MANAMA, Bahrain — Kicking off the Trump administration’s international peace conference in Bahrain Tuesday, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said his plan for the Middle East was “the opportunity of the century” for the Palestinians but their acceptance was a precondition to peace.
“Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues,” Kushner said as he opened the workshop in the Bahraini capital of Manama, which is being boycotted by the Palestinian Authority.
While the two-day meeting will not address political solutions in the Middle East, Kushner acknowledged the need to take them up later.
“To be clear, economic growth and prosperity for the Palestinian people are not possible without an enduring and fair political solution to the conflict — one that guarantees Israel’s security and respects the dignity of the Palestinian people,” he said.
Kushner said the political talks would come, but asked his audience to focus at the summit on the region’s economic potential.
“Imagine a bustling commercial and tourist center in Gaza and the West Bank, where international businesses come together and thrive,” he said.
Kushner acknowledged widespread skepticism about the intentions of President Donald Trump, his father-in-law, who has taken an unapologetic pro-Israel line, including recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But he said that the Palestinians have been ill-served by previous peace-making efforts.
“My direct message to the Palestinian people is that despite what those who have let you down in the past say, President Trump and America have not given up on you,” Kushner said.
He dismissed the mocking description of his peace plan as the “deal of the century” but said: “This effort is better referred to as the Opportunity of the Century, if the leadership has the courage to pursue it.”
Kushner expressed hope that those present could “come together and hopefully use this [conference] to change the course of history in the region.”
The economic plan, revealed by the White House on Saturday, calls for $50 billion in investment over 10 years in the West Bank, Gaza, and Arab neighboring countries.
“For too long the Palestinian people have been trapped in an inefficient framework of the past,” said Kushner, criticizing the “conventional wisdom” about peacemaking.
“In meeting after meeting and conference after conference I hear the same broken record of negativity about why progress is not possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the Palestinian people were being left behind.
He said his goal was to encourage those assembled to “begin thinking about these challenges in a new way.”
The conference in the tiny Gulf kingdom was being held amid heavy skepticism and deep doubts about prospects for its success.
Attending were some Arab finance ministers, the heads of international financial organizations, and private sector business executives and investors from dozens of states. At least five rabbis were at the summit: Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Rabbi Marc Schneier, an adviser for interfaith affairs to the king of Bahrain; Montreal-based Rabbi Mayer Gniwisch, the owner of a venture capital fund that invests in Israel; and one rabbi who asked to remain unnamed.
But the participants notably do not include official Israeli or Palestinian delegations, and many countries’ delegations are not headed by cabinet ministers.
The Palestinians have rejected the proposal because it does not include a horizon for granting them independence. US officials say the political portion of the plan addressing such thorny issues may not be released until the fall.
Only one Palestinian businessman, Ashraf Jabari, was known to attend the event. He was joined by a handful of fellow Palestinians, who asked not to be interviewed, but said they support Jabari and his decision not to boycott the event.
Without proposals on borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, the Palestinians say the economic plan is meaningless and are staging protests against the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop.
Palestinians in Gaza called a general strike, with stores and public institutions shuttering to protest the meeting, and demonstrators in the West Bank carried a giant coffin labeled “Bahrain workshop” and signs reading “The Deal of the Century is doomed.”
Besides opposition from the intended beneficiaries of the proposal, the plan has been harshly criticized by former diplomats, aid workers and others involved in past peacemaking efforts for being unrealistic and lacking any clear description of who will pay for it.
Trump, Kushner and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argue that a new approach is needed precisely because previous efforts have fallen short. They note that the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank will attend and speak at the event, as will the head of FIFA, the international soccer federation, and the managers of numerous large investment funds.
Yet, enthusiasm has been tempered by the Trump administration’s refusal to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the “two-state solution” that has been long viewed internationally as the only viable path to lasting peace.
The Palestinians cut ties with the White House after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. Trump’s Mideast team has recently signaled it will accept Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, the heartland of any Palestinian state, deepening Palestinian suspicions.
Even the Arab delegations attending the meeting in Bahrain have couched their participation with reaffirmations of support for an eventual Palestinian state.
Saudi Arabia said it remained committed to that end with a state based on the border that existed before the 1967 Six Day War.
“The Kingdom reiterates its firm position on the Palestinian cause and solving it in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative, which called for establishing an independent Palestinian state along the borders of 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital,” the Saudi government said in a statement.
Qatar’s Ali Sharif Al Emadi was the only finance minister, besides Mnuchin, who was present at the workshop. His arrival in Bahrain is remarkable, as relations between Bahrain and Qatar have been very tense for some time now.
Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab nations to have signed peace deals with Israel, sent only mid-level representatives to Bahrain and said they would not abandon demands for a Palestinian state.
Morocco is also taking part in the Bahrain workshop, but the foreign ministry qualified its participation by noting its delegation is headed by a member of the finance ministry, saying in a statement that “the constant and unchanged position of the Kingdom of Morocco, [is] in favor of a two-state solution, living side by side in peace and stability.”
Bahrain, which has close ties to the Saudis, has been criticized for hosting the conference and sharply limited the number of journalists allowed to cover it. It has defended its decision by saying its only objective is to support the “brotherly Palestinian people.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.