MANAMA, Bahrain — Behind the scenes at the economic peace conference in Bahrain sponsored by the United States, many delegates from European Union countries followed the discussion with a certain amount of skepticism.
Several EU nations sent lower level officials from their foreign or finance ministries instead of senior politicians to the Four Seasons Hotel here in Manama. The EU special representative for the Middle East peace process, Susanna Terstal, who is very familiar with the Gulf region from her stint as Dutch ambassador to Iran, also came to the conference as an observer.
Many of them feel a bit awkward about the economic part of the American peace plan. As the Americans in Bahrain speak of theoretical investments worth tens of billions of dollars in the Palestinian economy and Palestinian society, European taxpayers are picking up the bulk of the tab for humanitarian projects in the field in the meantime, while the Americans have only been cutting and cutting funding to the Palestinians.
Absent the political aspect of the peace plan, it's hard for European representatives to evaluate the scope of preparedness and seriousness of the economic part. On the one hand, they support rehabilitating the Palestinian economy, as the main donor countries in recent years. On the other hand, the further the political element of the plan gets away from the two-state solution, the harder it will be for them to support it.
The second day of the Bahrain conference on Wednesday includes panel discussions well as many conversations in the corridors between Arab state representatives, Israeli business people and a sizeable group of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem who came despite the Palestinian leadership's official boycott.
The only Palestinian speaker at the conference, businessman Ashraf Jabari, said on Wednesday at the event that he does not speak for the leadership. "We are not here to talk about politics, that's the authority of the Palestinian Authority," said Jabari, who is chairman of the Hebron-based Palestinian Business Network.
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"This plan, if it succeeds, will be a very good issue to raise the economy of the Palestinians in the West Bank," stressed Jabari. "This is the reason we attend this conference."
Other conference panels didn't discuss the Palestinians at all.
The fact that only one Palestinian spoke officially at the event well befits the economic atmosphere in the conference. It seems that the normalization between Bahrain and the Arab countries and Israel is far more significant here than the topic of the conference itself, which is the Palestinians. The real, unofficial issue of the conference is money, lots of money. Business people and consulting firms came here to close deals behind the scenes much more than to advance peace.