After innumerable delays and postponements, the conference in Bahrain at which the US administration's deal of the century will be presented is officially getting underway. The conference, located at the Four Seasons luxury hotel in the Bahrain capital of Manama, will feature a cross between an economic workshop and a regional conference summed by the US as a preliminary to the Trump administration's deal of the century. The plan, drawn up by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and envoy to the region Jason Greenblatt, was repeatedly delayed, among other things by the elections in Israel. For exactly the same reason, the US decided to launch the economic part of it in the form of a non-binding regional workshop in order to set the process in motion.
The idea is quite simple: money for an agreement. The plan offers $50 billion to countries signing up in order to release the logjam.
The list of countries attending the conference is a long one: the US, host Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, and even Qatar are sending their ministers of finance or senior officials. Surprisingly, Russia and China are also sending delegations to the conference, albeit low-ranking ones.
This scale of participation shows that despite the many doubts and the Palestinians' opposition, Russia and China do not want to be left out of the event: China because of its growing dependence on oil and gas from the Persian Gulf, and Russia in order to prevent the US from managing affairs in the region by itself. Arab businesspeople from 15 countries are also taking part, plus representatives of several major international companies, not to mention International Monetary Fund chairperson and managing director Christine Lagarde.
Even the presence of the major powers cannot conceal the fact that the two principals in the conflict, Israel and the Palestinians, will not really be at the conference. Israel's only representatives there are private businesspeople, the most prominent of whom is Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Mordechai, a well-known figure in the Arab world, who was Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories until six months ago. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is boycotting the conference almost completely. It declared a day of strikes and organized demonstrations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, one Palestinian businessperson registered - Ashraf Jabari from Hebron, known for his independent views.
50 billion reasons to say yes
$50 billion is at stake. The plan is highly detailed, and deals with most aspects of economics, infrastructure, and society. It allots $28 billion for the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip, plus over $22 billion for the Arab countries stipulated as participants: Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Egypt is clearly supporting the plan. Jordan is hesitant, but sent a senior delegation, while Lebanon said it would stay home.
Behind the scenes, the parties did not wait for the starter's pistol. Immediately upon their arrival, the various representatives held meetings and semi-official talks. These included the heads of the Egyptian and Jordanian delegations, which met for a long talk. Egypt is trying to persuade the Jordanians that the economic benefit for them is worth bucking the internal opposition in their country to involvement in the US venture.
The Palestinians are the ones who stand to gain the most from by agreeing. The plan includes almost 20 categories of investments for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: $6.5 billion, mostly for construction of a road, and a railway between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as infrastructure for a seaport in the Gaza Strip; $2.5 billion for energy infrastructure, power stations, and an advanced electricity grid; $2.3 billion for water infrastructure, including desalination facilities; $2.6 billion for advanced digital infrastructure; and so on and so forth.
The US believes that money will win out over obstinacy
While the Palestinians have low expectations, the plan's originators have a great vision designed to remake the entire region. Greenblatt has stepped up the pace of his tweets on Twitter, writing that the US awaits the beginning of discussions for promoting a vision of peace and progress in the Middle East.
A US diplomat involved in drawing up the plan who is in contact with the Palestinians told "Globes" that he had not lost hope that the PA would eventually be involved in the process. "It's clear that without the Palestinians, it will be very difficult to advance most parts of the plan," he said, "but when the scale of the economic change and the enormous improvement in the standard of living of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip become clear, they will have to reconsider their attitude. They must not conform to the cliché about missing opportunities." In response to the Palestinian argument that nothing would move without political progress, he commented that the political aspect was intertwined with the economic aspect, and that it was clear that the two could not be separated.
Comments by Israeli political sources were low-key. One person who did speak out was former Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dangot, who is very familiar with Palestinian economic and political issues. "The economic context is the main restraining factor for the Palestinians," he says. "The Trump plan is putting this principle in the headlines, primarily in the realization that there is little chance of a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, both while Mahmoud Abbas heads the PA and afterwards. What remains is to create a new reality that further improves its status in relation to residents of the neighboring Arab countries.
"Up until now, the Arab world was willing to give almost nothing, but the Trump plan has a chance of getting countries to open their pockets, also because of their common interest against Iran and its satellites. The Palestinians are still of no real interest to the Persian Gulf countries, but the need to buttress the alliance against Iran, including Israel and under US sponsorship, is a supreme objective that will tie them to the plan."
What about the Palestinian opposition to the plan and the Trump administration? "The connection between the Palestinians and the Arab world, and their economic dependence on it, will lead them to consider it, at least very gradually," Dangot predicts. "If they see real money coming, they won't block the plan."
Meanwhile, the PA and Hamas declared a day of strikes and demonstration against the US initiative. The demonstration, which took place in several West Bank cities, are organized from above, as shown by the placards declaring support for Abbas.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 26, 2019
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