The Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian factions have rejected any participation in the upcoming economic peace conference sponsored by the U.S. and Bahrain, to be held in Manama on 25 and 26 June and attended by representatives from all Gulf Cooperation Council member countries as well as other Arab states.
Although individual Palestinian business leaders have shown interest, the Palestinian Liberation Organization has termed participants "collaborators" and written off the summit as "financial blackmail" despite assurances from Jerad Kushner that it is merely a prelude to a proposed political settlement soon to be unveiled.
This narrow approach on the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is short-sighted at best, self-defeating at worst.
There is no harm in listening to what will be placed on the table. Ultimately it is the Palestinian prerogative to accept or reject. Palestinians have always relied heavily on aid to one extent or another. Now that it is on offer, their leaders are turning their backs instead of taking care of their people’s needs.
Non-attendance also plays into the old Israeli canard, "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." There is no arm-twisting going on from the Arab side. There is only an attempt to persuade Abu Mazen to see the big picture. Besides, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have recently reaffirmed their commitment to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The Palestinian economy badly needs a boost. People are hurting badly. Unemployment is rising. Government employees are reduced to half-pay. A recent report from the World Bank asserts the Palestinian economy is in crisis and calls for an urgent resolution. The "Peace to Prosperity" conference could provide the answer. Government donors, as well as keen investors, are waiting in the wings. Saudi and the UAE are front-runners in pledging substantial funding.
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Sincere economic cooperation can be the first step towards conflict-resolution and will undoubtedly smooth further interaction between peoples. Commerce could bolster and simplify a political solution. The mutual suspicion harbored by most ordinary Israelis and Palestinians is because there is little contact between the two peoples.
Believe me, were Arabs and Israelis stranded on a desert island, all labels would vanish. They would see one another as fellow humans and gravitate to those with superior character traits regardless of their nationality or religion. For the new peace plan to have any chance of working, leaders from all sides, including the United States, should call time out on escalatory rhetoric and threats that only serve to heighten emotions.
The Palestinian Authority should seriously reconsider its boycott of the conference if only for the fact that a stronger Palestinian economy translates to strengthening their political platform. Unfortunately, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are so entrenched in their hardline political and distorted theocratic ideologies, while remaining in bed with Iran and other undesirables, that their participation is a non-starter.
Let me get something straight. I have been a lifelong supporter of Palestinian rights. In years gone by I hosted conferences in Dubai to further that aim and my foundation offers a helping hand to Palestinian farmers and others in need. However, I am also a realist. Fantasy Land is for Disney. I see what is and what can be.
I applaud the courage shown by the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain spearheading the conference to rise above ingrained positions in order to carve a new way forward. They have adopted a pragmatic stance in light of current realities in a region that has never been this volatile. Without their backing, there would be no workshop.
Now it is up to U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show reciprocal goodwill, in the form of fairness and justice.
Of course, I understand why the Palestinian leadership is upset over the U.S. president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, and the Israeli prime pinister’s pre-election vow to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank. I feel the same.
That said, should we continue bashing our heads against a brick wall in pursuit of peace for forever and a day, using the same worn-out paradigms that have delivered nothing except misery while cementing hatreds for over 70 years? Both Palestinians and Israelis find themselves at the losing end.
Palestinians have lost loved ones, homes and land. Israel is militarized and stands accused by several of its elderly pioneers of betraying the values upon which it was founded. Continuing hostilities is not a win-win for anyone but rather a fool’s game. Let us face it, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere, and so it is incumbent upon decision makers to ensure they can live side-by-side as partners in peace.
I long for the day when Israel and Arab states, in particular Gulf States, are able to normalize diplomatic and trade relations as Egypt and Jordan have done. Almost all share a common enemy. Iran and its destructive proxies are considered by Israel and by those of us living close to the Strait of Hormuz as an existential threat.
However, normalization requires a satisfactory resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – or, at the very least, for tensions to be reduced. Once achieved, we will be well placed to halt Tehran’s belligerent adventurism in its tracks.
I trust that day will come soon. Backchannel talks between Israeli and Gulf Arab officials are happening. I do not pretend there is no opposition from some quarters, but I believe the majority of our populations will be accepting, if not initially welcoming.
Those who vehemently oppose are serial objectors. They regularly pop up on social media raving and ranting in response to every solution and when asked to present alternatives they have nothing apart from insults and expletives.
Lastly, I would reiterate my appeal to Mahmoud Abbas: Re-think your boycott. Palestine needs you. Your people need you. If Nelson Mandela could overcome decades of oppression and 28 long years in a prison cell to forge a new South Africa based on truth, justice and reconciliation, with a will you can move mountains.
I would also caution the U.S. and Israel not to try any tricks. We will see through them, when all positive overtures will cease, hurtling us straight back to square one. The Palestinians want to be dealt with fairly and with respect. Do not let them down!
Khalaf Al Habtoor is the chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, an international business conglomerate with interests in real estate, hotels, the automotive industry, education and publishing, based in the United Arab Emirates. Twitter: @khalafalhabtoor