WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01:  Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (R) join U.S. President Donald Trump as he holds a press conference to discuss a revised U.S. trade agreement with Mexico and Canada in the Rose Garden of the White House on October 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. U.S. and Canadian officials announced late Sunday night that a new deal, named the 'U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement,' or USMCA, had been reached to replace the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House to focus on investment in Middle East
01:53 - Source: CNN
Jerusalem CNN  — 

The White House’s economic workshop, the first step in its much-heralded Mideast peace plan, puts investment in the Palestinian economy front and center.

But leading Palestinian businessmen say they will stay away from the conference, scheduled to take place in Bahrain at the end of next month.

The workshop is purposely focused on the economic aspect, with finance ministers, business leaders and donors invited to take part, but assiduously avoids hot button political issues such as borders, settlements and the status of Jerusalem.

Bashar Al Masri, the man behind the creation of Rawabi, a new planned Palestinian town in the West Bank aimed at fostering economic regeneration, wrote on Facebook that he would not participate in the meeting – and nor would anyone else from his companies.

“We will not deal with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus,” he wrote, explaining his decision. “We Palestinians are capable of advancing our economy away from external interventions. The idea of economic peace is an old idea that is now being asked differently, and as our people have previously rejected it, we reject it now.”

In a similar vein, Palestinian-American business consultant Sam Bahour, based in the West Bank, writing in the online magazine +972, described the proposed workshop as the latest attempt by the Trump administration to “batter the Palestinians into political surrender” using money as its “weapon of choice.”

Economic focus ‘futile’

Palestinian politicians have also condemned the proposal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, through his spokesman, said an economic focus was “futile” without a conversation about the political horizon.

The Palestinian Authority hasn’t spoken to the Trump administration at an official level since December 2017, when the US President recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Secretary General Dr. Saeb Erekat said in a statement to CNN that the group had not been consulted ahead of the announcement, and that such attempts to promote an “economic normalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine will be rejected.”

“This is not about improving living conditions under occupation, but about reaching Palestine’s full potential by ending the Israeli occupation,” Erekat said.

“The basic requirements for peace are well known within the context of full implementation of the long overdue inalienable rights of the Palestinian people as per international law and UN resolutions, with an independent State of Palestine on the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem its capital and a just solution to all final status issues based on international law and the Arab Peace Initiative,” he said, referring to a peace plan from 2002 proposed by Saudi Arabia.

Ghassan Al Khatib, a former Palestinian minister and political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told CNN the workshop would be a “complete failure” because the Palestinian leadership will not attend.

“I think the Arab potential donors are not going to be enthusiastic to contribute, mainly because of the absence of the Palestinian leadership. So, I don’t expect success in this,” Al Khatib said. “It’s only crazy people who would think to gamble with their money and invest in the Palestinian territories, given the Israeli restrictions that are making investments impossible and not profitable.”

Workshop ‘a step forward’

For its part, the Israeli government has not yet responded, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has had a very close relationship with the Trump administration. Netanyahu himself is personally close to Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is spearheading the peace deal effort.

Others, like Uri Savir, a former Israeli diplomat who was one of the key negotiators of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s – which among other things brought the Palestinian Authority into being – told CNN the workshop was “a step forward.”

He added a note of caution, saying that economic issues could not be dealt with separately from the political issues: “Unless there is real political promise, which I don’t see right now, moving seriously toward a two-state solution, I don’t think the economic front will be promising,” he said.

But Dore Gold, a former Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry under Netanyahu, praised the economic workshop, saying it laid out real stakes for the Palestinians and Gulf States.

“This is not [a case of] ‘support our concept of borders and we’ll buy you off.’ This is not that,” Gold told CNN. “This is to say there are real tangible rewards for your country if we build this regional structure.”

Gold predicted that the Palestinians would come around to the idea once they saw others benefiting from the process. “They’ll get on the train whether initially they’re going to be tough customers,” he said.

Lior Weintraub, a former Israeli diplomat in Washington said on The Israel Project podcast that the workshop was a “smart move” because it was “lowering expectations.”

“There is never a good time in the Middle East [to unveil a peace plan] so this point is as good as it can get. In Israel we are in the midst of forming a government … making this possible plan part of the government platform is not a bad idea.”