An underwhelming start to the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian deal


IT COULD have been Davos, or any of the other conferences on the annual circuit for the world’s wealthy. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and a senior adviser to America’s president, took the stage to offer his vision for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The combatants, he lectured, were “trapped in an inefficient framework of the past”. Their obstinacy is a barrier to turning the West Bank and Gaza into “a bustling commercial and tourist centre”. If 70 years of warfare would simply come to a halt, “we can turn this region from a victim of past conflicts into a model for commerce and advancement across the world.”

Before he took office in 2017 Donald Trump vowed to broker the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. To oversee the effort he chose, Mr Kushner, a real-estate developer with no experience in diplomacy or the Middle East. The result has been about as expected. There is still no political plan for resolving the underlying conflict and its many thorny issues: borders, refugees or the status of Jerusalem, and the very notion of Palestinian statehood. Its release has been repeatedly delayed; diplomats hint that it may remain on the shelf until Mr Trump’s second term, if he wins one.

Instead Mr Kushner organised this two-day confab in Bahrain. Dubbed the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, the centrepiece is a 96-page plan that pledges $50bn worth of investment in Palestine and neighbouring countries after a peace deal. The document, to be fair, is impressive in scope. It suggests projects to boost agriculture and tourism, fix Palestine’s infrastructure and improve governance. All of this would be funded by a mix of grants, concessional loans and private-sector money, from the wealthy Gulf states and elsewhere.

Missing amidst all this detail, however, is anything about the Israeli occupation, in its various forms, of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or of schism between the Palestinian leaders in the two territories. The plan presupposes that the noxious politics of the conflict have simply vanished. Mr Kushner proposes spending $5bn to connect the West Bank and Gaza, for example. Israel has undertaken to do this for years but never has, because the link is not simply a matter of building a monorail. It raises political and security questions for Israel. Another proposal calls for $2bn to give the Palestinians 5G wireless infrastructure. Entrepreneurs would be thrilled. But there is no mention of how to overcome objections from the Israeli army, which let the West Bank install 3G only last year (a decade after the rest of the world).

As it stands, then, the plan is thoroughly unrealistic. That is the point, Mr Kushner’s supporters argue. It is meant to offer the Palestinians a peace dividend, an incentive to accept his (perhaps) forthcoming political vision. They certainly need economic help. Unemployment in the West Bank is 17%. In Gaza it is as high as 55%. Adjusted for inflation, GDP per person is almost unchanged from 20 years ago.

But to the Palestinians this smells like a bribe from a hostile president. Mr Trump cut all American aid to them—even $25m in funding for hospitals in East Jerusalem that treat, among other things, children with cancer. He overturned decades of precedent to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And aides hint that the political plan will give the Palestinians far less than the sovereign state along the pre-1967 borders that they demand. America’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said this month that Israel had the right to annex some territory in the West Bank.

So the Palestinians are boycotting the event. Their president, Mahmoud Abbas, refused to send anyone from his government. “The deal of shame will go to hell,” he said in May. The private sector also declined invitations. Of the 5m Palestinians in the occupied territories, the only publicly-confirmed attendee is Ashraf al-Jabari, a former secret-police officer who has turned into a businessman and has cultivated unusual ties with Israeli settlers in his home town of Hebron. He also has a history of writing bum cheques

Few of the other attendees are enthusiastic. “We tried to find the lowest level of representation that wouldn’t be offensive,” quips a European diplomat in Tel Aviv. Jordan and Egypt sent only their deputy finance ministers. With the Palestinians boycotting, Arab states were reluctant to share a stage with Israeli officials. But the latter weren’t invited either because of Arab misgivings (though some Israeli businessmen did come). Even press coverage is limited: organisers did not allow most foreign journalists covering the Middle East to attend. They did accredit reporters from six Israeli outlets, who have sent slightly fawning dispatches. The country’s largest newspaper, Israel Hayom, which backs both Mr Trump and the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, dubbed Bahrain the “island of hope”, an odd appellation for a kingdom that crushed a popular uprising in 2011.

And that, perhaps, points to the real outcome of the workshop. It is the most public manifestation of a long and mostly private rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states, one the Trump administration is keen to promote. The event will do nothing to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is another sign that the Gulf states are looking to move past that conflict. Though they are not quite ready to recognise Israel, they see it as an important regional power, an ally against a shared threat from Iran. The Palestinians have far less to offer. “All we have is our moral power,” says Mkhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst in Gaza. That still counts for something—but less and less with each passing day.