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US workshop touts growth for Palestinians, whose leaders steer clear

Economic leaders convened by the United States in Bahrain on Wednesday voiced optimism for major economic growth in the Palestinian territories, whose leaders boycotted the workshop as a bid to impose terms of peace.

Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, is leading the “Peace to Prosperity” initiative in the Arab kingdom in what he billed Tuesday as the “Opportunity of the Century” for the Palestinians.

But Kushner, a staunch supporter of Israel, said that the Palestinians needed to accept the economic framework before any eventual progress on reaching a long-elusive comprehensive peace deal.

On the second day of the conference in a luxury hotel on the Gulf, prominent figures in the global economy discussed Kushner’s plan which speaks of $50 billion of investment in infrastructure, tourism and education.

“So if there is an economic plan, if there is urgency, it’s a question of making sure that the momentum is sustained,” said Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

“For that, it will require all the goodwill in the world on the part of all parties — private sector, public sector, international organisations and the parties on the ground and their neighbours,” she said.

The IMF has warned of severe deterioration in the Palestinian economy.

Tax revenue is being held up in a dispute with Israel, which has blockaded the Gaza Strip for more than a decade because of the Islamist movement Hamas’ leadership of the crowded and impoverished territory.

Citing examples of post-conflict countries, Lagarde said that private investors needed progress in several areas including strengthening the central bank, better managing public finance and mobilising domestic revenue.

“If anti-corruption is really one of the imperatives of the authorities — as it was in Rwanda, for instance — then things can really take off,” she said.

– Diplomatic shifts –

Israel has voiced support for the conference and, in precedented scenes, Israeli academics and journalists openly travelled to Bahrain despite the lack of diplomatic relations.

Coinciding with the Bahrain conference, Oman said it would open an embassy in the Palestinian territories in a first for a Gulf Arab state.

The sultanate said it wished to show “support for the Palestinian people”. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a rare visit to Oman in October, raising speculation that the embassy could be a way to soften the blow before recognition of Israel.

Gulf Arab nations have increasingly found common cause with Israel due to their shared hostility toward Iran, although Oman has sought a moderate approach and often serves as a go-between for Washington and Tehran.

Oman did not participate in the Bahrain conference. Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have made peace with Israel, sent only mid-level delegations.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Wednesday spoke by telephone with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and voiced his “full support to the Palestinian brothers in achieving their legitimate and just rights,” the royal court said.

The king reiterated support for a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Trump in 2017 recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a landmark step that led the Palestinian Authority to cancel formal contact with the United States.

– US support for Israel –

Netanyahu has recently spoken of annexing parts of the West Bank, a step that would all but close a two-state solution, and the Trump administration has hinted it may support him.

Thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets to denounce the Bahrain conference, with a general strike shuttering most stores and restaurants in the Gaza Strip.

The Trump administration has been pushing “the normalisation and support of Israel’s colonial enterprise towards sustaining the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

But several speakers in Bahrain said that Kushner’s plan was more about private money than government decisions.

Saudi Minister of State Mohammed al-Shaikh, a key planner of the kingdom’s economy, voiced hope that the private sector could help achieve the Kushner plan.

He noted that the Palestinians saw an influx of governmental money in the optimistic days after the 1993 Oslo Accords, which had provided some self-governance to the West Bank and Gaza.

“If we managed to do it 25 years ago with significantly less money, I’m pretty sure it can be done today with the amounts of money and the private sector’s participation,” he said.

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