Trump to Open Middle East Peace Drive With Economic Incentives



Peter Baker and Mark Landler | New York Times

WASHINGTON — After more than two years of study and deliberation, President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have decided to take a businessman’s approach to Middle East peace: They will try to buy their way to a deal.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner finally opened their long-awaited drive for what the president has called “the deal of the century” by announcing that the United States would hold an “economic workshop” in Bahrain next month to produce strategies to invest in the Palestinians and other Arabs.

The idea is to secure financial commitments from wealthy Persian Gulf states as well as donors in Europe and Asia to induce the Palestinians and their allies to make political concessions to resolve the decades-old conflict with Israel. The White House has indicated that it is seeking tens of billions of dollars but would not identify a precise figure; diplomats and lawmakers have been told the goal is about $68 billion for the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

“This workshop is a pivotal opportunity to convene government, civil society and business leaders to share ideas, discuss strategies and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement,” the White House said in a statement.

But the international community has held economic conferences to benefit the Palestinians before without leading to peace, and veterans of past negotiations have expressed deep skepticism that Mr. Trump’s effort will gain traction where previous efforts failed.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have moved further from peacemaking in recent years, not closer; the Palestinians are not even on speaking terms with the Trump administration after the president’s pro-Israel moves, and they appeared unlikely to attend the Bahrain conference.

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, said the plan was “necessary but not sufficient.” If the United States could have bought peace in the Middle East through economic development, he said, it would have done so before.

“The proverbial cart is before the horse,” Mr. Miller said. “What makes any plan attractive is the package. And where are they on statehood and Jerusalem? They can now delay that piece, having thrown up economic chaff.” But “they lose, not gain, leverage by sequencing this.”

In effect, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner have decided to introduce their much-anticipated peace plan in stages, starting with the economic component to show the possible benefits of peace and build credibility with the Palestinians.

Only then would the administration move on to the political elements of its yet-to-be-released plan, developed by Mr. Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for negotiations. By most indications, the plan would not involve the creation of a Palestinian state, as the United States has sought for the last quarter-century under presidents of both political parties.

But just as they have done in their sometimes highly leveraged real estate businesses, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner hope to use other people’s money to achieve their goals. The vast bulk of the funds they hope to generate as part of the plan would come from other nations, not the United States.

Indeed, the Trump administration has over the last two years moved in the opposite direction, cutting off aid from the United States to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza because, as the president once put it, Americans “get no appreciation or respect” in response.

Administration officials have said that does not mean the United States would not be willing to invest again in the Palestinians, but only after political changes that could foster peace with Israel.

The challenges inherent in Mr. Trump’s emerging approach were evident even in Sunday’s announcement of the economic conference. Administration officials would not identify who would attend or even say whether invitations were sent to the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, or the Israeli government.

Moreover, Bahrain, the host of the forum, is at odds with nearby Qatar, which has been one of the main funders of the Palestinians for years. Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a blockade on the small state, leaving unclear whether it would participate in any economic initiative.


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