When Jared Kushner convenes a gathering in Bahrain this week as part of the long-awaited US plan for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians there with be one small snag — neither side will be in attendance.
Instead, former UK prime minister Tony Blair will take part in a conversation with Mr Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who has shown no enthusiasm for Palestinian statehood, as US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin discusses economic transformation with invited Arab business leaders.
The low-key launch of the US president’s signature foreign policy ambition underlines the lack of traction for what was once advertised as the “deal of the century”. Expectations are muted for a plan that was nearly two years in the making, but which has been shunned by the Palestinians and studied with bemusement by the Israelis.
Hopes for the plan had already faltered when the Palestine Liberation Organization cut off contact over Mr Kushner and Mr Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017. Israel holding repeat elections in September, and the US entering its own presidential election cycle ahead of the 2020 vote, the backdrop is far from conducive to a deal, say veterans of prior rounds of failed talks.
“The Americans want to hold this workshop so they can show their vision for peace. And even if it is currently devoid of any political context, they will go ahead,” said retired Brigadier General Mike Herzog, a former negotiator for the Israeli government.
He added: “We do not have the right context or timing . . . We have turmoil, instability and second rounds of elections.”
Officially, the workshop in Manama is merely the first leg of a complicated plan that emphasise economic opportunity as a means to prepare the ground for negotiations.
Released over the weekend, The White House said the plan would “facilitate” $50bn of spending in Palestine over the next decade, to support small businesses and drive growth in tourism, agriculture and manufacturing, as well as boosting infrastructure investment.
With millions of unemployed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for 13 years, any peace plan must create prosperity, US officials have argued. Saudi Arabia said it remained committed to a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians, resulting in a Palestinian state roughly along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as a capital, none of which appear to be part of Mr Kushner’s plans.
Abdel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for affairs, said: “This conference in Bahrain, maybe people have read too much into it. If it succeeds and we can get investment into the Palestinian territories it can only be good for them . . . It is not a political conference as much as it is an economic development conference.”
Yet the Trump administration has unsettled friendly Arab allies by unilaterally settling some of the most contentious issues in Israel’s favour.
Mr Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, then cutting aid to Palestinian refugees while his envoy has signalled acceptance of Israel’s claims to the occupied West Bank, has overturned decades of US policy on the conflict.
“The core of any plan for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is getting the parties agreeing, and as far as we see there is a disconnect between the Palestinians and the US,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister in an interview. “Our position is very firm, we are going to support any plan that the Palestinians are willing to accept. It cannot be a solution that is imposed on them. No country in the Arab world can accept this.”
In the Gaza Strip, which has endured a 13-year long air, land and sea blockade, the situation is “catastrophic,” said Ismail Haniyeh, political chief of Hamas, the militant group that governs 2m Palestinians in the enclave.
The US hoped to bribe Palestinians into giving up their hopes for a state, Mr Haniyeh said in a rare interview with foreign press, addressing rumours that Arab nations may pledge billions of dollars for Palestinian aid.
“This workshop comes under an economic title, but it is a political plan. It is an attempt to turn this from a political cause, to an economic cause, to seek normalisation with Arab nations without ending the siege of Gaza,” he said, referring to the blockade.
But the situation in Gaza is so dire that he would accept aid, as long as it was not conditioned on giving up Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, the West Bank and a united Palestinian state.
The US administration this year added Mr Haniyeh to its list of international terrorists, and also shuttered the US offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents the government of Mahmoud Abbas, who governs nearly 3m Palestinians in the West Bank. Mr Abbas has also rejected the US plan.
“We do not expect any of those pledges to be collected,” Mr Haniyeh said, referring to past pledges of billions of dollars that never materialised. Even if they were, “We don’t sell our homes, and our conscience, for all the money in the world.”
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