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Trump to open Middle East peace drive with economic conference

On Sunday, Trump and Kushner finally opened their long-awaited drive for what the president has called "the deal of the century"

By Peter Baker and Mark Landler
Published: May 20, 2019

Trump to open Middle East peace drive with economic conference
President Donald Trump returns to the White House in Washington, May 17, 2019. The White House announced on Sunday that it would hold an “economic workshop” in Bahrain near the end of June to produce strategies for developing the Palestinian communities and other parts of the Arab world as part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. (Samuel Corum/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — After more than two years of study and deliberation, President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have decided to take a businessman’s approach to Middle East peace: They will try to buy their way to a deal.

On Sunday, Trump and Kushner finally opened their long-awaited drive for what the president has called “the deal of the century” by announcing that the United States would hold an “economic workshop” in Bahrain next month to produce strategies to invest in the Palestinians and other Arabs.

The idea is to secure financial commitments from wealthy Persian Gulf states as well as donors in Europe and Asia to induce the Palestinians and their allies to make political concessions to resolve the decades-old conflict with Israel. The White House has indicated that it is seeking tens of billions of dollars but would not identify a precise figure; diplomats and lawmakers have been told the goal is about $68 billion for the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

“This workshop is a pivotal opportunity to convene government, civil society and business leaders to share ideas, discuss strategies and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement,” the White House said in a statement.

But the international community has held economic conferences to benefit the Palestinians before without leading to peace, and veterans of past negotiations have expressed deep skepticism that Trump’s effort will gain traction where previous efforts failed.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have moved further from peacemaking in recent years, not closer; the Palestinians are not even on speaking terms with the Trump administration after the president’s pro-Israel moves, and they appeared unlikely to attend the Bahrain conference.

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, said the plan was “necessary but not sufficient.” If the United States could have bought peace in the Middle East through economic development, he said, it would have done so before.

“The proverbial cart is before the horse,” Miller said. “What makes any plan attractive is the package. And where are they on statehood and Jerusalem? They can now delay that piece, having thrown up economic chaff.” But “they lose, not gain, leverage by sequencing this.”

In effect, Trump and Kushner have decided to introduce their much-anticipated peace plan in stages, starting with the economic component to show the possible benefits of peace and build credibility with the Palestinians.

Only then would the administration move on to the political elements of its yet-to-be-released plan, developed by Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for negotiations. By most indications, the plan would not involve the creation of a Palestinian state, as the United States has sought for the last quarter-century under presidents of both political parties.

But just as they have done in their sometimes highly leveraged real estate businesses, Trump and Kushner hope to use other people’s money to achieve their goals. The vast bulk of the funds they hope to generate as part of the plan would come from other nations, not the United States.

Indeed, the Trump administration has over the last two years moved in the opposite direction, cutting off aid from the United States to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza because, as the president once put it, Americans “get no appreciation or respect” in response.

Administration officials have said that does not mean the United States would not be willing to invest again in the Palestinians, but only after political changes that could foster peace with Israel.

The challenges inherent in Trump’s emerging approach were evident even in Sunday’s announcement of the economic conference. Administration officials would not identify who would attend or even say whether invitations were sent to the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, or the Israeli government.

Moreover, Bahrain, the host of the forum, is at odds with nearby Qatar, which has been one of the main funders of the Palestinians for years. Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a blockade on the small state, leaving unclear whether it would participate in any economic initiative.

Trump is not expected to attend the Bahrain conference since he will be heading that week to Japan for a meeting of the Group of 20 economic powers. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is set to lead the U.S. delegation, and other nations will be represented by finance ministers, rather than foreign ministers, to emphasize the economic focus.

“I look forward to these important discussions about a vision that will offer Palestinians exciting new opportunities to realize their full potential,” Mnuchin said in the White House statement.

But critics said the sequencing was suspect. Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution said it was like selling apartments for a skyscraper for which there were not yet architectural plans.

“The risk of releasing an economic vision without the accompanying political vision is that it will smell to many Palestinians, and perhaps others in the region, like another attempt to buy off core Palestinian demands,” she said. “This may sour the environment for any political plan if and when one is released.”

Moreover, neither of the two main antagonists appears to be in a political position conducive to a deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pivoted further to the right before his recent re-election and vowed to begin annexing parts of the West Bank. His emerging coalition will be even more hard-line than the last one, rendering peacemaking even more difficult.

For his part, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has declared that the Trump administration is not a neutral broker that can negotiate peace because the president has tilted so strongly to Israel.

In addition to cutting aid, Trump has ordered the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem, folded the consulate charged with dealing with the Palestinians into the embassy and closed the Palestinian office in Washington.

This is not the first time Kushner has tried to drum up billions of dollars for economic development in the Middle East. Last year, he and Greenblatt gathered foreign ministers and development organizations for a White House conference on rebuilding Gaza, reasoning that making peace would be harder without easing its humanitarian crisis.

But a fresh outbreak of violence between Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, and Israeli troops doused their enthusiasm. Kushner concluded that private investors would not pour money into a place where the government was targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians with rockets and flaming kites.

While the administration has revealed little about the plan, it has offered glimpses. Kushner said it would address thorny issues like Israel’s borders and security, the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees. But crucially, it will not explicitly call for an independent Palestinian state.

“If you say ‘two states,’ it means one thing to the Israelis, it means one thing to Palestinians, and we said, ‘Let’s just not say it,’” Kushner said at a recent forum with Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In an essay afterward, Satloff said the administration’s determination to demolish the status quo raised the risk not only that the plan would be rejected by the Palestinians, but also that good ideas in the plan — including in the economic initiative — would be discredited for future American administrations.

“The only way to protect the long-term viability of the best aspects of the Kushner plan,” he wrote, “is to kill the plan.”

The administration disagrees, noting that its predecessors failed and that therefore a different approach was worth trying. But the sequencing, experts said, gives the administration a chance to further delay or even shelve the political plan.

Kushner has insisted that the administration will roll out the full plan within weeks. But the administration has said this before — Trump himself promised nine months ago that the plan would be out in three or four months — and the White House has seized on repeated excuses to delay it, most recently the Jewish and Muslim holidays of Shavuot and Ramadan.

©2019 New York Times News Service