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Bahrain Conference: Purse strings vs. politics

No one should believe that the Bahrain Conference is being held only to unveil the economic component of the Middle East Peace Plan. It is more than that; it is a political conference in its essence.

Jared Kushner
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Jared Kushner, above, will represent the United States at the Bahrain Conference.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

We might soon get a glimpse of President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” which refers to the Middle East peace plan his advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have been working on for quite some time now. 

The Bahrain Conference, also known as the “Peace to Prosperity Workshop,” where the Trump administration will reportedly outline only the economic component of the peace plan, is scheduled to take place June 25-26. It is difficult, however, to be convinced that the main purpose of the conference is to raise $68 billion or more to boost the Palestinian economy by securing billions of dollars in potential investment from the Arab Gulf states in the Gaza Strip and West Bank over the next 10 years. 

While the stated goal of the conference is to reach an economic agreement that would lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a number of issues have already made the conference extremely political even before it gets started. 

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Key players absent

First, the conference will not include any official representatives from either the Israeli or the Palestinian sides. The countries that have confirmed their official attendance at the conference include Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco are also included in some, but not in all, lists of attendees. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, will represent the United States. In addition, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations will send representatives to the conference. 

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner
Second, Palestinian officials have had no official contact with the Trump administration since the president’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017. The Trump administration has also cut aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and closed the consulate that oversaw U.S.-Palestinian relations. 

The fact that there will be representatives from major Arab states at the conference to talk about the future of the Palestinians without any true Palestinian representation means that the Trump administration is decidedly removing the “Palestinian cause” from the hands of the Palestinians themselves and giving it (back) to those states that are not only major regional allies of the United States but also increasingly friendly with Israel. This, in itself, is a highly political action and makes the conference more, not less, political.

Any decision that the conference participants may reach will not only have economic but also political consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, in a statement on June 16, Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority presidency, claimed that “the U.S. administration’s peace plan … could become a document that contradicts international law and Arab legitimacy.” According to Rudaineh, “the true objective of the conference is to avoid [explicit] political negotiations on the basis of international legitimacy.” 

All of this is important given the U.S. administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge Palestinian statehood and Trump’s ongoing support for Israeli hardline politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing base. And this is what makes the conference political. 

Location matters

Finally, one can argue that the choice of Bahrain for this conference is important for its political symbolism, especially at a time of increasing hostility between Iran and the United States. Currently, Bahrain does not have official diplomatic relations with Israel, and as such, the country does not allow Israelis to enter unless they have foreign passports. Indeed, this will be the first time that an Israeli press delegation will be visiting Bahrain. This may be considered as a political sign that more and more Arab states in the region are finding it easier to have relations with Israel. 

The political symbolism of Bahrain as the location of this conference also relates to the current tensions between Iran and the United States in the region. Bahrain, a Shia-majority kingdom in the Gulf but ruled by Sunni leaders, did not have close relations with Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but the already troublesome relations between the two countries reached a new level when Bahrain severed its diplomatic relations with Iran on Jan. 4, 2016. The hostility between Iran and Bahrain reached its peak when, on April 16, 2019, a court in Bahrain sentenced 139 people to prison for forming terrorist groups backed by Iran.


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Bottom line

It is difficult to know exactly what the Trump administration will achieve with this conference. The stated goal seems simple enough; however, there is no guarantee that anything significant will be achieved. More important, though, no one should believe that the Bahrain Conference is being held only to unveil the economic component of the Middle East Peace Plan. It is more than that; it is a political conference in its essence.

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is department chair and a professor of political science in Hamline University’s College of Liberal Arts. She holds a B.A. in international relations from the Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey), an M.A. in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, and a Ph.D. in political science from Syracuse University.


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