Will Bahrain and Trump be able to defeat naysayers to Deal of Century?

Former peace process officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations are making light of Trump’s first-stage ‘economic workshop’ to his ‘Deal of the Century.’

May 24, 2019 17:53
Will Bahrain and Trump be able to defeat naysayers to Deal of Century?

THEN-US president Barack Obama appears with Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the East Room of the White House in Washington in 2010. Peace process officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations wasted no time i. (photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)


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There is something very ironic about reading the barbs aimed at the Trump administration’s Mideast peace team by former US “peace processors” who were involved in a diplomatic process over the last quarter century that led nowhere.

Jared Kushner is just a son-in-law. Jason Greenblatt a Trump company lawyer. David Friedman a bankruptcy attorney. What do they know about the Mideast? What experience do they bring to the table? What expertise? What insight? Don’t they realize that this is not just some New York real estate deal?
Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman have been the target of snarky tweets and comment over an extended period of time by folks such as Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller who dealt with the peace process for so long, yet with no enormous success.

The White House announcement this week of an “economic workshop” in Bahrain as the first stage of its rollout of a peace framework elicited even more snark.

“I mean when we were doing the peace process post [former US secretary of state] Jim Baker (where we had some success) it took us at least several years to fail in each Administration. The Trump team is going for a new land speed record,” tweeted Miller, while posting a New York Times article headlined: “Palestinian Business Leaders Reject Trump’s Economic Overture.”

Indyk posted the exact same Times article and wrote, “The Kushner team hope to appeal to Palestinians over the heads of their leaders. Still early days but the immediate rejection of the Bahrain Workshop by such credible business leaders as @BasharFMasri and @zahikhouri suggests a design problem.”

The posting of that article seemed more than just a bit of schadenfreude.

Indyk, posting a link to a Jerusalem Post article reporting that Hebron Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari accepted an invitation to attend the conference, wrote snidely: “That’s one.”

Even former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, whose tone toward the administration’s Mideast efforts has been far less caustic and condescending, minimized the Bahrain conference.

“We’ve already been at this movie several times,” Shapiro said in a Radio KAN Bet interview this week, sounding pessimistic about the plan. “It is good that the Saudis will come and sit with an Israeli delegation, if it comes, but that does not mean that they will invest the billions that the Americans want.”

In other words, peace process officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations wasted no time in trampling on the efforts of the Trump group, as if their own years of effort and involvement produced such sterling results.

One thing that characterized the efforts of previous administrations was an attempt to “solve” the Mideast problem, to “find a solution.”

Back in the days of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and at least during the first three years of Obama’s term, one of the animating ideas was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the crux of Middle East rancor and instability, and that if you could just crack that nut, then the Mideast would be transformed. Though the “Arab Spring” disabused many of that notion, since the start of the Oslo process in 1993 solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue was seen by many as the magic key to stabilizing and normalizing the entire region.

But what happened?

Well, the problem has proven unsolvable, the gaps between the two sides too wide to be bridged. The most that even left-wing or center-left Israeli prime ministers were willing to offer – Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 and Ehud Olmert’s even more generous offer in 2008 – did not meet the Palestinians’ minimum requirements. The gaps on security, on Jerusalem, on refugees, on borders, were still too wide.

SO WHAT do you do? Some argue to keep barking up the same tree, to keep proffering the same solutions, to keep placing all the onus on the settlements, to keep banging on the wall until the wall falls down. The only problem is that this has failed.

Then along comes US President Donald Trump with his team of non-Mideast experts who say, “What we’ve done up until now hasn’t worked, let’s try something different.”

The sequencing of the rollout of the Trump plan announced this week – first the economic component, then the political one – suggests the following logic: “If we can’t solve the conflict – though maybe we can eventually broker the ‘deal of the century’ – let’s try to manage it better, improve people’s lives. Maybe showing how tangibly lives might be improved may induce the softening of some positions and make it easier to eventually solve the conflict. But the idea is not to hold improving lives hostage to solving the conflict. Because what if the conflict can’t be solved anytime soon?”

And so the Bahrain economic workshop was born: Get stakeholders in the region and businessmen together to invest billions of dollars in the area to materially improve people’s lives.

Yet immediately comes the chorus of naysayers and former officials saying that it will never work. It certainly has less of a chance of working with a chorus of experts prophesying that it never will.

And, predictably, the Palestinians are unwilling to give it a try. The Palestinian Authority leadership rejected the offer, and one Palestinian businessman after the other – obviously concerned about being viewed as a quisling – turned down the invitation.

Osama Qawasmeh, a spokesman for the ruling Fatah faction in the West Bank, said: “Any Palestinian who participates in the conference is a traitor, collaborator and coward. We call on all our friends and the Arabs not to attend this conference.”

And a Gaza businessman – Abdel Al Karim Ashour – posted the US invitation to the conference on his Facebook page with his reply: the US invited the wrong man, he will not sell out Palestine.

Greenblatt addressed the situation on Wednesday following a briefing to the UN Security Council – via hookup from Gaza – by UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl.

“Palestinians have been held hostage for too long to UN resolutions, regional politics, donor fatigue and weak leadership. It has been 70 years – three generations of Palestinians who have suffered tremendously,” Greenblatt said in a withering critique of UNRWA and the model that he argued has “failed the Palestinian people.”

“And it is time for the needs of Palestinians for basic services and their desire to build a brighter future for their children to stop being held hostage to politics.”

Greenblatt said that the workshop in Bahrain “is the first stage of a process that we want to begin to showcase what could be – how, if we can achieve a political solution to the conflict, we can also transform the lives of the Palestinians. It would be a mistake for the Palestinians not to join us. They have nothing to lose and much to gain if they do join us.”

Saying that he is approaching the situation with “humility,” Greenblatt said he does not have a solution to the “challenges posed by this extraordinary conflict.”

“What we do know is that what we have today is not the answer. We do know that Palestinians and Israelis both deserve better. We do know that it is time to move past Band-Aid solutions and political assertions, into the adult world of hard choices.”

The Bahrain workshop is a step toward moving in a different direction. Those criticizing it would have more credibility, had the direction they have been advocating for so many years actually led to a better place.

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