments immediately cast a cloud over the summit.

“Any solution to the conflict in Palestine must be political… and based on ending the occupation,” he said at a Palestinian 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.”

US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said it was “difficult to understand why the Palestinian Authority would reject a workshop designed to discuss a vision with the potential to radically transform lives and put people on a path toward a brighter future.

“History will judge the Palestinian Authority harshly for passing up any opportunity that could give the Palestinians something so very different, and something so very positive, compared to what they have today,” Greenblatt said.

In another setback, Bashar Masri, a Palestinian industrialist with vast business holdings throughout the West Bank, said he had turned down an invitation to the conference.

Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar Masri in front of his residential project of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90/File)

“I will not participate in this conference, and none of the representatives of our companies will participate,” he wrote on Facebook. “We reaffirm our clear position: We will not deal with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus.”

The Palestinians severed ties with the US over a year ago over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They have repeatedly expressed fears that the White House will try to buy them off with large sums of investment in exchange for freezing their demands for an independent state. They believe the US is trying to rally support from other Arab countries to bully them into accepting a plan that would legitimize Israeli control of the West Bank.

In a joint statement with Bahrain, the White House said the gathering will give government, civil and business leaders a chance to rally support for economic initiatives that could be possible with a peace agreement.

“The Palestinian people, along with all people in the Middle East, deserve a future with dignity and the opportunity to better their lives,” Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said in a statement Sunday.

“Economic progress can only be achieved with a solid economic vision and if the core political issues are resolved.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (unseen) meets with Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 14, 2017. (Flash90)

The tiny island nation of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, has signaled its willingness to open relations with Israel. Prominent rabbis in 2017 said King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had told them that he hoped the Arab boycott of Israel would end.

Kushner and Greenblatt have been leading efforts to draft the plan, but after more than two years of work, they have not released any details.

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

The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

There were no details on who might attend, or whether the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was invited.

Senior adviser Jared Kushner attends a dinner celebrating the National Day of Prayer at the White House on May 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

In the absence of direct talks with Palestinian leaders, US officials often talk of engaging Palestinians in the private sector and “civil society” groups.

Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has embraced the “Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce,” a group led by Israeli West Bank settlers that seeks business ties with Palestinian partners. The group’s Palestinian co-founder, businessman Ashraf Jabari, said he had been invited and planned on attending.

It is unclear how any large-scale projects would be carried out in the Gaza Strip. The US and Israel consider Gaza’s Hamas rulers to be a terrorist group and have no direct contacts with them.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War — for an independent state. Breaking from the policies of its predecessors, the Trump administration has refused to endorse a two-state solution.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the Oval Office of the White House on May 13, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The Palestinians have already said they would reject any peace plan offered by the US, saying Trump is unfairly biased toward Israel.

Kushner said it has been disheartening that the Palestinian leadership has attacked the plan before it is unveiled.

Earlier this month, Kushner insisted that the plan he has helped craft is a detailed, fresh approach that he hopes will stimulate discussion and lead to a breakthrough in solving the decades-old conflict. At a think tank in Washington, Kushner described it as an “in-depth operational document” not anchored to previous, failed negotiations, high-level political concepts or stale arguments.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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