The announcement by the White House Tuesday that Egypt, Jordan and Morocco will attend the economic workshop that U.S. President Donald Trump is convening in Bahrain this month has been measured in terms of losses and wins: a loss for the Palestinians, who failed to persuade the Arab states to stay away; a win for Trump, who succeeded in selling an additional three tickets to the show, without knowing the program and the level of representation.
The expected attendance at the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the most recent invitees to RSVP should be examined in the context of the relationships among these countries and between Washington and Israel, rather than as a test of enthusiasm for the opportunity to take part in solving the Palestinian problem.
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Jordan delayed its response for weeks, and then hinted at first that it didn’t plan to attend. But Jordan is dependent on U.S. aid. Even more important, it cannot afford to skip any gathering at which decisions might be made with implications for its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan fears that Riyadh might assume control of the holy places and exclude Amman from the political processes in the region. Of even more concern is that while the economic plan is expected to give Jordan billions of dollars in aid, their price could include agreeing to accept tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Palestinians in a bid to neutralize the right of return issue.
Saudi Arabia is on a collision course with Congress, which is currently debating four bills aimed at blocking weapons sales to the kingdom because of the unending war in Yemen, which the United Nations has declared a major humanitarian disaster. The status of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington isn’t great, particularly after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the demand by the U.S. House of Representatives to continue to investigate the crown prince’s responsibility for the murder.
Saudi Arabia, however, sees the United States as a crucial anchor in the struggle against Iranian influence in the Middle East, so responding to any Trump initiative is a strategic necessity, whether the initiative yields a diplomatic solution or not. For Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian problem is secondary, if not marginal, to its own regional interests; the importance of its participation in the Bahrain conference is similar to a celebrity appearance at an international festival.
Egypt’s attendance at the conference is also part of the close relationship between President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Trump. Egypt isn’t a vocal rival of Iran and its involvement in the war in Yemen against the Houthis is symbolic. But its economic dependence on Riyadh and Washington doesn’t allow it to ignore the American initiative. In addition to the billions of dollars Egypt has gotten from Saudi Arabia since Sissi took power in 2013, and the annual aid it gets from the United States since signing the Camp David Accords, there are the support and guarantees that the United States gave the loans Egypt has taken from the International Monetary Fund totalling $12 billion, and the grandiose investment plans to be funded mostly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are cooperating militarily with the private army of Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, while Egypt has an unofficial military alliance with Israel in the war against terror near Israel’s borders. But Egypt, like Jordan and even Bahrain, have made it clear that it supports the two-state solution, a formula unacceptable to Israel and one that Washington is also apparently shying away from. Morocco has an interest in preserving its status as a partner to diplomatic developments in the region, and in the past helped mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, but it, too, is needy and its strong ties with the United States give it the financial security it needs in order to function.
It is clear to all countries and businessmen participating in the conference that the burden of funding the plan, which is expected to total nearly $70 billion, will fall on the Gulf states. The United States hasn’t even stated how much it will agree to put toward realizing its plan. The European Union has made it clear that any plan that does not offer a realistic diplomatic solution and contradicts the principle of two states is not worthy of discussion. Trump aide and son-in-low Jared Kushner visited the EU only on June 4, the day before EU foreign ministers convened to discuss the Palestinian problem. The EU countries have learned from previous conferences, like the one in Warsaw in February and the one convened by the White House in March 2018, that they are meant to serve as an ATM for Trump’s ideas, with no input. Many EU leaders believe it would be a mistake to go to Bahrain, which they see as an attempt to bypass the negotiations that must precede any discussion of funding and investment.
To the Palestinians, the decision by Arab states to attend the conference despite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ great efforts at dissuasion is more proof, if any were needed, that the “Palestinian problem” helps these countries to strengthen their ties with the United States and Israel and create a map of Arab hegemony in the Middle East. Abbas believes these countries prefer to maintain a status quo that promises them American backing without having to pay a political price in the form of recognizing and establishing relations with Israel, which would be expected of them in the event the peace process were to end in an agreement.
Even if Abbas were to accept Trump’s invitation, in order to at least get the generous aid the plan is expected to offer, bitter experience has taught him that there is no one he can count on for assistance. For example, at this year’s Arab League summit the Arab states pledged $100 million a month to the Palestinian Authority to offset the tax payments that Israel is withholding. Not a single dollar has been paid. Qatar agreed to give the PA $480 million, but only in installments.
The Bahrain conference cannot and is not meant to replace negotiations or to propose a solution that circumvents negotiations. It’s doubtful that it will even result in concrete agreements regarding the extent and time frame for the economic aid. Trump will be able to add this event to his resume of paltry efforts invested in the peace process, which he trampled on when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. embassy there and accepted Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
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