The US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has hailed the upcoming United States-led conference in Bahrain this month as an important step towards achieving Washington’s Middle East peace plan in the region, despite Palestinians announcing they would boycott the meeting.
“[The Bahrain workshop] is an attempt to jumpstart the Palestinian economy. That’s the purpose and that’s the focus. To improve the quality of life of Palestinians,” Friedman told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.
The meeting, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, on June 25-26, has drawn criticism from the Palestinians who say US President Donald Trump‘s peace plan is likely to be heavily weighed in favour of Israel and quash their aspirations for statehood in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While the precise outlines of Washington’s draft plan – which he has branded the “deal of the century” – have yet to be revealed, Palestinian and Arab sources who have been briefed about it say it has abandoned the two-state solution.
Focus on economy
Although the Palestinian Authority (PA) will not attend the meeting, billed by the Trump administration as a workshop to boost the Palestinian economy, Friedman says it is an important meeting nonetheless.
“There will be a significant showing from the Palestinian business community, and we will work with them as best we can,” said Friedman, adding that the PA’s absence was disappointing but not insurmountable.
“I don’t know that the Palestinian Authority is the last word on how to create a better life for the Palestinians. The Palestinians themselves should have a say in that,” he explained.
Speaking to Reuters news agency in May, Palestinian Social Development Minister Ahmed Majdalani had said: “There will be no Palestinian participation in the Manama workshop.”
“Any Palestinian who would take part would be nothing but a collaborator for the Americans and Israel,” added Majdalani, who is also a member of the executive committee of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Rami Khouri, a senior public policy fellow and journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera last month that it would make little difference whether the Palestinians attended the talks or not.
“The plan for this kind of gathering in the Trumpian world is for the US to dictate what it feels is in the interest of the US and the Netanyahu wing of the Israeli government,” Khouri told Al Jazeera, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
‘Not money for peace’
Despite the controversy around the meeting, Friedman defended the workshop’s objectives as a means to create “a momentum” for peace.
“The Palestinians have aspirations that have to be addressed. The Israelis have issues that have to be addressed. This conflict needs to be resolved on a political level,” Friedman told Al Jazeera.
“But in order to create a momentum … we need significant improvement in the economy. That is the only way that people on both sides will have faith that there is the opportunity for real peace,” he explained.
He added that focusing on the economic rather than political aspects of the peace plan will also likely create an environment conducive to successful negotiations between the two sides.
“It [starting with the economic aspect rather than political] doesn’t invoke any of the ancient rivalries of these peoples [Palestinians and Israelis]. We’ve said this over and over again, it’s not intended to be a replacement for a political discussion.”
Returning to politics, Friedman, a staunch supporter of Israel’s illegal settlements, said Israel faces many challenges, including the status of hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews in West Bank.
“Israel has ongoing conflicts with the Palestinians generally. They have 450,000 Jews living in the West Bank whose status is unclear. It should be cleared up, no one should have to live on a cloud,” Friedman told Al Jazeera.
In an interview published by the New York Times earlier this month, Friedman had said Israel has the right to annex at least “some” of the West Bank.
“Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” he said at the time.
Friedman’s remarks elicited a strong reaction from Palestinian politicians, including senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, who said any such policy would be tantamount to “US complicity with Israeli colonial plans”.
‘No margin for error’
Shedding light on Palestinians’ political demands, Friedman said the US was unlikely to support political independence for them within the current political climate.
“The last thing the region needs, whether it’s Israel, Jordan or Egypt, is a failed Palestinian state between Israel and the Jordan River. It could be overtaken by Hamas, ISIS or al-Qaeda. It is an existential threat to the state of Israel, possibly to Jordan as well,” said Friedman.
“We’ve seen what’s happened to Gaza. There’s not a single Jew living in Gaza. Israel controls the entire perimeter, whether on the land or the sea. Somehow, there are still rockets and missiles being fired.
“Israel has to be 100 percent sure that the Palestinians in West Bank don’t turn it into the Gaza Strip. There’s no margin of error.”
Speaking about solutions to the situation in the Gaza Strip, Friedman ruled out negotiations with Hamas, the party governing the enclave which the US and Israel consider a terrorist organisation.
“As long as Hamas, which is about 30,000 terrorists, holds two million people hostage with no freedom of expression, virtually no freedom at all … it is an enormously challenging situation.
“If there’s going to be a political solution, it will require that the PA become the governing body, both in the West Bank and Gaza. No question about that.”
The Palestinian party has governed the besieged Gaza Strip since it won a 2006 election. The enclave has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian siege ever since.
While Israel’s blockade of Gaza is often seen to have originated as a response to Hamas’s rise to power, analysts say the isolation of the enclave, in fact, goes back three decades.
Tareq Baconi, an analyst with International Crisis Group and author of Hamas Contained, told Al Jazeera earlier this month: “It is impossible not to view this blockade as a continuation of Israeli policies of pacification and isolation that go back to the founding of the state in 1948.”
“Hamas is simply the fig leaf that allows Israel to sustain policies towards Gaza that had long informed its approach towards the strip,” he added.
Friedman said Washington still hopes to alleviate some of the economic and humanitarian hardships that Gaza residents have endured, adding that Israel presents a positive model of what Gaza could become one day.
“The same beautiful beach you see in Tel Aviv that has brought so much tourism, investment and development is exactly the same the beach that exists 60 miles to the south in Gaza. There’s no good reason that Gaza can’t have all that and more. Hamas is keeping it from happening.”
“Israel is free, it has a transparent economy, it has a world-class education and it is a great example for the region, especially for the Palestinian as to why they could do so much better,” added Friedman.
According to the World Bank, the economy in the Gaza Strip is “collapsing” mainly due to the 11-year-long blockade on the coastal enclave in addition to cuts in donor aid.