Kushner’s Israel-Palestine Shindig: Easily Forgettable and Rather Important

Bahrain News Agency via AP

If this convening was supposed to demonstrate a brave new world of Israeli-Arab cooperation, then Bahrain was an anticlimactic choice of venue.

Jared Kushner’s long-awaited “Peace to Prosperity” gathering at the Manama Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain generated just about the level of serious coverage that it merited—precious little. For all its borderline pantomime-style imbecility (Kushner himself put in a performance as someone pretending to care about the Palestinians), this convening actually matters.

Coming at a time in the region when the U.S. is inching closer to an armed confrontation with Iran and endorsing Israel’s permanent annexation of more Palestinian territories, the Bahrain workshop offered an important exposé of just how consequential the flaws in this administration’s approach to the region might prove to be. The gathering certainly brought into focus their shallow grasp of the Israel-Palestine portfolio. (One very senior participant privately confided that while it is nice that this U.S. team prides themselves on thinking outside the box, it would be good if they first understood what was actually inside the box.) It was also a jaw-dropping display of how completely they are being played by various regional actors in ways highly detrimental to American interests. More on that in a moment, but first, here are five reasons why Kushner’s show was such a risible enterprise even on its own terms.

First to the anticlimactic choice of venue itself, Manama. If this convening was supposed to demonstrate a brave new world of Israeli-Arab cooperation, then Bahrain offers particularly slim pickings. Bahrain is a tributary state to Saudi Arabia. So this was the Saudis, and indeed their Emirati allies, making it clear that the Palestine issue is still too hot for them to handle directly. The Bahrainis could hardly have been delighted to have had the role of host dumped in their laps. Bahrain has its own political problems, often self-induced, and all of which will be exacerbated by this association with an American-sponsored anti-Palestinian horror show.

Second, the nature and level of attendance was anything but impressive despite intense and growing American political pressure on allies in the days and weeks preceding Manama. By way of comparison, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a mainstay of the think tank scene, hosts an annual Manama Dialogue. Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s guest list looked paltry stacked against that of the think tank, which is a bad look for the world’s most powerful convening nation.

In a rather surprising setback for the cause of Arab normalization with Israel as a tool to be used against the Palestinians, no Israeli officials were actually invited to Bahrain. On the Palestinian side, the PLO’s boycott of the event received the almost unprecedented unified backing of the entire Palestinian political class, of all recognized Palestinian business and trade associations, unions, civil society, women’s and youth organizations and movements. The handful of Palestinian attendees willing to lend credence to the event were so marginal as to make Ahmed Chalabi look like a popular deity in the Iraqi political pantheon by comparison.

European allies mostly refused American entreaties to send finance or other ministers and made do with either a junior ministerial presence or more often with mid-level civil servants, and notably in the case of France, with representation from the local French embassy in Bahrain. Even America’s friends in the Arab region who are at peace with Israel performed a maximum dodge. Egypt and Jordan sent low-level ministers, most member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference were nowhere to be seen, and it was left to those in the immediate Gulf neighborhood, who had been most assiduous in courting Jared Kushner personally, to provide the merest of ministerial fig leaf cover. In the absence of serious people, that paragon of global transparent governance, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, was left to play a starring role.

Third, and perhaps even more remarkably given all of the Trump administration’s talk of unprecedented progress in Israeli-Arab cooperation, this was a poor showing even by the standards of previous efforts to bring Israelis and the Arab world together for economic parleys around the Palestinian issue and cooperation for prosperity. When the first Middle East/North Africa Economic Summit was convened in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1994 under King Hassan II of Morocco and American-Russian co-sponsorship, there were ten heads of state in attendance as well as foreign or other senior ministers from 19 countries. Similarly high-level summits were held in Amman, Cairo, and Doha in the following years, while then-Vice President Al Gore led another high-level initiative, Builders for Peace, promoting U.S. private investment in the Palestinian territories.

Fourth, understanding that such efforts have been mobilized more lavishly and effectively under previous administrations tells us that, in attempting to convene a regional economic peace gathering, this administration was not actually doing anything new (just doing the same, worse). A central Israel-Palestine talking point of this White House is to cease and desist from the failed efforts of the past in favor of a fresh approach. But the Manama gathering was Groundhog Day for the tried and failed efforts at putting economic progress first, pursuing so-called confidence-building measures over hard political choices.

The glossy brochure produced was mostly a rehash of familiar, utterly unimplementable plans. Israel, in the meantime, continues to control every aspect of Palestinian economic life, from access to natural resources to freedom of movement of both goods and people, entry and egress, tax collection, etc. Any acknowledgement of Israeli control, let alone its removal, was of course missing from the American economic proposals. Every credible study, not least those of the World Bank, has concluded that the proximate cause of Palestinian economic stagnation lies with the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation.

