In Bahrain resort, yarmulkes and Mideast ambitions welcome

Manama (AFP) –


The fruity mocktails lay elegantly on the welcoming trays, the gala dinner served heaps of lamb and sea bass, and the mix of guests in the Bahrain luxury hotel was unlike any seen before.

Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser, launched his Middle East peace initiative in the sealed-off Four Seasons hotel along the Gulf where, in unprecedented scenes, some 30 Israelis were in the midst.

Just inside the air-conditioning away from the 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat, Bahrain's foreign minister chatted in English like an old friend with guests from Israel, who were served foil-wrapped cuisine cooked in accordance with kosher dietary laws.

Seven journalists from Israel were part of the trim press contingent approved by the White House, while yarmulke-wearing rabbis hobnobbed in hallways next to Arab dignitaries in flowing white robes and chequered keffiyeh head scarves.

"If every Arab country were to be like Bahrain, the Messiah would arrive!" exclaimed Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which fights anti-Semitism.

Inspired by the turnout, Hier led some 15 Jews in a prayer service Wednesday at Manama's synagogue that spontaneously ended with singing and dancing.

The synagogue was largely abandoned but remained standing after the 1948 creation of Israel, which led to the flight or expulsion of Jews from around the Arab world and of Palestinians from the new Jewish state.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's associate dean, called the service "very uplifting and also, at the same time, humbling".

"We're seeing more and more normalcy of contact. People walking around with yarmulkes. The first time I came to town I had to wear my New York Mets baseball cap" to cover up, Cooper said.

Bahrain and other Gulf Arab states have found common cause with Israel due to their tense relationships with Iran, whose Shiite clerical regime routinely threatens Israel but which has preserved an ancient Jewish community.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers have triggered an outcry from human rights groups for cracking down hard on protests led by Shiites, who make up most of the island according to unofficial estimates contested by the government.

The kingdom sentenced activists to death and stripped others of citizenship on accusations of terrorism after the 2011 protests called for Bahrain to have an elected prime minister.

- Palestinian conference with few Palestinians -

One group was conspicuously underrepresented at the workshop where the stated goal was boosting the Palestinian economy -- the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority boycotted the conference, fearing an attempt by the unabashedly pro-Israel Trump to impose a political solution, and only one Palestinian took a speaking role, although others were in attendance.

Ashraf Jabari, a businessman from Hebron who is little known among Palestinians but has spoken before right-wing settlers, said he travelled to Bahrain in hopes of boosting the territories' economy.

Interviewed by Nik Gowing, the veteran BBC anchor who moderated much of the conference set on a TED talk-style round stage, Jabari appeared to be sweating and repeatedly declined to discuss the Palestinian Authority's position.

"We are not coming here to talk about politics. Politics are for the Palestinian Authority," he said through a translator, in contrast to the American-infused English of most Arab executives at the workshop.

Casting the net wide, the workshop also featured wealthy businesspeople from India and Nigeria and the president of the Inter-American Development Bank to offer their perspectives on the Palestinian economy.

Kushner told reporters that all guests came "because they believe in this region", but said he also heard another message about his plan from Africans.

"We have guys from Africa who are basically saying, first of all, we'd love to have this. If you want to come and give this to us, we're very happy," Kushner said with a chuckle.