US-led Bahrain meeting: a chance for Israel-Gulf rapprochement?

Dubai (AFP)


A US-led peace conference on the Palestinian economy could present Washington with a new opportunity to push Gulf allies and Israel closer together as tensions with common foe Iran rise.

The Palestinian Authority is boycotting the Peace to Prosperity conference that opens Tuesday in Bahrain, charging that it is seeking to buy off the Palestinians and deprive them of an independent state.

Gulf powerhouses Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking part in the two-day meeting but it is not clear if other US allies -- Kuwait, Oman and Qatar -- will attend.

Israel -- which Bahrain does not recognise -- has said it will take part but did not specify if it would be represented by government officials or business leaders.

Gulf countries are "well aware a Palestinian investment conference without Palestinians and even without official Israeli participation is ridiculous", said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute.

"I think the Gulf countries are simply trying to win brownie points with the Trump administration, particularly at a time of heightened confrontation with Iran," he said.

The administration of US President Donald Trump is keen to use the conference to push for closer ties between the oil-rich Gulf Arabs states and Israel to bolster an anti-Iran coalition.

"I don?t think the... absence of Palestinian political leaders... makes any difference to the US administration's desire to deepen the nascent but undeclared alliance between itself, Israel and some Gulf Arab states against Iran," said Middle East analyst Neil Partrick.

"In terms of the individual national security priorities of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, Iran has long been of greater importance to them than the almost extinct ideological pressure that Palestine once placed on the policies and behaviour of all Arab state leaders," he added.

- Israel courts Arabs -

The workshop -- led by Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner -- will focus on the economic aspects of the US president's long-delayed plan to resolve the decades-old Middle East conflict.

On Saturday the US unveiled details of the plan, saying it aims to raise more than $50 billion for the Palestinians and create one million jobs for them within a decade.

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi rejected the plan, saying the United States should instead press Israel to withdraw from occupied land and allow the Palestinians to thrive.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas said it was not possible to discuss the economic aspects before finalising a political solution.

Egypt and Jordan -- the only two Arab countries to have peace treaties with Israel -- will be represented in Bahrain by senior finance ministry officials.

In recent years Israel has been courting Arab nations which do not recognise the Jewish state, and in October last year Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held surprise talks in Muscat with the ruler of Oman.

These efforts at rapprochement came as Iran -- the arch-foe of Israel and regional rival of Gulf kingpin Saudi Arabia -- was bolstering its influence in several Arab countries.

Analysts say improved ties between Israel and Arab countries cannot take place in the absence of a tangible progress to defuse the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"If you want to unite everyone against Iran, you need to do something in the (Mideast) peace process," Yoel Guzansky, a former head of the Gulf department at Israel's National Security Council, told AFP.

Ibish agreed. "A real, open and meaningful rapprochement in not on the cards," he said, pointing to the dispute over the city of Jerusalem -- which both Palestinians and Israeli claim as their own.

The Palestinians have boycotted the US administration since Trump broke with decades of consensus by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city last year.

Arab countries participating in the Bahrain workshop are under pressure from Palestinians who consider the US peace plan will only liquidate their cause.

US officials have hinted that the political part of the plan -- which could come out later this year -- will not mention the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a goal of decades of US diplomacy.