Trump Mideast peace built on big money

The Trump administration's $US50 billion Middle East economic plan calls for creation of a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies.

It also includes the construction of a $US5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, according to US officials and documents reviewed by Reuters.

The "economy first" approach towards reviving the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process could be a hard sell to a largely sceptical region.

The plan, set to be presented by President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at an international conference in Bahrain next week, includes 179 infrastructure and business projects, according to the documents.

More than half of the $US50 billion would be spent in the economically troubled Palestinian territories over 10 years while the rest would be split between Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.

Some of the projects would be in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, where investments could benefit Palestinians living in adjacent Gaza, a crowded and impoverished coastal enclave.

The plan also proposes nearly a billion dollars to build up the Palestinians' tourism sector, a seemingly impractical notion for now given the frequent flare-ups between Israeli forces and militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza, and the tenuous security in the occupied West Bank.

The Trump administration hopes that other countries, principally wealthy Gulf states, and private investors, would foot much of the bill, Kushner told Reuters.

The unveiling of the economic blueprint follows two years of deliberations and delays in rolling out a broader peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinians, who are boycotting the event, have refused to talk to the Trump administration since it recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in late 2017.

Kushner made clear in two interviews with Reuters that he sees his detailed formula as a game-changer despite the view of many Middle East experts that he has little chance of success where decades of US-backed peace efforts have failed.

"I laugh when they attack this as the 'Deal of the Century'," Kushner said of Palestinian leaders who have dismissed his plan as an attempt to buy off their aspirations for statehood. "This is going to be the 'Opportunity of the Century' if they have the courage to pursue it."

Kushner said some Palestinian business executives have confirmed their participation in the conference, but he declined to identify them. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian business community will not attend, businessmen in the West Bank city of Ramallah told Reuters.

Several Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, will also participate in the June 25-26 US-led gathering in Bahrain's capital, Manama, for Kushner's rollout of the first phase of the Trump peace plan.

The White House said it decided against inviting the Israeli government because the Palestinian Authority would not be there, making do instead with a small Israeli business delegation.

There are strong doubts whether potential donor governments would be willing to open their chequebooks anytime soon, as long as the thorny political disputes at the heart of the decades-old Palestinian conflict remain unresolved.

The 38-year-old Kushner - who like his father-in-law came to government steeped in the world of New York real estate deal-making - seems to be treating peacemaking in some ways like a business transaction, analysts and former US officials say.

Palestinian officials reject the overall US-led peace effort as heavily tilted in favour of Israel and likely to deny them a fully sovereign state of their own.

Kushner's attempt to decide economic priorities first while initially sidestepping politics ignores the realities of the conflict, say many experts.

"This is completely out of sequence because the Israeli-Palestinian issue is primarily driven by historical wounds and overlapping claims to land and sacred space," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.

Kushner acknowledges that "you can't push the economic plan forward without resolving the political issues as well." The administration, he said, will "address that at a later time," referring to the second stage of the peace plan's rollout now expected no earlier than November.

Kushner says his approach is aimed at laying out economic incentives to show the Palestinians the potential for a prosperous future if they return to the table to negotiate a peace deal.

White House officials have played down expectations for Manama, which will put Kushner just across the Gulf from Iran at a time of surging tensions between Tehran and Washington.


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