Jared Kushner hailed the US’s new Middle East peace plan as ”the opportunity of the century” during a glitzy launch in Bahrain, but dismissed the region’s bitter political conflicts as “issues” to be dealt with “later”.
To an audience of world financial leaders, Gulf ministers, Arab businessmen and Israeli journalists, Donald Trump’s son-in-law zipped through a power-point presentation of what he called “the most comprehensive economic plan ever created” for the region.
Israeli and Palestinian government officials were notably not present: the Israeli leadership was not invited after the Palestinians said they would boycott the event, accusing the White House of pro-Israel bias.
Mr Trump’s senior advisor avoided tackling the most touchy subjects that have underscored the decades-long conflict such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, Palestinian demand for statehood or the refugee problem. Instead he said that he wanted to move away from “conventional wisdom’ “tired talking points“ and ”the broken record of negativity”.
“Agreeing an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving what is a previously unsolvable political situation,” he said, on a circular stage surrounded by figures including US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, Christian Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and Tony Blair.
He admitted prosperity for the Palestinians is not possible without an “enduring fair political solution to the conflict” but added “today is not about the political issues, we will get to them at the right time”.
“My direct message to the Palestinians is despite what those who have let you down in the past tell you, President Trump and America have not given up on you – this workshop is for you,” he concluded.
The “Peace to Prosperity” event, which was downgraded from high-levels peace talks to an economic workshop, is a platform to launch a controversial $50bn economic plan the US hopes will “jumpstart” the Palestinian economy and help end the decades-old conflict.
Mr Kushner said if executed, the plan could create a million jobs in the West Bank and Gaza, reduce Palestinian poverty by half and double the Palestinians’ GDP.
It is centred around a new investment fund which earmarks over $27bn (£21,2bn) for spending in the Palestinian Territories, with the remaining $23bn (£18.1bn) split between Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.
Among some of the 179 infrastructure and business projects outlined is a $5bn travel corridor for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza, and a $1bn injection of cash into the Palestinian tourism sector.
So far there is no clear idea where the $50bn will come from. Saudi Arabia, who sent a high-level delegation including their finance minister, is envisaged as one of its main bankrollers.
Speakers at the event, who may also help contribute are the heads of the IMF, the World Bank, Fifa and the managers of numerous large investment funds.
A small number of Palestinian businessmen were also in Manama.
The meeting is supposed to be the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that may be delivered in November.
However, the 96-page document, which refers to “Palestinian society” not state and makes no reference to the refugees, has been criticised by the Palestinian leadership.
They have repeatedly boycotted both it and the event, saying engaging it would be “selling” their national aspirations for investment.
The Palestinians severed diplomatic ties with the States in 2017 when Mr Trump recognised the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and then slashed all Palestinian aid including funds to the United Nation’s Palestinian refugee agency.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian’s chief negotiator, said in a statement that the Palestinians “will not compromise on the necessity of a permanent, comprehensive, and lasting political solution”.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said: ”Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important.”
Instead three days of protests have been called.
Around 3,000 people rallied in Nablus in the northern West Bank on Tuesday, with dozens attending demonstrations in Ramallah and Hebron.
There protesters, chanting “down with the Bahrain conference” and “Palestine is not for sale” tied photos of Gulf royals on donkeys as others burned effigies of Mr Trump.
In Gaza they called a general strike.
There have been International concerns that the US is not pushing for two states, the internationally agreed solution to the conflict.
Just ahead of the conference United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres called for “peace efforts to realise the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”.
The Arab delegates, including Saudi Arabia, meanwhile released statements saying they would attend the conference but still supported an Arab-led peace initiative that ensures the creation of the state of Palestinian with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Mr Trump, Mr Kushner and Mr Mnuchin, however, argue that a new approach was needed as previous efforts have failed. Mr Kushner pointedly remarked that the Palestinian are the highest per capita recipients of aid in the world.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the plan.
“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” he said on Sunday.
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