Jared Kushner, adviser to President Donald Trump, opened his economic workshop in Bahrain on Tuesday, calling Washington’s $50 billion plan for Middle East peace the “opportunity of the century” and claiming the US had not given up on Palestinians.
In the face of widespread criticism and the absence of a political part to the plan, Mr Kushner told an audience at a five-star hotel in Manama that the workshop was to improve Palestinians’ lives.
He appeared to offer an olive branch to the Palestinian people, saying the US was not working against them.
“President Trump and America have not given up on you. This workshop is for you,” Mr Kushner said.
The Palestinians immediately rejected his comments. Reacting to the address, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Kushner was misleading the world about the administration’s intentions.
"President Trump and the US administration haven't only given up on the Palestinian people, they have given up on peace, on justice and on the basic principles of humanity," Mr Erekat told The National.
Palestinians have boycotted the event, believing it to be an attempt to trade their cause for economic benefit. Israeli officials are also not in attendance.
There has been a pessimistic regional reception to the first step of Mr Trump’s bid to end the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Mr Kushner said a fair political solution for the Palestinians was necessary to end the conflict but that Washington’s plan for that portion would come at a later date.
He said that focusing on the Palestinian economy first could lead to real peace and prosperity.
“Today is not about the political issues – we’ll get to those at the right time,” Mr Kushner said. “The goal is to think about these challenges in a new way.”
He said the Palestinians are one of the biggest recipients of donor funds in the world and needed to become more self-reliant, appearing at one point to accuse them of playing the victim.
“We can turn this region from a victim of past conflicts into a model for commerce and advancement throughout the world,” Mr Kushner said.
He did not mention the Israeli military occupation but spoke of the Palestinian people being led by “those who let you down”.
He was referring to the Palestinian Authority, which operates limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, which rules in the Gaza Strip.
“This is not the deal of the century,” he said. “It is the opportunity of the century, if leadership has the courage to pursue it.
“We need the right plan and the right environment. The hope is to freely discuss these ideas and then finalise this vision as a global plan.”
Mr Kushner envisaged Gaza as a bustling tourism centre and the occupied West Bank with a blooming economy.
“Imagine people and goods flowing securely throughout the region,” he said.
He made no mention of the two-state solution long sought by the Palestinians and the wider international community.
Mr Kushner has hinted that any agreement would deviate from the Arab Peace Initiative, the consensus agreed to by the Arab League in 2002 on what is required for a just outcome for the Palestinians in any deal.
A two-state solution is crucial to that plan.
The plan seeks $50bn (Dh184bn) in investment for the Palestinians in the form of more than 150 projects, the most ambitious being a new transport channel between the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
It allocates $27bn for those two territories, and the remaining $23bn for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
Israel and the Palestinians have been at loggerheads since the last US bid for peace in 2014, and earlier peace initiatives have collapsed because of the conflict’s deeply political and religious roots.
But after 30 months of secretive planning, the Trump administration has gone for an economy-first approach, for investment that would be conditional on a final agreement.
Mr Trump and his team said a new approach was required after decades of failure.
Critics, however, have condemned the document, which was released online on Saturday, for failing to mention Israel’s military occupation, the economy of occupied East Jerusalem and for using images of programmes from which the Trump administration has slashed funding.
Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state.
They have embarked on a publicity campaign against the workshop, with President Mahmoud Abbas rebuking it at a briefing in Ramallah on Sunday.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the coffee break would be the most exciting part of the summit.
And Mr Erekat, the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the workshop was a deviation from the political two-state settlement the Palestinians ultimately desired.
He said the summit was aimed at “making the people and leadership of Palestine accept the dictations” of the US and Israel.
Palestinian leaders have called for protests across occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Thousands in the West Bank held up signs on Tuesday saying “Down with the Bahrain conference”, and “Do not sell the Palestinian cause and erase our identity”.
In Nablus, Palestinians hung an effigy of Mr Trump from a column.
Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum told The National that the Gaza rulers "reject this summit and its results as it is an attempt to integrate the Israeli occupation in the region at the expense of the Palestinian cause".
