Analysis

It Won’t Bring Peace, but the Bahrain Conference Is Still Important

Just by taking place, Jared Kushner’s conference has moved the needle against the Palestinians and in the direction of Netanyahu’s vision for the Middle East

A Palestinian demonstrator burning a poster depicting U.S. President Donald Trump during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. Middle East peace plan, in the southern Gaza Strip, June 25, 2019.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

The “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop currently taking place in Bahrain is important. Not because it will lead to peace: it won’t. And most of the dismissiveness about it has been justified. As one Palestinian leader said, “It’s a technocrats’ conference.” No decisions will be made there and the glossy realtors’ prospectus prepared by Jared Kushner’s team for the event is a copy-paste job, plagiarized from previous failed initiatives, totally devoid of any context or connection to the reality on the ground.

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But the Bahrain gathering, which ends Wednesday, is still important. For the first time, official representatives of a significant number of Sunni Arab states will be openly attending an international conference on resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They will be doing so against the express wishes of the Palestinians, and not one of the cardinal Palestinian demands — statehood, Jerusalem, borders, refugees — will be on the conference’s official agenda.

Yes, some of the Arab governments are attending only after significant pressure from the Trump administration. And they have reiterated in advance that peace can only be reached through recognizing the Palestinians’ national aspirations.

To signal their dissatisfaction with the agenda, most countries have sent no rank higher than deputy minister. But they are there, at an international conference on the Palestinians, without the Palestinians’ participation. And it is being hosted by and in an Arab country. In public.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arriving at the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.
\ MATT SPETALNICK/ REUTERS

So no, it won’t bring peace. But just by taking place, the economic workshop has moved the needle in a major way against the Palestinians and in the direction of Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision for the region.

Throughout his entire career — as early as his days as a freelance Israeli propagandist in the United States, even before he was officially employed as a diplomat — Netanyahu promised that the day would come when the Arab states would choose relations with Israel over championing the Palestinian cause.

Danny Danon, the man who serves in the post that Netanyahu held 32 years ago (Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations), wrote in the New York Times this week that the Palestinians should “surrender.”

Netanyahu has never called for their surrender because, as far as he has ever been concerned, the Palestinians will simply be left with no choice once their Arab brothers abandon them. And Bahrain brings him closer to that objective.

For Netanyahu, it is Israel’s grand strategy; for most of the Arab states, it’s a matter of expediency.

A year ago, on his grand tour of the United States, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told a group of Jewish leaders privately that he and like-minded leaders in the Gulf were conducting a series of surveys to try to assess the views of the wider Arab public. They hoped to find that the “Arab street” was not as pro-Palestinian as some believe, and that it would be willing to accept a gradual normalization of ties with Israel. As far as most Arab leaders are concerned, the main obstacle to closer relations with Israel is the fear of a possible public backlash. If it wasn’t for that, they would have come out into the open years ago.

There is no question that, from their perspective, a security alliance with Israel against Iran — preferably with American backing — coupled with trade and tech sales, are more important than any notion of solidarity with the Palestinians. But for now at least, the public mood is shifting only gradually, so lip service to Palestinian aspirations and token resistance to “normalization” continue. Which is why the event in Bahrain is so important: It’s another sign of Arab leaders bringing the burgeoning secret relationship into the open.

This doesn’t necessarily spell ultimate disaster for the Palestinians. Their nosedive down to the bottom of the global agenda is not yet final. Kushner and the rest of President Donald Trump’s Middle East team may all be gone in 18 months and the next U.S. administration could reverse their policies. The Europeans may sort out their own internal problems and become a diplomatic force again. The Arab leaders’ calculations could change. Israel may yet come under pressure once again to make concessions and the two-state solution could be back on the table.

But that is all in an uncertain future. For now, Bahrain is happening.