As Donald Trump’s peace plan teeters, the Palestinians are set for a rare boost

Parallel events in Bahrain and New York this week will highlight US isolation on Middle East peace

epaselect epa07051545 Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas arrives to address the General Debate  of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 September 2018. The General Debate of the 73rd session began on 25 September 2018 and runs until 01 October 2018.  EPA/JUSTIN LANE

While much attention will be focused on the economic elements of Jared Kushner's plan for Middle East peace rolled out in Bahrain on Tuesday, a more conciliatory event in New York will highlight how far the White House remains from winning countries over to its proposals.

The past two-and-a-half years have seen the Trump administration upend decades of US foreign policy on how to bring about an end to the protracted conflict, with a series of unilateral decisions made in Washington being followed by Israel and the Palestinians moving further away from dialogue and deeper into deadly cycles of violence.

The pathway to a peace settlement has only narrowed, with the diplomatic process locked in a deep freeze. Leading powers have been openly critical of the US approach, including President Donald Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017. That decision led the Palestinian leadership to end talks with the White House.

When a new US embassy opened in the biblical city in May last year, on the same day that Israeli snipers were killing Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border fence, it served to many as official notice that America's long-held role as a fair and honest broker was at an end.

While Arab countries and world states could do nothing about that decision, the US's severance of aid to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, in September last year was met with resolve, an increase in contributions and a refusal to allow the American cuts to become fatal.

As such, the agency's annual pledging conference for 2019 will see dozens of nations convene at UN headquarters, only hours after the US-sponsored 'peace to prosperity' workshop opens in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

The $1.2 billion being sought to maintain UNRWA's services over the next 12 months is small change compared to the $50 billion figure announced on Saturday by Mr Kushner, son-in-law of President Trump. The latter sum would fund 179 infrastructure and business projects aimed at reviving the Palestinian and neighbouring Arab economies, he said, in plans to be discussed over two days in Manama.

epa07653630 Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Pierre Krahenbuhl looks on during a press conference, at the Dead Sea, near Amman, Jordan, 17 June 2019. The Palestinian Affairs Department on 16 June hosted a coordination meeting for Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees with the participation of delegations from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and the Arab League.  EPA/ANDRE PAIN

The fundamental difference between the two gatherings, however, is that the funds sought by UNRWA will be delivered quickly and without conditions to meet urgent food, educational and medical needs of Palestinian refugees. In contrast, pledges made in Bahrain – the US is hoping that leading Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others will fund the plan – will only have to be produced if a peace agreement is ever reached between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, arguably a more distant prospect than at any time since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Such a far-flung contingency has undermined the Bahrain event, which Washington itself has played down as an “economic workshop,” rather than a conference. Not only are the chances of a peace deal currently close to zero – there is no active peace process involving the main players – there is hostility at what Palestinians believe is bias from the White House after several major concessions made to the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Robert Danin, who covered Israeli-Palestinian affairs as a diplomat in three US governments, said the peace to prosperity workshop “is likely to be a non-event, though undoubtedly the Trump administration will tout it as a great success”.

“In Bahrain there will be lots of talk about huge economic possibilities for Palestinians, but all these potential benefits are dependent on a peace agreement, which is more remote under the Trump administration than it has been since Oslo was signed 25 years ago,” said Mr Danin, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and at Harvard's Belfer Center.

Combined with the US's enforced closure of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington last September and Mr Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights in March, his administration has moved away from the mainstream idea of a two-state solution. All other 14 members of the UN Security Council maintain that a sovereign Palestinian state, with occupied East Jerusalem as its capital, is the only way to bring about a lasting peace.

Mr Kushner's economic proposals do not mention any such state, nor Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank widely viewed as impediments to economic prosperity. The omissions led Palestinian officials to reject his plan as soon as it was released, calling it delusional and accusing US officials of ulterior motives for sponsoring the Bahrain conference.

While UNRWA officials have resisted suggestions that its pledging conference was not timed to coincide with the Bahrain event, the US's absence will magnify its isolation from the peace process.

The $446 million deficit created by the US ending its contributions – it was previously the agency's biggest backer – was last year filled by 42 donor nations and other backers. Last year's biggest donors were the EU and Germany. Both are expected to lead the pledges on Tuesday.

"We were thrown into a funding crisis but we also were drawn into a political arena, and this is what we regret most of all," Peter Mulrean, director of UNRWA's New York office, told The National of the US ending its support.

“It became clear to us that the US had taken a political decision related to its humanitarian aid funding. Past administrations had always had a firewall over this.”

Mr Mulrean, who served as a US diplomat for 30 years until retiring in 2017 is a former ambassador to Haiti, also holding roles involving humanitarian aid programmes in Afghanistan.

He said early signs point to this year's pledges meeting and perhaps exceeding the $1.2 billion target.

“The indications that we have from our major partners and donors is that there are additional contributions coming to UNRWA,” he said.

While the White House has urged all nations to keep an open mind about its proposals the plan has largely failed to win significant expressions of backing so far, partly because of alienation caused by decisions made by Mr Trump. Consequently, the reception from Arab states and further afield on Tuesday and Wednesday will be closely watched. The Palestinians have lobbied for the Arab states in attendance – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – to U-turn on their participation.

Mr Kushner recently enraged Palestinian officials by suggesting that they were incapable of governing. His co-author of the White House proposals, special envoy Jason Greenblatt has been dismissive of concerns about US policy and he recently denounced UNRWA at the UN Security Council, calling it “irredeemably flawed” and urging its abolition in remarks he may repeat in Bahrain.

The strident US position has frustrated diplomats at the UN. "In the face of a difficult US approach to the Palestinians, we have a determination that UNRWA will continue," a leading diplomat on the Security Council told The National.

However, to Mr Danin, whose US diplomatic career included posts as a deputy assistant secretary of state, and as head of the Quarter Mission in Jerusalem, the most disappointing signal about the stalled prospects for peace is how little new ground is likely to be broken by the Bahrain event.

“There have been many regional economic meetings to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, several of which I participated in, be it the Casablanca conference in 1994 in the Clinton era, the Bethlehem conference in 2008, during George W. Bush's presidency, or the Dead Sea conference under (Barack) Obama,” Mr Danin said.

“Nor is it the first time that the Saudis and others from the Middle East are coming together to support peace. The only thing unique about the Bahrain workshop is that this is the first economic conference for Palestine in which Palestinians will not be present. That is hardly an auspicious first.”