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Bahrain summit: How Palestinians could defeat Trump’s peace plan

Ahead of the Trump administration’s “economic workshop” in Bahrain, Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt recently acknowledged what many had already surmised: that the full unveiling of the US “peace plan” would be postponed once more, due to the pending Israeli elections.

“I think the logic would still dictate that if we wanted to wait until a new [Israeli] government is formed, we really do have to wait until potentially as late as November 6,” Greenblatt said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

For some, this fresh delay, after so many others before it, will keep alive the question of the plan’s contents. We would be better, however, to heed the words of Brookings scholar Khaled Elgindy – namely that the plan is “never being released, but it is being implemented”.

A blow to the White House

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president, the White House has refused to back a two-state solution; relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem; rejected the illegitimacy of illegal settlements; defunded the UN agency responsible for looking after Palestinian refugees – refugees the administration also seeks to redefine out of existence; and repeatedly harangued Palestinian officials.

No wonder, then, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) decided early on to officially boycott the Bahrain-hosted workshop, a move with broad backing from Palestinian factions.

The PA’s decision to boycott the event – and its call for others to do the same – has clearly played an important role in the workshop turning into even more of a non-entity than it was to start with.

As Reuters noted, “when the Bahrain conference was announced last month, US officials initially suggested privately that Israeli government attendance in Bahrain would be an opportunity for Israel and some of its Gulf Arab neighbours to display in public the behind-the-scenes contacts that have grown in recent years, especially on security matters over their common enemy Iran”.

Fast forward, and the gathering is now taking place without Israeli or Palestinian officials, described as a major blow to the White House. Days before the event, finance ministers from the UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only “confirmed attendants” (in addition, of course, to US officials and the Bahraini hosts).

‘The choice of our people is clear’

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, expressed satisfaction with the impact of the boycott, claiming that the fate of the Bahrain meeting “proves that Washington cannot and will not succeed on its own in achieving anything”.

Abu Rudeineh added that the PA “will foil any plot, or workshop or meeting”, stating: “The choice of our people is clear and firm and will defeat any conspiracy.”

Fighting talk – but the Bahrain workshop was low-hanging fruit. By not attending, the PA certainly undermined the event’s credibility, but a refusal to participate is very different from a proactive counterstrategy.

Such a distinction is all the more critical in light of the fact that the Trump administration is implementing its “plan” in practice, with or without a formal launch.

Thus far, it is unclear how the Palestinian leadership sees the way ahead. There is an apparent ongoing desire for an international conference of some description, and even a willingness to conduct “direct talks” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under the right conditions.

As reported by Daoud Kuttab, meanwhile, “some Palestinian leaders … are hoping to run the clock out, as the 2020 US election season is set to start mere months after Israelis head to the polls in mid-September”.

There have also been reports that the PA is seeking to “foster Jewish-Arab political cooperation in Israel”, including by “bolstering the Meretz party”.

An unenviable decision

None of the above inspires confidence, not least because such strategies have been repeatedly tried, and failed. In particular, simply waiting out Trump is ill-advised, and not only because it fails to prevent the steps already being taken by the US and Israel.

The Palestinian leadership appears to be facing an unenviable choice: go along with a plan designed to liquidate their national project, or, by refusing to participate in such a scheme, provide Israel with a justification for accelerating unilateral measures, such as annexing portions of the West Bank.

Indeed, Greenblatt himself last week took time out from scolding Palestinian officials to tell Israeli media – addressing the issue of settlement annexation – that he does not believe “anyone should make unilateral moves until we at least reveal the plan”.

Given the state of play, and acknowledging the severe difficulties, it is not enough for the Palestinian leadership to reject the Trump administration’s approach. A proactive response is required.

Somewhat dauntingly, however, an alternative will require significant steps to be taken, such as an end to national division, an overhaul and rebuilding of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and a shift away from sticking-plaster solutions to crises (such as the current financial crisis).

Whether or not such bold new approaches will be forthcoming any time soon is an open question – but the choices made now will likely have serious consequences for some time to come.

Published first by Middle East Eye.

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