Bahrain Workshop – Road to the Deal of the Century?
Since becoming president of the United States (US) in January 2017, Donald Trump has clearly stated his foreign policy goals. With regards to the Middle East, Trump has relied on the advice of a small team, namely Jared Kushner, the White House’s most senior adviser and husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka; Jason Greenblatt, special representative for international negotiations; and David Friedman, ambassador to Israel. With the help of this team, Trump drafted a peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict known as the ‘deal of the century’.
The deal is composed of two parts: economic and political. The political part has been postponed, while the economic part was presented on 22 June 2019 at a multi-country workshop titled ‘Peace to Prosperity’ held in the Bahraini capital Manama. Two 40- and 96-page booklets were released, containing financial schedules and economic forecasts for large-scale projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as economic programmes for Jordan, Lebanon and Sinai in Egypt.
The use of the term ‘deal’ to describe the plan, rather than a resolution based on international law, prompted the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to call on all Palestinians – in the occupied territories and diaspora – not to participate in the workshop, so as not to give it any Palestinian legitimacy. The call was supported by all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, which regard the workshop as a ploy to end the Palestinian cause.
“The Manama conference will be stillborn,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh, explaining that the Palestinian issue is not “an economic problem” but a conflict that aims to end the Israeli occupation, establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and enable the return of refugees.
The Palestinian rejection of the plan is the culmination of a series of US political decisions regarding the Palestinian cause. Trump announced on 6 December 2017 that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the US embassy was moved from Tel Aviv on 14 May 2018. Since then, Ramallah has accused Trump of bias towards Israel and refused to consider any US proposals to reach a political settlement.
Blueprints of the economic plan
At the Manama workshop, which was attended by delegations from 39 countries and international organizations, Kushner presented the blueprints of the economic plan for the next ten years, which aims to raise the level of development for the Palestinians and neighbouring countries. The plan proposes establishing an investment fund to identify priority development projects and implement them effectively and transparently. The fund, of around $50 billion, would allocate $27.8 billion to Gaza and the West Bank, $9.2 billion to Egypt, $7.4 billion to Jordan and $6.3 billion to Lebanon.
Controversy surrounds the financing of the plan, which proposes $13.4 billion in financial grants and a further $25.7 billion in loans. Even if a lender can be found, the Palestinians would be burdened with debt for years to come.
The plan consists of three initiatives centred around the economy, the people and the government:
· Unleashing economic potential through the growth of commercial investment and utilization of human resources, as well as by connecting the West Bank to the Gaza Strip and working on all infrastructure projects, such as transportation networks, energy, water and electronic services, in order to improve the agriculture, industry, services and tourism sectors.
· Empowering the Palestinian people through the development of manpower and the quality of education, upgrading the health sector, as well as culture and sport, with the aim of improving the quality of life in Palestinian society.
· Creating an appropriate environment to enact laws and legislation, ensure the independence of the judiciary, support civil society institutions, promote the concepts of transparency and strengthen governance through improved government performance.
The plan, as Kushner noted, aims to implement approximately 180 mega projects in the Palestinian territories over ten years to more than double the gross domestic product and create more than a million jobs, reduce unemployment to below 10 per cent and cut the poverty rate by 50 per cent. The plan does not cover the establishment of a port in Gaza or an airport for the Palestinians. The only reference to these matters is the upgrade of airports in Jordan to serve Palestinians, a move that would be subject to security approval by Israel and Jordan. The plan does, however, promote the construction of a road corridor and railway through Israeli territory to the West Bank with Gaza, in addition to building economic and development opportunities with neighbouring countries.
Deal of the century: Success or failure?
From the outset, the success of the workshop was contingent on the official participation of both Palestine and Israel. After Ramallah’s insistence on non-participation, Washington decided, just days before the event, not to invite official Israeli representatives but a large group of Israeli businesspeople and former politicians such as Tzipi Livni instead.
Also in attendance were representatives from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, with Jordan and Egypt only represented by deputy finance ministers. Morocco participated in the working sessions in a professional capacity, rather than a political one. In a blow for Washington, the United Nations announced back in May that it would not participate.
The plan faces resistance on several fronts. Israel has categorically rejected any suggestions to establish a corridor linking the Palestinian territories, saying it would compromise Israel’s political and security interests.
According to Abir Thabet, a professor of political science in Gaza, the plan will not succeed because the proposed economic projects require a secure and politically stable region, which is not currently the case. Israel also wants to maintain control of all goods and people entering and leaving Gaza, while only giving pass permits for the West Bank to select businesspeople, international organizations and patients requiring medical treatment abroad.
Moreover, the plan does not support a two-state solution, as Kushner underlined in early May when he affirmed that Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital. As one writer for the pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper noted, the Manama workshop announced the price of the deal before announcing the commodity, in this case the political content.
Israel, which has received unprecedented support from the Trump administration, aims to exploit the current situation in an attempt to annex parts of the West Bank. David Friedman told the New York Times that Israel has the right to annex parts of the West Bank for security reasons. Although Washington has made it clear that the US position on Israeli settlements has not changed, there are doubts about this claim, especially after Kushner stated that a two-state solution does not exist.
International funding for the Palestinian Authority for over 25 years has led some countries, especially in Europe and the Middle East, to lose enthusiasm for what they see as financing the perpetuation of the Israeli occupation. As long as there is no political framework under international law, the Israeli occupation will continue to dominate the Palestinian territories.
The political part of the deal of the century was due to be announced in October 2019, after the Israeli elections and depending on the outcomes of the economic workshop. In view of the discouraging outcomes, it is difficult to envisage the deal succeeding on either the economic or political front.
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Yahya ibn Abi Kathir (769-848)