In Bahrain, U.S. Tries to Promote Mideast Peace Through Prosperity – The New York Times

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Eyeing a future Middle East, if not an imaginary one, in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a thing of the past, business executives, investors and diplomats gathered in Bahrain on Tuesday for a White House-led conference meant to promote a long-delayed peace plan by trumpeting the economic opportunities it could spawn.

The brainchild of a team led by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, the two-day “Peace to Prosperity Workshop” set an unusual scene in the cavernous lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. There, Arab dignitaries in dishdashas and headdresses swapped business cards with skullcap-wearing Orthodox Jews from Israel and the United States.

Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom in the Persian Gulf tethered by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, but the country agreed to bend visa restrictions to accommodate invitees as well as a handful of Israeli news organizations that had credentials to cover the conference.

It began on a somewhat shaky footing, after the White House’s glossy economic proposal for the Palestinians, published on Saturday, drew a largely negative response. Critics dismissed it as a rehash of ideas put forward in early attempts at resolving the conflict, taking umbrage at photographs of Palestinians who benefited from American aid programs that the Trump administration has since cut, and assailing its omissions.

The Trump economic plan called anew for such long-envisioned improvements as a transportation corridor between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but it made no mention of the blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt or of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Its 136 pages say not a word about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which poses huge and manifold obstacles to any Palestinian economic development.

The plan called for $50 billion in investment to improve the lives of Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, but said little about where the money would come from.

At the heart of what has made the conference difficult for its critics to take seriously as a meaningful step toward peace is the contradiction between the Trump administration’s high-pressure, punitive approach to the Palestinians over the past two years and its stated desire to support a resolution to the conflict that the Palestinians themselves could stomach.

David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was involved in the Obama administration’s effort to broker peace in 2013 and 2014, said he was watching to see whether the conference might lead to concrete steps to improve lives, for example by increasing the supply of electricity or drinking water in Gaza.

“My hope is that after Bahrain, one of the lessons would be, we’re not just saying we’ve put forth a compelling vision of an endgame, but we’re starting down that road to make it more tangible in the short term,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority boycotted the event, and the Israeli government was not invited. Several Arab countries agreed to attend but, out of deference to the Palestinians, refrained from sending top officials. Jordan, for example, sent its deputy minister of finance.

The organizers did not release a list of attendees, but it was clearly a handpicked group. Those mingling beforehand included Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli shipping magnate who is a close friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and has been quoted saying that he believes the Arab world is “sick and tired” of the Palestinians and wants the conflict out of the way.

The one Palestinian speaker on the agenda was Ashraf Jabari, the leader of a large clan in Hebron, on the West Bank, who has forged ties with Jewish settlers and helped form a chamber of commerce for Palestinian and settlement businesses to work together. Palestinian leaders have criticized Mr. Jabari as a political outcast who faces outstanding warrants for bad debts.

More recognizable Palestinian business leaders in banking, real estate, manufacturing, technology and other sectors shunned the event, echoing the Palestinian Authority’s argument that talking about economic improvement before finding a political solution was insulting, as if the Palestinians and their aspirations to statehood could be bought off.

Still, the fact that the conference was getting underway raised hopes for increased cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors — or at least for greater cooperation in the light of day.

“It’s been going on for years under the table, but the table seems to be levitating, because it’s very crowded under there,” Mr. Makovsky said.

Yitshak Kreiss, director general of Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital, said he had already held meetings with Bahraini leaders that had given him hope of embarking on joint research projects and other ventures in the Arab world. Medicine was an ideal way to begin to cross such boundaries because it was nonpolitical, he said.

“I don’t know yet how feasible it is to begin, but I can tell you what I feel: I feel that in the near future we will do things professionally together,” he said, praising the “Bahraini welcome” he had received.

“I’m here,” Mr. Kreiss added, “so I think it can be done.”

“Life starts with small things,” said Mohamed Ali Alabbar, the developer of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building.

Asked what he would say to Israelis, Mr. Alabbar said people across the Middle East owed it to young people to try to solve problems.

“We all live in a very small planet called Earth,” he said. “Our children, they want to live a life that has hope, that has optimism, and a better future.

“And as businessmen we have a duty,” he continued. “We want to make money and avoid taxes, but we should do something good for the people we make money from.”

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