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Where are the Palestinians?

recent economic summit conference in Bahrain was designed to further efforts toward peaceful dialogue among Jews, Muslims and Christians. But as Rabbi Marc Schneier, principal organizer of the meeting, told a St. Louis audience recently, the absence of the Palestinians made progress difficult.

Schneier gave a first-hand assessment of the conference to last month’s meeting of the American Jewish Press Association in St. Louis, hosted by the Jewish Light. Speaking via Skype from Bahrain, Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said the conference did not delve into specific questions about alternatives to the absent Palestinian representatives.

Instead, he said, “The purpose of the conference was economic investment in the region to improve the quality of life for the Palestinians.”  

Israel did not officially attend the conference, but Israeli journalists were present along with some business executives from Israel.

The conference was unprecedented in the long history of Arab-Israeli relations in that it was hosted in the Arab kingdom of Bahrain and included delegates from several other Arab states.  But it fit into the long history of efforts by Schneier and others to find ways to forge peaceful relations between Israel and the Arab states.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the conference out of hand; he has refused to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to protest President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.  Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, refuses to recognize the very existence of the State of Israel.

But the Bahrain conference did include Palestinian business executives who represent a hopeful moderate alternative to both Abbas’s Fatah, which is based in the West Bank, and Hamas, the terrorist group that rules in Gaza. Still, their attendance was not always welcome.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Dov Lieber reports that the Palestinian Authority “has targeted businessmen who participated in (the) U.S.-led economic conference in Bahrain … arresting one attendee and trying to detain another.”  

Such activity is further proof that the Palestinian Authority prefers permanent victimhood to a path to statehood and independence.  

The Bahrain conference was held in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s administration’s long-awaited “deal of the century” to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which has been the focus of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Trump’s administration is trying to build support from Arab states and investors for a $50 billion program to be spent in and around the Palestinian territories over the next 10 years, according to another Journal article by Felicia Schwartz. She wrote that the economic investment outline was designed to precede the unveiling of the much thornier political half of the peace plan.

Kushner believes that the common enmity that Israel shares over Iran now exceeds concern over the Palestinian issue, which explains the buy-in by moderate states such as  Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia reportedly also support the economic package.

The rollout of the political part of the proposed deal has been postponed, probably until after the Israeli elections in September. Schneier stressed that the Bahrain conference focused on economic issues, and the political issues will be addressed at a later date.

Will the upcoming peace plan have more success than past efforts? Or will it confirm once more the incisive saying of the late Abba Eban, former Israeli foreign minister, that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity?” 

Many peace plans have been put forward that would have granted full statehood to the Palestinians, but each time they refused the offers. Maybe this time will be different if Abbas comes to realize that he and his Fatah movement are increasingly irrelevant to his once steadfast Arab state partners.

A comprehensive pact among Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians would be helpful not only in the volatile Middle East but the entire world, including here in St. Louis, where local branches of Israeli high-tech businesses would greatly benefit from a durable peace. 

Will the Palestinians miss yet another opportunity?  The ball is in their court.