Palestinians to US on peace conference: Pound sand

Looks like Jared Kushner can set one less chair at the Manama peace conference. The Palestinian Authority announced today that it will extend its boycott of the US to a conference intended to roll out Donald Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. The Palestinians are still sore over Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and are also angry over not being consulted on the conference first:

The Palestinians will not attend a U.S.-led conference in Bahrain next month that the Trump administration has cast as a preliminary roll-out of its plan for them to make peace with Israel, a Palestinian cabinet minister said on Monday. …

The Palestinians, who have boycotted the Trump administration since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017, have shown little interest in discussing a plan that they anticipate will fall far short of their core demands.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday that his government had not been consulted on the June 25-26 gathering in Manama.

After the cabinet met, Ahhmed Majdalani, the social development minister and a member of the executive committee of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, said: “There will be no Palestinian participation in the Manama workshop.”

How exactly would the White House have consulted the Palestinians while the latter boycotted the former? Not that it would make much difference anyway, of course; US presidents routinely roll out these plans, and both sides routinely find ways to ignore them while accusing the other of violating them. The Palestinians can mail that it rather than deliver it in person.

Ironically, this conference intended to focus on spurring investment in the Palestinian areas in order to promote stability. The conference intends to get specific commitments to the first part of Kushner’s plan in order to then leverage the economic gains into compromises on the stickiest parts of the conflict:

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.

As the New York Times notes, that approach has been tried in the past too. It has not produced many significant results, except perhaps to anger both sides even further. The Palestinians sounded offended at the idea, accusing the US of attempting to buy them off without any linked political commitments:

The Palestinian prime minister said Monday that any American peace plan that ignores the Palestinian people’s aspirations for an independent state is doomed to fail. …

“Any solution to the conflict in Palestine must be political … and based on ending the occupation,” Shtayyeh said at a Palestinian Cabinet meeting. “The current financial crisis is a result of a financial war waged against us and we will not succumb to blackmailing and extortion and will not trade our national rights for money.”

In another setback, Bashar Masri, a Palestinian industrialist with vast business holdings throughout the West Bank, said he had turned down an invitation to the conference.

“I will not participate in this conference, and none of the representatives of our companies will participate,” he wrote on Facebook. “We reaffirm our clear position: We will not deal with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus.”

At this point, any peace plan from the US is likely doomed from the start. Lior Lehrs blames this on a decision by the Trump administration to move away from an Oslo-oriented policy of mediation to the pre-Oslo posture of focusing on autonomy rather than full statehood. Lehrs also argues that Trump has destroyed US credibility as a mediator over the last two years:

At the beginning of the Trump era, it seemed that the U.S. could continue in this role, and President Trump met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in both the U.S. and Bethlehem. However, within a short period of time, the U.S. administration took unprecedented steps that led to a different outcome, one which changed the rules of the game. These steps included Trump’s decisions to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, close the PLO mission in Washington, cut aid to the Palestinians (including to hospitals in East Jerusalem and joint Israel-Palestinian projects), and close the American consulate in Jerusalem, which over the years has led the dialogue with the Palestinians. In addition, the current U.S. administration did not reaffirm its commitment to the two-state solution and decided to recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights — a step that was perceived by the Palestinians as a renunciation of the fundamental principles of the peace process (UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338). These developments have led to a rift between the U.S. and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Instead of advancing the resolution of the conflict, the Americans have created new areas of conflict and tension between them and the Palestinians. The main “contact” between American mediator Jason Greenblatt and the Palestinian leadership has taken the form of arguments on Twitter. …

In the run-up to the publication of Trump’s peace plan, he and his administration have been moving the goal posts and reversing basic principles of American mediation since Oslo. They have returned to the type of American diplomacy on the Palestinian issue that prevailed during the first Camp David Summit in 1978. At the time, the future of the Palestinians was discussed with an Arab state — Egypt — rather than with Palestinian themselves, and the proposed solution was Palestinian autonomy rather than an independent state. In a similar vein, the U.S. Middle East peace team is currently negotiating the fate of the Palestinians with Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia, and not with the Palestinians, and according to recent media reports, Trump’s plan would offer Palestinians autonomy rather than a state.

According to Jake Walles, a former U.S. diplomat, the Trump administration’s peace plan is not actually aimed at advancing negotiations, but rather at altering the basic parameters of the international consensus on the two-state model as the desired solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If this is actually what the plan entails, it is likely to spark widespread international criticism. Indeed, such criticism has already been voiced by Arabs, Europeans, and Russians, including in a declaration from eight EU member states in December 2018 and another following the February 2019 meeting of European and Arab foreign ministers in Dublin.

All of this is true, but it leaves out an important point. The US spent a quarter-century pursuing the Oslo-style position … and nothing came of it, either. It might not make sense to backtrack on statehood, but the Palestinians have not accepted a two-state solution that leaves Israel as a Jewish state permanently in place despite endless Oslosesque negotiations on that structure of a plan. They still dream of a “Palestine from the river to the sea,” and as long as they do, nothing the US proposes or mediates will make a damned bit of difference.

Perhaps falling back to the pre-Oslo construct of autonomy is intended to send a signal to the Palestinians about an end to American patience. They probably already got that message when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the annexation of the Golan Heights, though. That won’t change anything because no one wants anything to change — except to get their maximalist visions imposed, once and for all. Everything else is theater until that changes.