As White House senior adviser Jared Kushner rolled out the first stage of a long-awaited Middle East peace plan in Bahrain last week, Palestinian store owner Abdul Al-Mohtaseb was serving cardamon coffee outside his shop in Hebron, the largest city in the occupied West Bank.
Al-Mohtaseb’s store sells sodas, ceramics, traditional fabrics, and tote bags printed with the images British artist Banksy graffitied on the separation barrier meant to divide Israelis from Palestinians in the West Bank. It also occupies prime real estate, overlooking the sacred site where both Muslims and Jews believe Abraham, the “father of the faithful” is buried. The 58-year-old told TIME on June 26 that settlers backed by an Australian mining magnate once offered $100million for his store and adjoining house. He turned it down, he says. “They called me crazy Abdul.”
Kushner too believes monetary incentives can appeal to Palestinians in the occupied territories, judging by the first glimpse at his proposal to resolve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the “Peace to Prosperity Workshop” in Manama on June 25-26, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law called on private investors from the Gulf and other countries to raise as much as $50 billion over ten years for infrastructure and development projects, including a a transportation link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “Today is not about political solutions — we will get to them later,” Kushner said.
But the West Bank’s Ramallah-based leadership boycotted the event, and in a June 27 interview with TIME one of its most senior diplomats called the summit a “conspiracy” aimed at furthering the ambitions of Israelis who would annex the West Bank completely.
Kushner’s plan “puts the economic cart before the political horse,” said Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the U.K, and is “not meant to work.” Instead it is designed “to kill time for Israel to finish off the swallowing and annexing off what is left of the Palestinian occupied territories, while blaming the Palestinians for not riding a dead political horse.”
Before his U.K assignment, Ambassador Zomlot had served as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) delegation to the United States. But Trump closed the Washington liaison office in September 2018. The White House has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cut funding to Palestinian refugees, and signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a rocky plateau that the rest of the international community considers part of Southwestern Syria. “All the carrots were taken away and given to Israel. The only stick that is used is against us, the Palestinians,” says Zomlot.
Rather than presenting a viable plan for peace, he claims, the Bahrain conference was an opportunity to gift Israel another carrot: normalization of its relations with the Arab world. While neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials attended, state representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Gulf countries were present. Bahrain granted Israeli journalists—and at least five rabbis—unprecedented permission to visit the tiny Gulf Kingdom.
Trump’s senior advisor calls his plan a novel approach to resolving the decades-long conflict, and it succeeded in bringing some powerful international actors to Manama. Attendees at the conference included IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But also present were an array of real estate developers, bankers, and PR executives, many of whom with no ties to the conflict.
Media reports in Bahrain described a smorgasbord of panel discussions in which speakers compared Gaza to a “hot IP”, and a TED talk-style presentation from the president of world soccer governing body FIFA that advised on how the sport could help Arabs improve their image. Kushner reportedly delivered a speech in which he envisaged the impoverished Gaza Strip as a tourist destination, omitting mention of Israel and Egypt’s 12-year blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory, as well as Israel’s 52-year-long occupation of the West Bank, which restricts trade and labor movements.
During a live interview at the TIME 100 summit in April, Kushner said past attempts at resolving the conflict started with a process and then tried to arrive at a solution. Instead, “we started with a solution and then we’ll work on a process to try to get there.”
But that solution remains unclear. Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections last year delayed the unveiling of the full plan, which Kushner told TIME in April would be released after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But following Netanyahu’s failure to form a government last month, it is now not expected until at least the fall, after Israelis have taken to the polls again and whoever is elected forms a new government.
The role of Arab countries would be key to any potential peace plan, and the GCC has expanded its friendship with Israel in recent months. Secretive military cooperation between Israel and some Arab countries dates back to the 1960s, and Israel established open relations with Qatar and Oman during the Oslo talks. But the current detente, largely driven by shared opposition to Iran, is “the closest and the most open relationship under what’s possible in these circumstances,” says Ehud Eiran, a political science expert at Israel’s University of Haifa.
In the run up to Bahrain, Arab leaders reiterated their commitment to a two state solution where the Palestinians would have an independent state. According to polling by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) about half of Israelis also support a two-state solution. But that support is coupled with a “deep skepticism about whether there’s any tangible prospect for that to take place,” says IDI President Yohanan Plesner.
While Netanyahu bears some responsibility, Plesner says, the skepticism is enforced by the failure of past peace talks, the bloodshed of the Second Intifada, Hamas turning Gaza into a failed state and attacking Israeli civilians, and the “continued levels of incitement” from the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership. Kushner, in an June 26 interview with CNN, refused to say whether the U.S. still supports a two state solution.
Whenever his full peace plan is revealed, he is likely to find positions on every side are set in stone. Opposite Hebron’s ancient religious site, Al-Mohtaseb tells TIME that six generations of his family have lived in his house, which dates back about 350 years. He was nine when Israel took over the West Bank and while he has no problem living side by side with Jewish people “in equality” he stands by his decision not to sell to settlers. “You can buy a car, a horse, a donkey,” he says, “But you can’t buy a person who has honor.”
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