Two-day workshop boycotted by Palestinian leadership takes place amid efforts by Washington to drum up $50bn investment.
White House adviser Jared Kushner has branded the United States’ plan for the Middle East “the opportunity of the century” for the Palestinians, but said their acceptance was a precondition to peace.
His comments on Tuesday came as he began promoting the US government’s economic blueprint for investment in the region during a workshop in Bahrain, billed as the first part of Washington’s broader plan to resolve decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The two-day event in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, has been boycotted by the Palestinian Authority, which has rejected it as an ill-fated attempt to “liquidate the Palestinian cause”. The US did not invite Israeli government representatives, but several officials from regional countries are in attendance.
Addressing the attendees, Kushner, who is also US President Donald Trump‘s son-in-law, said: “Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues.”
While the workshop will not address political solutions, Kushner recognised in his speech the need to take them up later.
“To be clear, economic growth and prosperity for the Palestinian people are not possible without an enduring and fair political solution to the conflict – one that guarantees Israel’s security and respects the dignity of the Palestinian people,” he said.
Trump has taken an unapologetically pro-Israel line during his presidency, with moves including his controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017. Kushner acknowledged widespread scepticism about the US president’s intentions but said the Palestinians had been ill-served by previous peacemaking efforts.
“My direct message to the Palestinian people is that despite what those who have let you down in the past say, President Trump and America have not given up on you,” he said.
He dismissed the mocking description of the US peace plan as the “deal of the century” but said: “This effort is better referred to as the opportunity of the century, if the leadership has the courage to pursue it.”
The political details of the White House’s plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret.
Its economic proposal, however, makes no mention of a Palestinian state or an end to Israeli occupation. Instead, it calls for $50bn in investment over 10 years in the Palestinian territories and their Arab neighbours. In total, 179 local projects bankrolled by a “master fund” would cover areas ranging from water and agriculture to education and healthcare.
Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan said the most remarkable part of Kushner’s opening presentation was the complete lack of any mention of the Israeli occupation.
“All of these things that he described implied that the Palestinians would have complete control of their territory whether on land or sea,” Jordan said from Washington, DC.
“As we know, much of what the Palestinians have been able to do or not able to do what has been proscribed by the Israeli authorities,” she added, noting that freedom of movement in the occupied West Bank is “more of a notion rather than a reality”.
Jordan cited the inability of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to move freely within the territories, or to bring money and equipment to build up the economy, as clear indicators that cast big doubts on the feasibility of Kushner’s economic plan.
“It is rather difficult to talk about economic investment and development when you don’t have the underlying political and legal frameworks actually established to make all these other development plans workable,” she said.
Still, Washington will be hoping that attendees in Manama such as wealthy Gulf states will show a concrete interest in the plan.
Saudi Arabia – a close US ally which shares a common foe with Israel in Iran – expressed support on Tuesday for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.
But Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.
That plan calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, with its capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.
But in an interview with Al Jazeera shortly before his departure for Bahrain, Kushner said the Arab Peace Initiative was no basis for the US’s Middle East peace plan.
“I think we all have to recognise that if there ever is a deal, it’s not going to be along the lines of the Arab peace initiative,” he said. “It will be somewhere between the Arab peace initiative and between the Israeli position,” he added.
Ali Abunimah, cofounder of the Electronic Intifada online publication, said all previous approaches had failed “for the simple reason that not a single one addressed the core issue, which is Israeli military occupation, settlement construction and the denial of the rights of millions of Palestinians on a vast scale”.
Describing Kushner’s tone in his speech in Manama as “patronising” to the Palestinians, Abunimah told Al Jazeera: “He said, ‘We haven’t given up on you’ as if it’s the Palestinians who are somehow being stubborn and refusing to come along, sitting on the floor crying and screaming.
“Kushner is talking as if there’s no peace simply because the Palestinians don’t want peace. There’s no peace because Israel runs a military dictatorship over millions of Palestinians and the US supports it.”
Over the past two days, Palestinians in the occupied territories have protested against the US-led Middle East peace plan.
Palestinian leaders, who have refused to engage with the Trump administration accusing it of being the most biased towards Israel in US history, have also been scathing about its prospects of success.
“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas said on Sunday.
For his part, Ismail Haniya, leader of Hamas, the group which controls the besieged Gaza Strip, described the event in Manama as “a political event with a financial and economic camouflage”.
The workshop will “lay the foundation for terminating the Palestinian cause,” Haniya said, adding that “it gives the green light to the Zionist enemy to extend its occupation and control over the entire West Bank.”
Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza have called for more protests to be held on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.