US seeks backing for Mid-East economic plan

Palestinians burning posters of US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Tuesday, during a protest against the US-led Peace to Prosperity con
Palestinians burning posters of US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Tuesday, during a protest against the US-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain. The "economy first" approach could be a hard sell as the political details of the plan remain secret.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But Palestinians and Arab states dismiss it as pointless without a political solution

MANAMA • The Trump administration sought yesterday to win support for an economic plan it says will be a foundation for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

It is a plan, however, that Palestinians and many Arabs dismiss as pointless without a political solution to the decades-old conflict.

United States President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner opened an international meeting in Bahrain on Tuesday by urging Palestinians, whose leadership is boycotting the two-day event, to think outside the "traditional box" for an economic pathway he said was a precondition for peace.

International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde told the first panel session that the fund's experience in conflict-riven countries around the world showed it can be a struggle to generate economic growth in such an environment.

Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments attended the event. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the proposal.

In Gaza on Tuesday, the Islamist group Hamas and its rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas convened a gathering of leaders and activists in a rare show of unity to voice their rejection of the Manama conference.

  • $68b 

    Amount of funds expected to be contributed to Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies under the US plan.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh criticised Arab states participating in the workshop, which was attended by 300 delegates including Israeli and Palestinian businessmen.

The conference aimed to finish off the Palestinian cause under the cover of economic and financial benefits, he said.

"The (Palestinian) people, who have been fighting for one hundred years, did not commission anyone to concede or to bargain. Jerusalem is ours, the land is ours, and everything is ours," Mr Haniyeh said.

Although US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates discreetly support the plan, several Arab states, such as Lebanon, have stayed away while others including Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have reached peace with Israel, have sent deputy ministers.

The presence of Sunni Muslim Gulf states in Manama showed they want to encourage closer ties with Israelis - with whom they share a common foe in Shi'ite Iran - that have largely been under the table, said Mr David Makovsky, a US-based Middle East expert attending the event.

"(But) it's clear they won't bypass the Palestinians and do anything they don't want," he told Reuters.

Washington hopes wealthy Gulf oil producers will bankroll the plan, in which donor nations and investors are expected to contribute US$50 billion (S$67.7 billion) to Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies.

Saudi minister of state Mohammed Al-Sheikh told the panel that Mr Kushner's plan was bolstered by inclusion of the private sector, as a similar proposal relying heavily on state funding had been attempted during the Oslo interim peace deals of the 1990s that eventually collapsed. "While I accept that peace is essential, back then it was the hope of peace that got them actually excited and moving,"Mr Al-Sheikh said.

But the "economy first" approach towards reviving the moribund peace process could be a hard sell as the political details of the plan, almost two years in the making, remain secret.

On Tuesday, Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel's capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees' right of return - points rejected by Israel. Mr Kushner said on Monday the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2019, with the headline 'US seeks backing for Mid-East economic plan'. Print Edition | Subscribe