UPDATE: On Wednesday June 19th, following efforts from the White House, Bahrain agreed to allow six Israeli journalists, including one from Haaretz, to cover next week's conference
With just a week to go before the Bahrain conference convenes to discuss the economic chapter of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan, things are looking increasingly gloomy for the U.S. team led by Jared Kushner.
The White House had surprised journalists in Washington and Israel on an otherwise boring Sunday last month when it announced that the workshop would take place in the Gulf state on June 25-26. That announcement created a temporary sense of momentum behind the so-called deal of the century, and the small team working on the plan viewed Bahrain’s sponsorship of the event as a major achievement.
But there have been a series of setbacks since then. The Palestinian Authority is boycotting the conference and has succeeded in convincing Palestinian business leaders not to attend as well. Russia and China — two of the most important economic players in the new Middle East — aren’t expected to attend, while Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon have also announced they won’t be participating.
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Arab countries that are set to attend include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Jordan has also signaled it will send a representative to the gathering, but the country’s foreign minister threw cold water on the conference this week by stating that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Egypt and Morocco are also expected to take part, although it is not clear what their level of representation will be.
One senior Arab diplomat, from a country that will participate in the workshop, told Haaretz on Monday: “It will be strange to discuss the future of the Palestinian economy without any Palestinians participating in the discussion.”
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And it became apparent Monday that the Palestinians won’t be the only key figures missing in Bahrain: No Israeli officials will be there either.
The White House explained that it decided not to invite any Israeli government representatives in order to prevent the gathering from becoming “political,” despite the fact that the Arab countries attending will be represented by government officials. The White House has invited Israeli business leaders to attend, but has yet to release even a partial list of the names of such participants.
Aside from not having any Israeli officials and probably no Palestinians at the conference, it is also unclear if the event will include journalists.
Initially, the White House briefed reporters from Israeli media outlets that it had received assurances from Bahrain that they would be able to freely enter the kingdom in order to cover the event (despite the lack of official diplomatic ties between the two countries). But as of Tuesday morning, just a week before the event starts, it is still unclear if any Israeli journalists will be there to cover it.
Journalists from international media outlets are also experiencing uncertainty over their ability to cover the conference and it remains unclear who, if any, will receive accreditation.
When the conference was announced on May 19, some analysts in Jerusalem imagined it turning into what Israelis call a “victory picture” for the U.S. administration, showcasing Israeli and Arab officials sharing a table, discussing the future of the Middle East and doing so in front of cameras from all over the world — including Israel itself. Right now, almost no part of that vision seems likely to become a reality.
Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, tweeted Monday that “cancelling official Israelis at Bahrain looks bad, and should be a wake-up call to Trump Administration about limits of Arab state willingness to play their peace process games without Palestinians.”
While it is becoming clearer who will and will not be attending, big questions remain about the contents of the conference.
One question concerns whether the administration will release a written economic plan before the conference takes place, as it had originally promised to do. Another is whether any Arab countries — especially the rich Gulf states — will actually sign checks for economic projects during the conference, despite the lack of any Palestinian presence or momentum behind the plan.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, posed a third question Monday after it was reported that no Israeli officials will be attending. “If Bahrain isn’t about Arab-Israel regional integration and if Palestinian boycott means it’s not about practical plans for West Bank development, then why hold the workshop?” he asked. “What’s the purpose?”
In Israel, and especially in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s circle, there has been a collective sigh of relief at the slow yet steady downgrading of the Bahrain workshop.
In public, of course, the Israeli government applauds President Donald Trump’s every move — and for good reason, with all the gifts he’s given Jerusalem. But behind the scenes, there are those who admit that the last thing Netanyahu needs right now, in the middle of an unexpected reelection campaign, is a peace plan.
His failure to form a governing coalition last month dealt a critical blow to Washington’s plans. Everything was postponed until after the election, and who knows what will happen after September 17? What’s certain is that, as far as he is concerned, Netanyahu has no interest in any semblance of negotiations being made public before Israelis go to the polls again. With his political partners only moving farther to the right, that would be more of a death sentence for him than any future sentence he may face from a court of law.
The only person in Israel who might be said to feel disappointment at developments — and probably not that much — is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who was originally set to represent the government in Bahrain. His leading the official delegation was supposed to be a show of support from Netanyahu for the man who returned to the Likud fold after being dealt a blow in the April election when his Kulanu party only received four seats. Now, even that consolation prize has been taken away from him.