Gazans went on strike on Tuesday, closing public institutions and shops in protest against the summit. Demonstrations have been called for the second day of the workshop on Wednesday.
But a White House official said the mood before the summit was positive despite the Palestinian absence and criticism from Ramallah and Gaza City.
“The Four Seasons is buzzing with optimism and excitement for the Peace to Prosperity workshop,” the official said.
“We look forward to dynamic conversations about our Administration’s vision and framework for a brighter future for Palestinians and the region,” the official said.
Before the start of the event, the hotel lobby was filled with entourages of senior figures including International Monetary Fund director general Christine Lagarde and Mr Trump’s envoy on Iran, Brian Hook.
Mr Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, posted on Twitter that “an exciting economic vision for the future” was being presented in Bahrain.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent delegations to give the US, a key ally against Iran, a fair hearing.
Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed Al Jadaan leads the kingdom’s delegation, which will include Minister of State Mohammed Al Sheikh and the Governor of the Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al Rumayyan.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Information expressed support for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.
But the kingdom said it would only accept a proposal based on the Arab Peace Initiative it led more than a decade ago.
There appeared to be a reluctance in the Gulf and the wider Arab world to send top names.
Jordan, Egypt and Morocco have sent low-level finance officials. Qatar is attending, but Lebanon and Iraq are not.
Thousands of protesters in the occupied West Bank, Morocco and Jordan have rallied to express opposition to the deal in recent days.
Pollsters, western experts, former US ambassadors to Israel and at least some Gulf entrepreneurs remain unconvinced of the viability of the economic plan.
Respected Palestinian pollster Dr Khalil Shikaki, who has briefed US officials on the negative response to their policy on the streets, said they ignored not only his warnings, but history.
"Putting the cart before the horse is the work of amateurs," Dr Shikaki told The National.
His research has shown that Palestinian attitudes across the territories “significantly harden, rather than soften” when offered benefits to give up key tenets of the Palestinian cause, such as Jerusalem, the 1967 borders and the right of return, none of which is mentioned in the economic plan.
“The Trump team does not seem to want to understand this,” Mr Shikaki said.
Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said there were good ideas in the plan, particularly on housing and employment, but previous peace initiatives had already proposed them.
Mr Shapiro sees one big problem with the document, besides the lack of a political component. They are US cuts to programmes in the areas in which it is now requesting funds.
“We are asking others to invest where we have divested. What do we think the response will be?” he asked.
Tension with Iran and another Israeli election in September will probably minimise the short-term effect of the workshop, Mr Shapiro said, meaning a second economic workshop would be needed after the political portion was revealed.
Kuwaiti investor Ali Al Salim, who declined an invitation to the workshop, said little investment could be made in plans that “design the interiors before the architect has designed the building”.
“It’s glaringly obvious that we need a political solution to the Palestine issue before any economic plan,” Mr Al Salim said.
A small delegation of pro-Israel Jews have travelled to the summit from the US, while some mid-level Palestinian businessmen are also attending against the wishes of many of their countrymen.
An American rabbi in attendance said the Israeli and Jewish contingent are present to “break the stereotypes and normalise contacts”.
One Palestinian businessman shrugged and said: “It’s a plan.”
Analysts note that even if financial offers are made in terms of funding or loans, history dictates that many are likely to go unfulfilled.
It is unlikely that any participants will fund an American economic vision for the Palestinians, they say, without the political path revealed.
“Very little will come from the workshop,” said Hugh Lovatt, Mena region policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It misdiagnoses the causes of Palestine’s economic issues and conflict with Israel.
“These causes are political and national in nature, resulting from Israel’s occupation and restrictions of Palestinian territory.”
Whatever happens, the Palestinians are confident that the workshop – which begins in full on Wednesday with panels hosting names such as former British prime minister Tony Blair, Fifa President Gianni Infantino and Ms Lagarde – will not be the success hoped for in Washington.
“So far they have failed,” a Palestinian official said. “Let them enjoy a cocktail because they won’t have much more than that.”