MANAMA, Bahrain – Like soup cooking very slowly that suddenly and dramatically boils over, so what was for years one of the most open secrets in the Middle East was exposed over the past two days: The relations between Israel and some of the Gulf nations – and first and foremost the Kingdom of Bahrain – have been growing stronger in the shadow of the battle with the joint enemy, Iran, alongside the substantial economic interests of private businesspeople.
This process has been developing under the radar for a long time and includes an abundance of secret cooperative projects, but matured this week under the auspices of the United States during the Trump administration’s economic peace workshop in Bahrain. The photos of senior officials from Arab countries, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others, conversing with a natural nonchalance with Israeli businessmen and journalists in the corridors of the Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, publicly shattered the myth of the ancient regional taboo.
The well-orchestrated display of normalization even overshadowed, to a certain extent, the official goal for which the conference was supposedly convened – economic aid for the Palestinians – and made it clearer than ever that the new regional alliances and underground currents will push aside ideology and slogans when necessary. Leaders now want to reap political profits, but the causes of this gradual change run deep and are also circumstantial. In other words: The credit of all this should mostly go to the Iranian leadership, which has been pushing the moderate Sunni countries right into Israel’s arms.
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Still, for now the tuxedos for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony can be left deep in the closet. The situation is very complex and everyone must avoid making superficial statements.
On one hand, the main casualty of this development is the Palestinian leadership, which received a very clear message from every direction that they are like a bone stuck in the throats of very influential parties in the region and are preventing progress on cooperative security, technological and economic projects. The Americans often sound like they are hinting that this leadership needs to be replaced. Considering the not always successful history, to say the least, of the United States' interventions to overthrow and crown rulers around the world, these comments cause much worry in Ramallah and Gaza – and for now are causing the rift to deepen.
In conversations with representatives from Arab countries at the conference, Haaretz also heard criticism of the Palestinian Authority's actions, Hamas' leadership and the funding they receive from Iran and Qatar – and here and there even comments that showed a certain lack of identification and understanding from Gulf state representatives of the reality of the occupation in the West Bank.
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It is, of course, possible that some of them said these things because that is what they thought Israeli journalists expected to hear. But similar messages, worded more gently, were voiced from time to time from the podium as well. The Bahraini hosts even took a great deal of trouble to make their rare Israeli guests feel as comfortable as possible in their country, and also encouraged the country's tiny Jewish community, numbering only a few dozen, to interact with the media and show how their existence is accepted with great tolerance. Thus the small synagogue in the back alleys of Manama's market was opened specifically for journalists form Israel.
A representative of the Bahrain Foreign Ministry, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo – the Jewish woman who served in the past as Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington – also participated in the U.S.-sponsored economic peace workshop. A few rabbis were also invited by the kingdom, including Rabbi Marc Schneier, the special adviser to the king on Jewish affairs, and two rabbis: Marvin Hier – the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – and his deputy, Abraham Cooper.
On the other hand, and no less obviously, every single Arab at the event made it clear in some way that the Palestinian issue still stands between them and full peace with Israel. The general message was that we are making progress in slow steps with Israel, despite – and not because of – the lack of a solution, but this progress also has limits. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, who for the first time granted interviews to the Israeli media – after avoiding them only a few months earlier at a Mideast conference in Warsaw – was careful to note that his country supports the two-state solution and that Palestinians deserve an independent state and citizenship, just like the Israelis. He also cooled down hopes that he would visit Israel soon without a change in the situation.
The event's patron, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is in charge of orchestrating the peace efforts on behalf of the White House, told reporters that they intentionally did not invite foreign ministers to the conference because those who set the existing policies are held captive by existing paradigms. Yet it seems that this is also an after-the-fact explanation for why the senior leadership did not participate, except for the finance ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Had the Americans announced in advance that they planned on inviting mostly private individuals, maybe the absence of the official representatives would not have been noted everywhere again and again. Arab countries that participated in the conference and kept a lower profile, in particular Jordan and Egypt, also released clarifications that they continue to support the two-state solution, and specifically the Arab League's plan. They also gave final confirmation of their participation only after the United States announced that not only would the Palestinian Authority not send official representatives, but neither would Israel. It is important to note that these are countries that already have signed full peace agreements with Israel, so in this case, as usual, even the half-empty glass has a half-full counterpart. Each side can now choose what to focus on, but the truth is that the two parts together make up the complex full cup.
Why the Palestinians asked to meet Kahlon in Jerusalem
While they were celebrating a wedding in Bahrain without a bride and groom, the representatives of the bickering couple were meeting – and in Jerusalem, too. At exactly the same time that the concluding panel of the conference began on the stage in Manama – a discussion between the finance ministers of the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain – Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met in his office in Jerusalem with his counterpart, Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bashara, and Civil Affairs Minister Hassan al-Sheikh. Kahlon’s office said “the meeting addressed ongoing civil and economic issues, a continuation of the meetings held between the sides over the past four years. The meeting did not address diplomatic matters. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon participated in the meeting.”
This description is accurate, these meetings have been going on completely regularly and routinely – even during these times when the disconnect between the Palestinians and Israelis is supposedly worsening – and the Palestinians are refusing to accept the remainder of tax money deducted by Israel. But holding this meeting at the same time as the finance ministers' panel in Bahrain was not at all a coincidence. The Palestinians were the ones who asked Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon for it, insisting on this Wednesday afternoon.
Their message was clear: We will make do by ourselves, without the Americans. The two sides set the next meeting in a few weeks—not something that can necessarily be said for now about the conference in Bahrain.
Waiting for the diplomatic chapter
Among those who did not participate as speakers in the official program of the From Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain, but were certainly observing what was going from the sidelines, was a small group of Palestinians, about 15 men from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, led by Ashraf Jabari from Hebron. He is a controversial figure among the Palestinians, partly because of his cooperation with the settlers, such as with the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry – and for purposes of the conference, became the chairman of the Palestinian Business Network on his business card.
This group of Palestinians was very anxious over any possibility that their identities might be revealed. They asked journalists not to photograph them, even though the conference was open to the press, and even angrily confronted anyone they suspected of doing so anyway (including this reporter, who did not photograph them but nonetheless received threatening rebukes).
Among the audience were a few Palestinians who did not belong to Jabari’s group: Young, educated and curious about the initiative. They also were very afraid of being exposed. One of them excitedly introduced himself to Kushner at the end of his opening speech. After all the wonderful words Trump's senior adviser said about empowering the Palestinian people, Kushner’s response to the young man who introduced himself – exactly the type of person the Americans were supposed to embrace warmly – was amazingly cold.
Representatives from a number of European countries, below ministerial level, quietly wandered around the conference, suspiciously eyeing what was going on. While the Americans spoke about tens of billions of dollars in investments in the Palestinian economy and society, European taxpayers are the ones who are, for now, paying the bill for most of the existing humanitarian projects on the ground, while the Americans have only cut their funding.
One thing united all the participants. Representatives from Arab countries, Israelis, Palestinians and the international community: They all agree that the economic section of the American peace plan cannot be judged separately from the political chapter, which has not yet been released. The Americans agree, too, and say time after time that the implementation of the “economic vision,” which is meant to give the Palestinian people a look into a theoretically better world, depends on their acceptance of the diplomatic agreement the Americans plan on presenting later.
Lacking this political chapter, it is still impossible to judge what exactly the Bahrain conference will lead to. Without a doubt, an important cornerstone was laid this week in Manama on the road to open normalization between Israel and the moderate Sunni nations, but the lack of an agreement with the Palestinians still clouds efforts to further develop relations. The real test of the American peace initiative will come when its second part is revealed.