February 21, 2020

When We Are All Bahranians

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (left) and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner arrive at Manama’s Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference.

A peace conference used to be a ritual with certain rules. It was covered live on Israeli TV. It prompted large, celebratory headlines in newspapers. It was enshrined in photos of dignitaries shaking hands. Terms such as “making history” were uttered by politicians and pundits. A general celebratory mood descended on the region. Skeptics hoped for failure. Optimists prayed for success. 

You might remember some of these occasions, usually named after the places they were held: the Madrid Conference, the Camp David Summit, the Annapolis Conference. Some were more important than others but the ritual remained. That is, until Bahrain. The conference initiated by President Donald Trump’s administration was met with a bored shrug. The morning it started, the radio was busy with domestic affairs. The newspapers carried headlines on events other than Bahrain. This didn’t feel like making history. More like a … well, Tuesday.

The plan comprises a long list of projects (infrastructure, education, health care) that can be initiated, given availability of financial resources, will of the community, and peaceful circumstances. It envisions counties and investors contributing $50 billion to create a fund run by a development bank. A little more than half of this money would go to projects in the West Bank and Gaza. The other half would be spent on Palestinians in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. How to get from point A (good ideas) to point B (working programs), is still a mystery.

Is the plan good or bad? To answer this, one must address a philosophical question: Can a plan that will not be implemented be good or bad? 

The plan is long and ambitious. But there’s no money for it, no political goodwill, no realistic path for implementing it. More than anything else, the plan is a basic statement along the lines of “behave, and you can have a better life.” So yes, it is a good plan for those wanting to behave, maybe in other regions of the world.  

The leaders of the Palestinian Authority decided not to attend the conference. Their reasons for declining are solid, but most aren’t related to the plan. They have to do with the administration that authored the plan. The Palestinians realized long ago that the Trump administration doesn’t play the game they are used to playing. So early on, they had to make a choice: Do we (the Palestinians) go along with such a line of thinking and see where it leads, or do we wait for better times and a more sympathetic presidential administration?

The choice was made and, hence, the only aim of the Palestinians from now until Trump leaves office is to delegitimize any attempt by his administration to advance an agreement with Israel. The logic behind it is consistent with Palestinian actions of the last hundred years or so. They kept believing that time was on their side, and that they would be paid dividends for being patient. 

No Israeli leader could say such a thing in public, nor should they. But the truth is that Israel has very little interest in a peace process with the Palestinians at this time. First, because it is a distraction from more important things. A government can deal with only a handful of topics at the same time. 

When Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, he first tested the option of having a peace process with Syria, and agreed to invest in the Palestinian track only when he concluded that the Syrian track would not bear fruit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t have a Syrian track to consider. And yet, he is busy. He keeps Gaza on the back burner, so as not to be distracted. He’d be happy to keep the West Bank on the back burner, so as not to be distracted. 

Distracted from what? Iran. Meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton to talk about Iran was much more important for Netanyahu than following the Bahrain conference.

You can call the doubters “skeptics.” You can also call them “people who live in the region.” 

Last week, the American Jewish Committee provided me with the full data of its annual survey of American and Israeli opinions. One of the questions was: “In the current situation, do you favor or oppose a two-state solution through the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank?” One-third of Israelis strongly oppose this idea, and another 18% oppose it. You can see these numbers on the AJC’s website. 

But here is what happens when you look at the breakout of numbers by age: Among Israelis 55 and older, about 30% strongly oppose a two-state solution. Among those aged 18 to 34, more than 40% oppose a two-state solution, and close to 65% either strongly oppose it or oppose it.

Here is another survey question: “Looking ahead five years, do you think that the chances for peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state will improve, decline or stay the same?” Again, the younger they are, the more they say “decline.” Almost half of young Israelis answered decline, compared with about one-third of older Israelis. 

What is the significance of this? When on the one side you have Palestinians believing time is on their side, and on the other side you have Israelis becoming even less willing to comprome — that’s not exactly a recipe for conflict resolution. 

There were low-level Arab delegations to the conference. In Arab countries (even more than in most other countries), important decisions are made by high-level delegations. 

The Trump administration has a strong belief — stronger than the basically strong belief Americans in general hold — that economics are the key to solving all problems. What do Palestinians possibly want? The good life. Give them good business opportunities and they will accept your political ideas. What do Iranians want? A booming economy. Impose sanctions and they will forget about their nuclear ambitions. What do Israelis want? Give them prosperity and they will give away land. 

Back in 2004, when the Israeli public was preoccupied with disengagement from Gaza, one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisers, Dov Weissglass, famously declared that the peace process couldn’t move forward after disengagement “until the Palestinians turn into Finns.” 

At certain times it seems as if the Trump administration wants us all to turn into American business people. Or it believes that we (and by “we,” I mean Israelis and Palestinians) are already Americans. Bahrain might serve as a reminder that we aren’t.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.