Trump Backs Unlikely Duo for Middle East Peace 'Deal of the Century'

(Bloomberg) -- One’s a spokesman for an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. His Palestinian partner is derided at home as a traitor to the national cause.

This is the unlikely duo the Trump administration has embraced as it prepares to launch the economic component of its much-vaunted “deal of the century” for Middle East peace.

Trump Backs Unlikely Duo for Middle East Peace 'Deal of the Century'

Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is launching the initiative with a workshop in Bahrain on Tuesday, where he seeks to drum up some $50 billion in investments for the Palestinian territories and neighboring countries that host large numbers of refugees.

The agenda boasts senior figures including International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and Thomas Barrack, the executive chairman of Colony Capital, displaying the influence the U.S. is able to wield over some of the world’s financial titans but not, apparently, over the regional leaders it needs to turn its plan into reality.

The conference did not win the kind of interest Jared had pushed for; a fraction of the more than 1,000 business leaders invited are showing up, according to a personal familiar with the situation.

The Palestinian Authority, which broke off contacts with the Trump administration 18 months ago, is boycotting the conference because it wants to prioritize a political agreement and doesn’t trust Washington to act as an honest broker. Israeli officials won’t be attending. Neighbors Lebanon and Syria aren’t going. Even Jordan and Egypt, who stand to gain billions of dollars under Kushner’s vision, are sending mid-level delegations, suggesting expectations of serious progress are low.

Brittle Beginnings

The brittle beginnings haven’t deterred Avi Zimmerman, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, and Ashraf Jabari of Hebron. They’re promoting their Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry -- many of whose associated businesses are kept unidentified out of security concerns -- as a potential channel for West Bank investment, including whatever funds the Bahrain meeting may produce.

Their backgrounds are unusual for a task of that magnitude: Zimmerman founded an online speaker series on the West Bank and runs an organization supporting Ariel, while Jabari has investments in the cement, food and automobile industries. The group’s moniker harks back to the the West Bank’s Old Testament name, as the area is still known today by some Israelis. Jabari is viewed with distrust by many at home for his willingness to cooperate with an Israeli settler on what many Palestinians perceive as an American effort to buy out their aspiration for statehood.

The high profile their participation is receiving -- Jabari’s the only Palestinian due to be interviewed on stage during the main event on Wednesday -- speaks volumes about the level of enthusiasm the U.S. effort has met with on the ground.

“The message is wrong and the messenger is wrong,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department analyst and negotiator now at the Wilson Center. “The message of trying to buy off Palestinians, and then associating with groups that have no credibility.”

Politics First

The idea in Bahrain is to start talking about economic development for the Palestinians, which would alleviate poor conditions at a time when the Palestinian Authority is near financial collapse. The more contentious political part of the plan is to be presented later.

The 40-page economic proposal unveiled over the weekend envisions a global investment fund that the U.S. hopes will funnel nearly $30 billion into the Palestinian territories to boost infrastructure, governance, encourage business and boost women’s participation in the workforce, among other aims.

Chiming with that, the business association led by Zimmerman and Jabari has drafted a development initiative for the West Bank that would include hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental and other projects. It’s also working to launch a “bond bank” -- a financing vehicle that would aggregate projects and issue debt to fund them, allowing for lower borrowing costs.

“The size of the investments that the U.S. is looking to direct toward Palestinian economic development will require economic infrastructure,” Zimmerman said at a recent media briefing last month. “Should there need to be a conduit, we can make ourselves available.”

U.S. officials have promoted the group’s efforts. U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who enraged Palestinians this month by suggesting Israel had the right to annex West Bank territory they want as part of a future state, has said he “couldn’t ask for a better partner in this effort” than Jabari.

“He got a big role in the program of the workshop but he does not have a big role in life,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group research center.

Jabari, who’s leading a 13-member delegation to Bahrain, says he’s focused on improving the daily lives of Palestinians rather than on politics. His compatriots take a dim view of his efforts and have largely dismissed the plan they say is too divorced from the reality of the conflict they live with daily.

“These people only represent themselves and have no representation on the ground,” said Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee. “All factions of the Palestinian people are against the Bahrain conference.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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