Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner opened the international workshop in Bahrain by urging Palestinians to think outside the "traditional box" for an economic pathway that he said was a precondition for peace.
Palestinians poured scorn on a $50 billion economic formula launched by the Trump administration for Israeli-Palestinian peace as the United States sought on Wednesday to win support for the plan as a foundation to ending the decades-old conflict.
US President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner opened an international meeting in Bahrain on Tuesday evening by urging Palestinians to think outside the "traditional box" for an economic pathway that he said was a precondition for peace.
Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments are attending the event, which the Palestinians and many other Arabs dismiss as pointless without a political solution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the proposal.
"The Manama workshop is quite disingenuous. It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the (Israeli) occupation itself," senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday.
Several thousand Palestinians demonstrated in the Gaza Strip and burned posters of Trump and Netanyahu. "No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame" read one banner.
International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde told the first-panel session that the Fund's experience in conflict-riven countries around the world showed it can be a struggle to generate economic growth in such an environment.
A tripartite plan?
US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates discreetly support the plan, but several Arab states stayed away while others including Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have reached peace with Israel, sent deputy ministers.
The foreign minister of Bahrain, where the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, said the Kushner plan was an "opportunity not to be missed".
He reiterated the need for a two-state solution, which has underpinned every peace plan for decades, but Trump's team has consistently refused to commit to it.
"I think if we take this matter seriously it could be a very important game-changer," Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa told Israeli public broadcaster Kan, in English.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the proposal.
The presence of Sunni Muslim Gulf states in Manama showed they want to encourage closer ties to Israelis –– with whom they share a common foe in Shia Iran –– that have largely been under the table, said David Makovsky, a US-based Middle East expert attending the event.
"(But) it's clear they won't bypass the Palestinians and do anything they don't want," he said.
The event is taking placed amid high tensions between Tehran on the one hand and Washington and its Gulf allies on the other.
"During the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Herzl asked to buy Palestine in order to send the Jews there, but the Sultan rejected [the offer]," Veteran Lebanese politician Walid Joumblatt, the leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Theodor Herzi was the founder of the movement to establish a Jewish homeland.
"Today in Bahrain, Jared Kushner, the grandson of Herzl, will ask the Arabs to sell out Palestine to transfer its people to Jordan, Sinai, Lebanon, Syria and the diaspora," he said.
"Will the Arabs accept what the Ottomans rejected?" he asked.
A very hard sell
The meeting puts Kushner just across the Gulf from Iran at a time of surging tensions between Tehran and the United States.
Washington hopes wealthy Gulf oil producers will bankroll the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies.
Saudi minister of state, Mohammed Al Sheikh, told the panel that Kushner's plan was bolstered by the inclusion of the private sector as a similar proposal, relying heavily on state funding, had been attempted during the Oslo interim peace deals of the 1990s that eventually collapsed.
"While I accept that peace is essential, back then it was the hope of peace that got them actually excited and moving," Al Sheikh said.
But the "economy first" approach toward reviving the moribund peace process could be a hard sell as the political details of the plan, almost two years in the making, remain secret.
On Tuesday, Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel's capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees' right of return - points rejected by Israel.
Kushner said on Monday the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.
It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the "two-state solution", which involves the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.
The United Nations and most countries back the two-state solution, which has underpinned every peace plan for decades, but Trump's team has consistently refused to commit to it.
Any solution must settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, Israel's security concerns, Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel's settlements and military presence in a territory where Palestinians want to build that state.
Palestinian leaders are refusing to engage with the White House, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with the international consensus, Trump in 2017 recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital, infuriating the Palestinians and other Arabs.
Lagarde said it was good that the plan identifies sectors for job creation. "It cannot be any kind of growth in the West Bank and Gaza. It needs to be job intensive."
The IMF says unemployment stands at 30% in the West Bank and 50% in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas' rival in the Israeli-occupied West bank.
Among the 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, according to documents reviewed by Reuters. Some of them have been floated before and stalled for lack of underlying political or security agreements.
"The economic vision has to be linked to resolving the entire conflict, and this doesn't bring the Israelis and Palestinians any closer together. So I'm not optimistic this plan can materialize anytime soon," Makovsky said.
Rejection of Manama
The chief of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, criticised the plan as "attempted ruses and word-play at the expense of the historical and extant rights of the Palestinian people".
"This money must not come at the expense of our enduring rights, or at the expense of Jerusalem or the right of return or at the expense of sovereignty and resistance."
In the occupied West Bank and Gaza on Tuesday, Palestinians showed their disdain for the Kushner plan.
In Gaza, Hamas and its rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas convened a gathering of leaders and activists in a rare show of unity to voice their rejection of the Manama conference.
Shops and businesses closed doors in observation of a general strike called by Hamas. Protesters burnt pictures of Trump, Kushner and Netanyahu.
In Ramallah and Bethlehem small crowds of demonstrators gathered, waving Palestinian flags, and in Hebron youths hurled stones and rolled burning tyres toward Israeli soldiers.