After two days of panels, speeches, and meetings, the US-led “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama, Bahrain, wound down on Wednesday evening.
The widely-anticipated and hotly-contested “economic workshop” for Israeli-Palestinian peace featured the first unveiling of Jared Kushner’s plans for Palestinians.
His proposal? Investing upwards of $50 billion in the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states over the course of 10 years, the creation of more than 1 million Palestinian jobs, and slashing the unemployment rates in Gaza and the West Bank.
After the closing of the conference, Kushner hailed it as a “tremendous success,” telling a Saudi newspaper that his “very detailed and reasonable plan was well received by attendees” from all over the world, the Times of Israel reported.
During the conference, Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa likened the event to the Camp David Accords.
But media reports on the conference painted a different picture of the event, telling the story of a rather lackluster reception to Kushner’s ideas and overall skepticism regarding the feasibility of the plan.
Al Jazeera reported that during the opening session of the conference, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde cast doubt on the ability to generate the kind of economic growth Kushner proposed in conflict environments like Gaza and the West Bank.
Haaretz reported that at the closing of the conference, Lagarde said the IMF was “ready to work with all parties on policies to maximize the benefits of new investment in the region,” but that any plan for economic prosperity hinges on a political solution to the conflict, and that Israel would have to ease its restrictions on Palestinians.
“Peace, political stability, and re-establishment of trust between all the parties involved are essential prerequisites to the success of any economic plan for the region,” she said.
During a break at the conference, Al Jazeera reported that an unnamed Dubai-based businesswoman suggested Kushner’s plans were too ambitious, saying that when similar efforts like Oslo were undertaken, “that didn’t work out – and that was because of the Israelis.”
“You can’t assume the economics will work if the politics don’t move,” the businesswoman said.
Also invoking the Oslo Accords, Saudi minister of state Mohammed Al-Sheikh reminded a panel that similar efforts to Kushner’s had been tried and failed in the 1990s.
“While I accept that peace is essential, back then it was the hope of peace that got them actually excited and moving,” Al-Sheikh said.
Some attendees did express positive reactions to the conference, including UAE real estate mogul Mohammed Alabbar who said, according to Reuters’ report, “Arabs like him were ready to invest.”
“This is a very sensible kind of dream and one would’ve hoped the beneficiaries would’ve been here,” he said.
“I think that if we take this seriously this could be a very important game changer,” Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa told journalists at the conference.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders who boycotted the conference reiterated their condemnations of the event.
In a statement, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accused the US of trying to sell a “mirage of economic prosperity” that would in reality “only perpetuate the Palestinians’ captivity.”
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh criticized the Arab leaders attending the conference, Al Jazeera reported, saying “The (Palestinian) people, who have been fighting for one hundred years, did not commission anyone to concede or to bargain. Jerusalem is ours, the land is ours, and everything is ours.”
In response to Kushner’s message to the Palestinian people that “President Trump and America have not given up on you”, PLO official Dr. Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement: “If the U.S. is so concerned about Palestinian well-being, then why did they carry out these punitive measures against us? Why did they target Palestinian infrastructure? Why did they stop scholarships to Palestinian students?”
Widespread protests across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip against the plan continued into the weekend, with the Gaza Ministry of Health reporting on Friday evening that Israeli forces had shot 49 civilians, including medics and journalists, during demonstrations along the Gaza border.
Where is the political solution?
By the end of the conference, not much had been achieved in terms of solid commitment by Arab and international leaders to investing in Kushner’s plan, despite some positive reactions to the proposal.
Many countries sent delegations of relatively low-level ministers and officials, indicating the general air of uncertainty towards the proposal, several media outlets, though noting there was a diverse representation of international and regional officials at the event.
While there was no general consensus regarding the feasibility of the plan, there was one common understanding among everyone, including Israeli officials: it would be difficult to commit to Kushner’s economic proposals so long as his political plans remained a secret.
Kushner acknowledged the need for a political solution to work in conjunction with his economic plans, but remained tight lipped on the details of his other plans.
Saudi Arabian leaders reiterated their position, held by most Arab states, that any solution should be based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders, the right of return for refugees, and a capital in East Jerusalem.
Despite the UN and the international community’s support for this position, Kushner said his plan would not directly adhere to the Arab Initiative.
According to the Times of Israel, he “vaguely” said that his plan would “fall somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and the Israeli position,” refusing to elaborate on what he meant by the “Israeli position.”