Bahrain Stresses Commitment to Palestinian State After Backlash Over U.S.-led Peace Conference

Planned conference, where economic parts of the American plan are set to be revealed, 'serves no other purpose' than supporting Palestinian economy, foreign minister says

File photo: Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, attends the opening session of the Arab foreign ministers meeting ahead of the Arab Summit, in Tunis, March 29, 2019.
Hussein Malla/AP

Bahrain's foreign minister reiterated Tuesday his country's support for "an independent [Palestinian] state with East Jerusalem as its capital" in the wake of criticism over a U.S.-led Middle East peace conference expected to be held in the Gulf state. 

In a series of tweets in Arabic, later issued as an official statement in English, Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa expanded on a similarly worded English-language statement issued by his ministry late Sunday, following the announcement of the June 25-26 conference, titled "Peace to Prosperity."

Al Khalifa said that the conference "serves no other purpose" than supporting Palestinian economy, repeating parts of his earlier English-language statement stressing Bahrain's commitment to the Palestinian people, who "hold an important place in the hearts of all Bahrainis."

The earlier English statement, however, made no mention of a Palestinian state, but mentioned Bahrain's support for "the aspirations of the Palestinian people."

>> Read more: Trump's planning a wedding in Bahrain. But he forgot to invite the groom ■ The most important detail in Kushner’s plan for the Palestinian economy

The White House said earlier on Sunday it would reveal the economic part of its peace plan at the Bahrain conference, while Palestinian officials have rejected the move, as they said they would any peace plan offered by the U.S., saying President Donald Trump is unfairly biased toward Israel.

Al Khalifa said Bahrain fully supports the Palestinian Authority, tweeting his “sincere appreciation to the Palestinian leadership for its continued efforts and firm stances in protecting the rights of the brotherly Palestinian people and fulfilling their aspirations.”

The conference, Al Khalifa's statement in English said, "will convene government, civil society and business leaders from across the region and the world. It will address the economic and investment needs of the Palestinian people, supporting the development of the region in general."

Immediately casting a cloud over the planned conference, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said Monday that any American peace plan that ignores the Palestinian people’s aspirations for an independent state is doomed to fail.

The White House announced Sunday it will unveil the first phase of its long-awaited peace plan at the conference, saying it will focus on economic benefits that could be reaped if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

The plan envisions large-scale investment and infrastructure work, much of it funded by wealthy Arab countries, in the Palestinian territories.

But officials say the conference will not include the core political issues of the conflict: final borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees or Israeli security demands.

“Any solution to the conflict in Palestine must be political ... and based on ending the occupation,” Shtayyeh said at a Palestinian Cabinet meeting. “The current financial crisis is a result of a financial war waged against us and we will not succumb to blackmailing and extortion and will not trade our national rights for money.”

Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said it was “difficult to understand why the Palestinian Authority would reject a workshop designed to discuss a vision with the potential to radically transform lives and put people on a path toward a brighter future.”

“History will judge the Palestinian Authority harshly for passing up any opportunity that could give the Palestinians something so very different, and something so very positive, compared to what they have today,” Greenblatt said.

In another setback, Bashar Masri, a Palestinian industrialist with vast business holdings throughout the West Bank, said he had turned down an invitation to the conference.

“I will not participate in this conference, and none of the representatives of our companies will participate,” he wrote on Facebook. “We reaffirm our clear position: We will not deal with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus.”

The Palestinians severed ties with the U.S. over a year ago over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They have repeatedly expressed fears that the White House will try to buy them off with large sums of investment in exchange for freezing their demands for an independent state. They believe the U.S. is trying to rally support from other Arab countries to bully them into accepting a plan that would legitimize the Israeli occupation.

In a joint statement with Bahrain, the White House said the gathering will give government, civil and business leaders a chance to rally support for economic initiatives that could be possible with a peace agreement.

“The Palestinian people, along with all people in the Middle East, deserve a future with dignity and the opportunity to better their lives,” Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said in a statement Sunday.

“Economic progress can only be achieved with a solid economic vision and if the core political issues are resolved.”

The tiny island nation of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, has signaled its willingness to open relations with Israel. Prominent rabbis in 2017 said King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told them he hoped the Arab boycott of Israel would end.

Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are widely believed to be seeking closer ties to Israel, viewing it as a potential ally against Iran, a shared enemy.

Kushner and Greenblatt, have been leading efforts to draft the plan, but after more than two years of work, they have not released any details.

A senior administration official in Washington told reporters Sunday that invitations to the conference are being sent to individuals in the United States, Europe, the Gulf, the wider Arab world and “some” Palestinian business leaders.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

There were no details on who might attend, or whether the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was invited. Israel’s Finance Ministry said it had not been invited.

In the absence of direct talks with Palestinian leaders, U.S. officials often talk of engaging Palestinians in the private sector and “civil society” groups.

Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has embraced the “Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce,” a group led by Israeli West Bank settlers that seeks business ties with Palestinian partners. The group’s Palestinian co-founder, businessman Ashraf Jabari, said he had been invited and planned on attending.

It is unclear how any large-scale projects would be carried out in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. and Israel consider Gaza’s Hamas rulers to be a terrorist group and have no direct contacts with them.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War — for an independent state. Breaking from the policies of its predecessors, the Trump administration has refused to endorse a two-state solution.

Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 and subsequently moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The U.S. has also cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid for the Palestinians and closed the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.

Kushner said it has been disheartening that the Palestinian leadership has attacked the plan before it’s unveiled.

Earlier this month, Kushner insisted that the plan he’s helped craft is a detailed, fresh approach that he hopes will stimulate discussion and lead to a breakthrough in solving the decades-old conflict. At a think tank in Washington, Kushner described it as an “in-depth operational document” not anchored to previous, failed negotiations, high-level political concepts or stale arguments.