An Economic Workshop in Bahrain, With No Political Horizon

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The June 25-26 economic workshop planned by the Trump administration in Bahrain is an attempt to put the economic carriage before the diplomatic horse. History shows that most international conferences on the Israeli-Arab conflict have focused on the search for a political solution. Such was the case with the Lausanne Conference (1949), the Geneva Conference (1973), the Madrid Conference (1991), the Annapolis Conference (2007), and more. On the other hand, the four regional conferences held between 1994 and 1997, including the multilateral negotiations on issues of water, the environment, arms control and refugees were closely aligned with the political process (the Oslo Accords and Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan) and designed to strengthen and entrench it. The collapse of the Oslo process meant also the demise of the multilateral track.

The American decision to hold the workshop in Bahrain is undoubtedly novel. Bahrain has not hosted many international conferences. It has never hosted an Arab summit, for example. Bahrain’s ruler Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa agreed to do so for several reasons. First, he leads a Sunni elite ruling an island 70 percent of whose residents are Shiite and for whom the specter of a Shiite takeover bolstered by a tailwind from neighboring Iran is a source of constant worry. Their fear is well grounded. Shiite protests erupted during the 2011 Arab Spring, but speedy military help provided by the Saudis from the other side of the Gulf put an end to them. Second, Bahrain has been relying for years on US aid. In fact, the 5th Fleet is headquartered there, the two sides signed a defense pact in 1991 and a free trade agreement in 2006, and over 200 US firms operate on the small island. Hosting the workshop is therefore not a high price for the monarchy and ruling family to pay for their reliance on the Americans and Saudis that ensure stability. What is more, the Saudi-Bahraini cooperation allows Saudi Arabia to use Bahrain as a trial balloon for a policy likely to meet opposition in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia traditionally traipses cautiously through the political Islamic and Arab minefield, due to its position as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites.

The choice of Bahrain is convenient for Israel, too. In recent years, Bahrain’s rulers have been publicly displaying openness toward Israel, contrary to the Saudis whose contacts with Israel are conducted largely behind closed doors. Israel and Bahrain do not have diplomatic ties and Bahrain did not set up a diplomatic representation in Israeli during the Oslo period (unlike Oman, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania). Nonetheless, the two sides have been conducting public and clandestine ties since then. Yossi Sarid was the first senior Israeli official to visit Manama as Minister of Environmental Affairs within the framework of the multilateral working group in October 1994. Ties were upped a notch in the previous decade when Shimon Peres, then Minister of Regional Cooperation, met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain.

At the height of these public contacts, Peres as President and Tzipi Livni as Foreign Minister met with King Hamed in New York in 2009. However, most contacts were conducted behind the scenes. According to WikiLeaks documents, King Hamed told the US Ambassador in 2005 that his country conducts defense and intelligence ties with Israel through the Mossad. In another conversation, this one by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister with a US diplomat, Bahrain was said to be conducting “quiet business-like ties” with Israel. What is more, the King ordered officials to stop using the words “enemy” and “Zionist entity” when referring to Israel. The Kingdom also has interfaith relations with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and in December 2018, it named Rabbi Marc Schneier as special adviser to the King on the Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence that he had founded in Manama. Schneier has been working for the past 15 years to create interfaith bridges between Israel, the Gulf States and especially Bahrain. The Manama center, in cooperation with the Wiesenthal Center, organized an interfaith visit of 24 clerics from Bahrain to Israel in December 2017. The visit took place although President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital just days earlier. Houda Ezra Nonoo, a Jewish Bahraini woman, served as her country’s Ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2013. All this places Bahrain in an excellent position to host Trump’s economic summit, which in any case fits in with the Kingdom’s defense and economic interests.

However, Bahrain’s rulers have not had a change of heart on the Palestinian issue. In all their declarations, they invariably make clear that progress on the Palestinian issue is a prerequisite for any normalization with Israel. The main problem is that the Palestinians are boycotting the conference, thereby threatening to undermine its prospects of success. The Palestinian opposition to the conference is understandable given that Trump is not perceived as a balanced and honest mediator between the sides and because they fear that “economic peace” will constitute an alternative to a real, political peace. In any case, all the available information indicates that the political part of the peace plan, once unveiled, will be “thin” on diplomatic substance as far as the Palestinians are concerned. On the other hand, the Palestinian reaction places them, once more, as serial refusniks (e.g., the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Olmert-Abbas negotiations of 2007-8, and more).

The disappointing historic experience with the contribution of economic conferences to political aspects of the peace process, combined with recent events, lead to the conclusion that Trump would have been better off delaying or cancelling the economic workshop altogether. It is safe to assume that ego and honor will prevent him from doing so. Trump decided to launch the “deal of the century” by thinking “outside the box.” Undoubtedly, he succeeded; it is the first time anyone has tried to resolve the conflict without consulting, sharing or coordinating with one of the parties involved in the conflict. This “original” idea cannot provide a fair solution; it actually has the potential to aggravate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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