It felt more like a Ted Talk or an episode of Dragons’ Den than peace negotiations for one of the world’s trickiest conflicts.
Last Tuesday in a five-story hotel in Bahrain, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, zipped through a blur of graphs and facts that made up his $50 billion economic plan for the Middle East region.
Encircled by banking heavyweights, Gulf officials, and the ubiquitous Tony Blair, the former real estate developer called it the “opportunity of the century”.
He urged the Palestinian leadership, who were boycotting the event on the grounds it was too pro-Israel, to “take a look”. He likened the conflict between Israel and the region to “Silicon Valley [being] cut off from the rest of California”.
The US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, added he was sure they could raise the funds, comparing the economic plan to “a hot IPO”.
But all the financial similes aside, the US special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, admitted no pledging conference has been scheduled. He told reporters the Trump administration will wait to see if the political tranche of the peace plan, which will be released at an undetermined time in the future, “gets traction” before trying to raise the cash.
(Kushner even said that those who had helped draw up the economic blueprint were not aware of the content of the political one.)
And so, without real money to play with and with the political reality entirely divorced from the conversation, the two-day conference was packed with vague discussions of how to fix the Middle East’s economic woes.
Everyone from the head of Fifa to the chief of the World Bank opined on how useful it would be for the Palestinians to, say, build solar-panel football pitches, use blockchain technology to fix property disputes and borrow advanced medical technology from the Gulf.
Phrases which were not used, or were gently steered away from, included the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the near wars between the Israeli army and militants in Gaza, refugees and the Palestinian desire for statehood.
With few details to chew through, back in Israel the media went wild at the fact Israeli journalists were permitted to enter Bahrain, a country which has no formal ties with Israel and is infamously home to “The Bahrain Association for Resisting Normalisation of Relations With the Zionist Enemy”.
Barak Ravid, Israel’s Channel 13 diplomatic correspondent, tweeted a photo of himself with a beer at the conference writing “With a Lebanese beer in Bahrain. A new Middle East.”
The Times of Israel not only published an interview with Bahrain’s foreign minister, Shaikh Khalid Al-Khalifa, who declared Israel was a country that was “there to stay”, but the same reporter organised rare morning prayersin Bahrain’s only synagogue.
At the end of the service, which was attended by Greenblatt, the worshippers broke into chants of Am Yisrael Chai (“the people of Israel live”).
Although Greenblatt told reporters that “this workshop was not intended to be a photo opportunity” and the strengthening of Israeli relations with the Gulf was just a “sideshow”, with little other substance to the two days there wasn’t much else to focus on.
As Anshel Pfeffer, a prominent Israeli journalist with Haaretz wrote, although the workshop may not bring peace, the gradual normalisation of ties with Israel was “why the event in Bahrain is so important”.
This was echoed in an interview between The Independent and Marc Schneier, a prominent New York rabbi who was recently appointed a special adviser to King Hamad of Bahrain to work on bringing the Gulf countries closer to Israel. The workshop was historic, he said.
But beyond this was a different kind of normalisation – the normalisation of the new normal.
Normalisation of the fact that it is standard for foreign leaders, including those from the Gulf, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the “tired talking points” (as Greenblatt dismissed them), such as statehood, occupation, blockade, refugees.
It was also normalisation of discussing the crisis without really talking about Israel, and the role it plays, at all.
When Tony Blair mentioned the need for a two-state solution (a phrase Trump administration officials have refused to use) and described the humanitarian crisis in Gaza due to the blockade, Kushner jumped in, blaming the Palestinians. He said the dire situation was “because of the bad leadership and the sanctions that have been imposed because of it”.
The word “Israel”, it seems, was sparingly used.
The Palestinians only appeared to bolster the central argument that they are their own worst enemy by detaining one of the few Palestinian businessmen who attended the Bahrain conference on his return to the West Bank.
Intelligence forces of the Palestinian Authority apparently questioned Salah Abu Miala. Greenblatt tweeted Sunday morning that the man had been released.
Greenblatt, incidentally, was back in Jerusalem shortly after the conference.
One of his first post peace-workshop activities was to attend the second inauguration of an Israeli settler project in East Jerusalem on Sunday. “Peace can only be built on truth,” he tweeted in response to criticism from an Israeli NGO.
The new normal.