Analysis

Trump's Bahrain Conference – Not What You Imagined

The Palestinians are boycotting and the Israeli elections got in the way. But one former U.S. diplomat sees some light at the end of the tunnel

Palestinian female supporters of the Islamic Jihad protest against the Bahrain economic workshop in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, June 18, 2019.
AFP

Not much joy will come from this wedding, to which the Palestinian bride is absolutely refusing to come, the Israeli groom is sending low-ranking representatives and the guests are being asked to maintain as low a profile as possible. The way things are looking now, less than a week before the convening of the economic conference initiated by the Trump administration, it will be hosting mainly business people and the number of senior people in attendance will be very small.

The Palestinian Authority’s holding action against the conference has been only partially successful; Jordan and Egypt have knuckled under to pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia and have announced that they will participate. At the moment the official Palestinian boycott is total. There is no information about business people from the territories who have dared to defy the PA and intend to participate, and apparently rightly as far as they are concerned: They are refusing to enter into a move that is only about economic benefits when discussion of the diplomatic ramifications of the American initiative has been postponed to some undefined date in the future. Since the people of Trump’s negotiating team are coming from the New York real estate world, perhaps it’s necessary to hark back to an example from the distant history of Manhattan: It isn’t possible to ensure diplomatic progress in the region if all that they’re selling in Bahrain is beads to the natives.

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To some extent the administration is losing the wind in its sails in the wake of Netanyahu’s decision to call a new election for the Knesset in September. Had there been any chance of advancing the diplomatic side of the “deal of the century,” it has been put in the deep freeze until the political situation in Israel becomes clear, towards the end of the year. At the same time, there’s some suspicion that the Americans have taken advantage of the crisis in Israel for their own needs. Postponing the timetable enables them to continue concealing the details of their plan, which, going by everything that has leaked about it thus far, looks unripe. Since 2020 is an election year in the United States, it is possible that the deal of the century will not see the light of day. As in the farce of the town of “Trump Heights,” which was purportedly dedicated this week in the Golan Heights in an official ceremony that would not have shamed a skit by Ephraim Kishon, here too a huge gap yawns between the vision and the reality.

Still on the agenda are the economic promises of a better future for the Palestinians and their neighbors, and to these too it is necessary to relate cautiously. In his early days as president, Trump created a lot of noise in a visit to Saudi Arabia, in which promises of billions of dollars in arms deals were released into the air. To date, only a small part of them has been realized. The Palestinians, too, have already experienced conferences of donor nations, in which there was no connection between the numbers thrown around and the funds that ultimately landed on the ground.

Dennis Ross, formerly one of the top people on the Hillary Clinton and Obama peace teams, nevertheless tried this week to find light at the end of the tunnel. Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that the main aim of the Bahrain conference should be the encouragement of stability in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in the context of the cut in salaries in the Palestinian Authority and the confrontations along the border fence initiated by Hamas in Gaza.

Economic plans proffered in Bahrain could help with this, argued Ross, if only the Palestinian right to a state is somehow presented. Ross is right, but the trouble is that for now the administration is wary of this as though it were some terrible taboo, while the Trump people are scattering hints about their support for annexation of Areas C in the West Bank to Israel.

The Palestinian Authority has planned to cast a shadow on the conference by means of demonstrations and disturbances in the territories while it is underway in Bahrain. The IDF will beef up its forces in the West Bank to some extent in light of the possibility of violence. In the Gaza Strip, however, a certain calm was evident this week, with the arrival of the monthly shipment of cash from Qatar. In the coming weeks a number of important projects are slated for launching in the areas of electricity, water and sewage in Gaza.

However, the frequent outbreaks of violence testify that the situation is far from stable. Hamas frequently accuses Israel of violating the prior agreements. Either there is an expectations gap developing here between the sides or the agreements the Egyptian mediators reached were simply never fully sewn up. In any case, it appears that the Gaza Strip is liable to keep seething over time, as the escalation in the Gulf could prompt Iran to try to spur Islamic Jihad to escalate the situation in Gaza as well.