Late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed at Ben Gurion Airport in 1977. Israel's former enemy, who started a bloody war in 1973, became the first Arab leader to openly land in Israel. In 1979, Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in which the Palestinian issue was almost completely omitted, except for a reference to an autonomy solution. Some years later, in 1994, late Jordanian King Hussein did exactly the same thing - he signed a peace agreement with Israel, while the Palestinians and their dispute with Israel was left out.
The economic conference in Bahrain shows the Palestinians that the same thing is likely to happen again, this time with the Sunni Persian Gulf states, whose ties with Israel have become closer as a result of the common struggle against the Iranian enemy and the terrorism it foments. One of the Middle East's open secrets was revealed last week: relations between Israel and some of the Persian Gulf countries, among them Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and others, are becoming closer. The Palestinians are again out of the picture, this time because of their decision not to attend the event.
Leaders of Arab countries spoke naturally with Israeli businesspeople, including at least one who had been connected with them in an official capacity - Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Mordechai. The Arab leaders also talked with Israeli journalists in the corridors of the conference in Manama, and blew the myth of a boycott of Israelis to smithereens. For Israel, the demonstration of normalization was more important than the official purpose of the conference - a local version of the Marshall Plan designed to help the Palestinians establish a country.
The main course was served by Bahrain Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, who granted a set of unprecedented interviews to the Israeli television networks. The importance of these interviews was that they were granted and broke a taboo, but also in what was said in them. Al Khalifa repeated the conventional statements about establishing a Palestinian state, but spoke clearly of the need for a direct and open dialogue with Israel.
The severe criticism of the Palestinians also set a precedent. Al Khalifa said that it was absurd for the Palestinian leadership to boycott the conference, and that it had been a mistake to try to exclude the US from the process. Another important statement supported Israel's actions against Iran in Syria: "Every country has the right to defend itself."
An Israeli minister involved in the clandestine contacts says that Jerusalem was surprised by this warm reception, and by the severely critical remarks about the Palestinians. "We hear these things quite often in closed conversations, but this is the first time that they have been stated publicly in front of the cameras," the minister told "Globes."
The minister predicted that the conference would remove many barriers to commercial ties between Israel and the Persian Gulf states. Among other things, this involves exports of high-tech products related to cyber warfare and monitoring. It was previously reported that Saudi Arabia had used an Israeli company's software to conduct surveillance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Other areas of trade between the countries are desalination and judicious use of drip irrigation, solar energy, and a variety of agricultural developments adapted to desert countries.
The main victim is the Palestinian leadership, which heard from all sides that it was like a bone in the throat of very influential parties in the region and was preventing progress in security, technological, and economic cooperation. The US often sounded as though it was hinting that the current Palestinian leadership should be replaced. These statements are very disturbing to Ramallah and the Gaza Strip, and as of now are deepening the rift. This state of affairs has not escaped the Palestinians in both the street and the leadership. Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas's supporters organized demonstrations in several West Bank cities, and the Palestinian media attacked the conference in Bahrain and the Arab countries that participated in it. Behind the scenes, however, there is a real argument within Fatah, the main Palestinian political organization.
Mohammed Dahlan, an opponent of Abbas living in Dubai, was one of the main critics of the Palestinian leadership's decision to turn its back on the Bahrain conference. One of his associates said in an interview, "Abbas's 'No' policy will bring us to destruction. We also disagree about the supposed path to peace advocated by the unstable US president, but turning our back on Persian Gulf states willing to invest billions in a solution for the Palestinians' distress is an act of stupidity that is liable to emerge as a historic mistake. Abbas cares only about himself and his government, not the future."
The interview was broadcast on social networks. The response was mixed, with quite a few of those who responded agreeing with what was said. Palestinian sources said that traces of Dahlan's involvement could also be found in the conference in Manama. His years of activity behind the scenes in the wealthy Persian Gulf states, the connections that he made, the projects that he led in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the money he raised for those projects helped gain the support of countries for the Trump plan and the conference.
"Trampling our rights"
The PA's response to the conference in Bahrain and the criticism was to arrest Salah Abu Miala, one of the businesspeople who participated in the conference in Bahrain, and to attempt to arrest the others. One of them, Ashraf Ranem, escaped by the skin of his teeth from his home in Hebron just before the PA's security personnel got there. He alleges that they took all of his money, his passports, and his credit cards, and wrecked his house. The PA's agents did not go after Ashraf Jabari, the head of the Palestinian delegation, both because he resides in an area of Hebron under Israeli control and because of the size and power of his clan.
What does popular opinion among the Palestinians say? A new survey by Dr. Khalil Shikaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that more than half of the Palestinians think that the PA is a burden on the Palestinian citizen, and that 57% of the Palestinian public wants Abbas's leadership to end.
A senior PA leader close to one of the candidates to succeed Abbas told "Globes" that he opposed the US plan, which "tramples our rights and takes our land." He said that the economic aspect was too important to be ignored because of the chance of obtaining from it the infrastructure for Palestinian economic independence and putting an end to the alms-seeking trips around the world. The leader predicted that the measure would bog down after the political plan was published, at least until after the elections in the US. "If Trump is reelected, there will be no way to avoid addressing the plan. Otherwise, the game starts again."
An important cornerstone for open normalization between Israel and moderate Sunni countries was laid in Manama last week, but the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians is delaying the development of connections. Nevertheless, it is by no means certain that a prolonged delay in the process with the Palestinians will stop this normalization. In Bahrain, these countries made it clear to the Palestinians: "We are in favor of a political solution, but you had better hurry, because we have other important interests, and we will not wait for you too long."
The real test of the plan and Abbas will come after the political part of the plan is published. It is not unlikely that the PA will again prefer to miss the opportunity for now and to wait for a more propitious time, in the hope that President Trump is not elected to a second term next year.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 4, 2019
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