As International Crisis Group Palestine analyst Tareq Baconi pointed out, “the word ‘occupation’ appears three times [in the U.S. plans]: once when talking about ‘occupational mobility’ and twice when talking about ‘occupation’ in the workforce. A slight lost-in-translation gap between the Trump administration and the Palestinian people.” It is hardly surprising then that Dennis Ross, the architect of so many of those previous failed efforts across multiple administrations, came out in defense of the positive opportunities provided by the Manama effort.

Fifth and finally, even the Manama show itself and the projects promoted displayed an amateurism and lack of seriousness. The photos chosen for the promotional brochure depicted people who in recent months had seen their funding withdrawn by the punitive nastiness of the U.S. administration toward Palestinians. So the poster Palestinians of the Manama brochure publicly rebuked this Kushner show. One journalist covering the conference for The Economist, Gregg Carlstrom, tweeted how after three all-male panels, the organizers then scheduled an all-female panel to talk about the need for female inclusion!

And then there is the minor point that there is no actual money. The $50 billion discussed is all pretend money, unpledged and not real. Compare and contrast that to the pledging conference held by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the same time as Manama addressing the real needs of real Palestinians following the American withdrawal of all funding from the organization as part of an assault on Palestinian refugee communities. In short, it took Jared Kushner, Envoy Jason Greenblatt, and Ambassador David Friedman and their team 874 days to put together a great big glossy nothing-burger.

Of course, one does not have to observe events in Manama to expose the amateurishness of this White House. The approach to Israel-Palestine on display in Manama belongs to a bigger story, the headline of which is to accelerate the attempt to achieve Israeli supremacy and Palestinian surrender, to empower Israeli extremists, and in so doing to make permanent and irreversible the demise of a partition option in the Holy Land.

A series of political measures taken by this administration sit alongside the so-called “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain. The Trump administration has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, closed the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., and defunded UNRWA; it has encouraged settlement building and more recently endorsed Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories while actively participating in provocative Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. The paradigm being applied is neither novel nor stamped with “Made in America”; it is following a blueprint set out by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was first re-elected to the leadership this century, at a speech at Bar-Ilan University in June of 2009.

In that speech, Netanyahu famously spoke of a Palestinian state but then described an arrangement that would be nothing of the sort (and he has subsequently withdrawn the term “state”). It is an arrangement with which the Trump administration has closely aligned itself: no withdrawal of settlements, exclusive Israeli security control, recognition and legitimacy being accorded to Jewish rights only, nothing to address historic injustice vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees, and crucially a focus on economic projects and regional normalization. With this administration, Netanyahu finally has a full-fledged partner for his plan to buy off the Palestinians.

But Bahrain offered only the mirage of economic betterment, and this particular attempt to drive a wedge between the Palestinian public and their leadership will not work (a gap does exist, just not one the Americans are presuming or pretending, as Palestinians tend to view their leadership as too distant and insufficiently assertive of Palestinian rights, not the opposite as Kushner claims). The end result of the Kushner-Greenblatt-Friedman embrace of the Israel Victory Project and of Israeli supremacy will be to leave the Palestinians with a rather stark binary choice: to accept subservience or struggle for equality in one political space. That reality will long outlive the memories of a splendid mocktail at the Four Seasons Manama.

What Manama tells us about the Kushner approach to the broader region beyond Israel-Palestine may be more worrying yet for American and global well-being in the next 18 months. The premise of the White House approach is that Israelis and key Arab states can come together—having effectively marginalized or at least defanged the iconic Palestinian issue—to take a lead in regionally confronting Iran with U.S. support. Yet that has not happened. Arab support for Kushner’s efforts, and the lure of massive prospective investment has not rendered the Palestinian issue moot. The meager level of representation in Bahrain and constant rhetorical loyalty expressed to the Palestinian cause shows that there is only so far that Arab states will go in their embrace of Israel. Ongoing American misdiagnosis of the region, including this White House’s naïveté, combined with an absence of bullshit detectors when it comes to what Israelis and certain Gulf states are spinning, were on dangerous display in Bahrain.

The Trump administration has not succeeded in creating a new way forward on Palestine and the region. It has however bought into a project in which Israel and certain Gulf parties cooperate not in stabilizing the region, but in goading the White House into doing their bidding on Iran. The preference in Jerusalem and Riyadh is that, rather than come to terms with a necessary balancing of regional interests, including the legitimate interests of Iran, it is better to have America in maximum confrontation with Iran.

The Obama administration largely resisted that push. Trump administration officials, some of whom need no convincing of the desirability of more Middle Eastern wars (see under: National Security Adviser John Bolton), have bought into the above sales spiel. Manama showed the limitations (let alone desirability) of any supposed new regional alliance. But recent events in the Gulf of Oman and the apparent closeness to an American strike on Iran bring home just how dangerous the implications are of combining Kushner’s regional peace delusions with Bolton’s militarist national chauvinism.

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