US kicks off Mideast peace plan, with Palestinians boycotting

Update: 2019-06-25 16:16 GMT

MANAMA: After a wait of two and a half years, the US administration is launching its Middle East peace plan Tuesday - with an economic initiative that the Palestinians are boycotting.

For this most unconventional of US presidents, Donald Trump's Middle East peace-making bid is unlike decades of previous US attempts.

There is no talk of land swaps, a Palestinian state or other political issues that have vexed diplomats for decades.

The Trump administration says it will get to the political issues later.

For now, its plan will open over cocktails and dinner Tuesday evening in Bahrain at an intimate two-day "economic workshop" at a luxury hotel overlooking the Gulf.

Led by Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the "Peace to Prosperity" framework dangles the prospect of USD 50 billion of investment in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring Arab countries over 10 years.

Listing a slew of projects to develop roads, border crossings, power generation and tourism, the framework sets an optimistic goal of creating one million Palestinian jobs.

But the Palestinian Authority and its rival Hamas have both denounced the initiative, saying it amounts to a bid by the unabashedly pro-Israel Trump to buy them off in return for not enjoying their own state.

Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that the Trump administration "is insinuating that they know what is best for the Palestinian people" without addressing the underlying issue of Israeli occupation.

"Such inciting campaigns aim at making the people and leadership of Palestine accept the dictations, threats and tyranny of both the US and Israel - and they are doomed to fail," the veteran Palestinian negotiator said in a statement.

Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets in the occupied West Bank on Monday to denounce the conference, burning pictures near Hebron of Trump and the king of Bahrain.

John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, said it was a "mistake" for the Palestinians to boycott the conference.

"The prospects for Palestinians, for Israelis, for everybody in the region, if we could find an acceptable agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, is incredibly bright, and rather than relitigate decades of disputes, think about the future and negotiate on that basis," Bolton said in Jerusalem, where he met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visited the occupied Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu, who has also criticised the Palestinian boycott, has spoken in recent months of annexing parts of the West Bank, a move that could effectively close hopes of a two-state solution.

The Trump administration has hinted that its political plan will not mention a Palestinian state - a sharp shift from the goal of years of US diplomacy.

Trump has already taken landmark steps to support Israel including recognising bitterly contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and Kushner is a family friend of Netanyahu.

Most European allies of the United States, uneasy about Trump's direction, are staying away from Bahrain.

In attendance will be oil-rich Gulf Arab states, which would be expected to pick up the tab for the massive Palestinian investment if the plan succeeds.

Saudi Arabia, which is sending its finance minister, in a statement said it supported "all international efforts aiming to achieve prosperity in the region".

But it also called for a "comprehensive and just peace" and reiterated its call for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have signed peace deals with Israel, will attend but only send mid-level officials.

Gulf Arab rulers have increasingly found common cause with Israel due to their shared hostility to Iran, reinforced by rising friction between Tehran and Washington.

In an apparently unprecedented step, a handful of Israeli journalists invited by the White House flew openly to Bahrain, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Other prominent figures due to take part in the Bahrain conference are International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, World Bank President David Malpass and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Richard LeBaron, a former US diplomat in the Middle East, said that the Trump administration fully expected that the Palestinians would stay away.

But Bahrain allows Kushner to portray Palestinian leaders as not caring about their own people as he keeps advancing Israeli interests, said LeBaron, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

"The 'failure' of the Manama workshop will be success for the Trump strategy," he wrote in an analysis.

"It will permit Kushner and his colleagues to claim that they tried their best to address the situation and allow them to blame others for not cooperating."

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