In Bahrain, Air of Israeli-Arab Normalization and a Message to Iran

Israeli and Arab businessmen openly mingled at the non-alcoholic cocktail parties, while some Palestinians defied the boycott

Emirati businessman Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Dubai-based Emaar Properties, (R) is seen at the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.
Reuters

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Under strict security arrangements and despite the absence of official Israeli and Palestinian representatives, the biggest public event indicating the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world was held on Tuesday evening in the Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, the capital of the tiny island of Bahrain.

This was the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity economic conference, intended to raise $50 billion in contributions for the Palestinians – if the peace plan, which the Americans plan on presenting to the parties after the election in Israel in September, makes progress.

The festive event opened with a reception and an alcohol-free “cocktail party,” because the hotel follows Islamic law that bans alcohol. But even without alcohol, dozens of businesspeople from Arab countries were at ease chatting with Israeli counterparts – openly and in the presence of journalists.

In the end, the Palestinians were there too. About 15 Palestinians attended, including Ashraf Jabari from Hebron, the only Palestinian scheduled to speak at the conference. They told Haaretz that they came from all parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Jabari may be representing them as a speaker, but they support the conference, too. At one point, the former IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, reserve general Yoav Mordechai, sat with them on the sofas in the hotel lobby. Mordechai attended the conference as a private businessman. Haaretz also saw other Palestinians at the event who were not part of Jabari’s group – but they asked to remain anonymous.

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Among the senior officials who also attended the event was Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, who spoke publicly with Israelis. For example, he spoke with the director general of Sheba Medical Center, Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, who told Haaretz, “We were pleasantly surprised by the constructive, inclusive atmosphere looking for shared challenges, and we found all the parties very open to entrepreneurship and future cooperation as soon as possible.”

Qatar’s finance minister, Ali Sharif al Emadi, also attended the event.

A senior Bahraini official told Haaretz that relations with Israel are warming, but hosting the conference was also a complicated issue for them – in terms of their relations with the Palestinians. He said pressure from the United States was one of the main reasons it was held in Bahrain in the end.

Another Israeli participant, the head of Nokia for the Mediterranean region, Aric Tal, told Haaretz: “We launched a 3G network in 2018 in the Palestinian Authority and Nokia has a global development center that implements a model of employment in the PA. I was asked to share the model here, with the goal being economic leverage in the region.”

The opening speaker was Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to his father-in-law, U.S. President Donald Trump, the head of the American team for the peace plan – and the person behind the event in Bahrain. In his speech, in the style of a TED talk, Kushner presented the economic section of the peace plan he has been working on for the past two years.

“For too long the Palestinian people have been trapped in a framework for the past,” Kushner said. “This is a framework for a brighter future. It is a vision of what is possible with peace.”

“Imagine a bustling tourist center in Gaza and the West Bank. Imagine people and goods flowing securely throughout the region as people become more prosperous. This is not a stretch, it is the historic legacy of the Middle East,“ said Kushner. “Peace can only be achieved if it comes for a pathway for people to improve their lives. Pursuing opportunity instead of blaming others for their current misfortune … Palestinians have intelligence, perseverance, strength in great supply … My direct message: despite what those who let you down in the past tell you, the president and Americans have not given up on you.

The opening panel, entitled: “The Time is Now: Building a Coalition for Middle East Prosperity,” followed. It will continue all day on Wednesday.

Speaking as part of the panel, Emirati businessman Mohammed Alabbar said that the Middle East is a region of hope and that “Palestinian people are our people. We get up every morning positive, and we want to do more.”

“For generations, the vision of a vibrant and prosperous Middle East, specifically the West Bank and Gaza, has been blurred by the absence of continuous, sustainable peace. The private sector, including local formal, informal, regional and multinational players, can play an integral role in restoring and ushering a new era of prosperity,” said Alabbar, one of the wealthiest people in the Gulf region. “By generating jobs, income opportunities and filling gaps in delivering basic services, the private sector can help build momentum behind a fragile economy and instill hope in the people of the region. Indeed, when a steadfast peace plan is eventually put in place, the private sector will be the important catalyst that kickstarts the transformation of the West Bank and Gaza and opens a new chapter of economic prosperity in the region.”

Alabbar spoke as part of the panel – moderated by British television journalist Nik Gowing – along with Jewish American businessman Stephen Schwarzman, a Trump supporter and private equity billionaire who is the CEO and chairman of the Blackstone Group. Speaking to Israeli journalists, he also had a message for Israelis. He told Haaretz: “I think we all live on a very small planet called Earth and we have a duty to the families. We have a duty to society we live in, we have a duty to our neighbors and to the world … No matter how small these steps are we should something. And we as businessmen have a duty to our society, not only to make money and try to avoid taxes, but I really think we should do something good for the people.”

The evening ended with a festive dinner in the hotel. Among the American participants, in addition to Kushner and his Jared Kushner's closest aide Avi Berkowitz, who in recent months has become one of the very few people in on the secrets of the administration’s peace plan, were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and U.S. special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt. The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, also took part in the conference, as part of the administration’s attempts to display a “united front” with Israel and Sunni Arab nations against Iran.

The White House said it was not a coincidence that the conference is being held at the same time as two diplomatic visits by senior U.S. officials in the Middle East, which are related more to the tensions with Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Gulf states to discuss responses with their leaders to recent Iranian moves; and National Security Adviser John Bolton is in Jerusalem for a trilateral American-Israeli-Russian meeting focusing on Iran and Syria. For the Trump administration, the Bahrain conference is important – but not necessarily the most important meeting that will be held this week in the Middle East.

The White House said that despite the original announcements by Russia and China that they would not participate in the conference, among the hundreds of participants are low level representatives from both countries. Other representatives – who until the last moment it was unclear whether they would attend or not – include the European Union special representative to the Middle East, Susanna Terstal, who is very well acquainted with the Gulf region from her time as the Dutch ambassador to Iran.

A particularly fascinating Bahraini representative at the conference was Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, the Jewish woman who served as Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington from 2008 through 2013. Bahrain has a tiny Jewish community numbering 34 people. In a rare occurrence, Haaretz visited the synagogue in Manama, which was built in the early 19th century and was renovated in 1996 with the help of a contribution from a French philanthropist. The synagogue is not in regular use, but the community gathers there for holidays.

Amir Tibon contributed to this article.