Beyond the substance of the two-day conference in Bahrain—although the nature and the dynamics of the conference are clearly important—the Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt team have once again exhibited how little they understand about the history and conduct of international relations. The question is what kind of statesperson or world leader in 2019 arranges a global conference to consider a conflict that has persisted for generations and specifically since the emergence of the PLO in the mid-1960’s, without the participation of the parties who are integral actors in the conflict.
The Bahrain conference is a major event when so many regional parties join the United States in addressing questions of one of the region’s most critical questions. Beyond the curious wisdom of addressing the economic life of the region while deferring the political questions, this conference was doomed to be nothing more than grandstanding, absent the formal participation of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Despite the interested businesspeople, regional journalists, and opinion-makers, the actual parties involved were either not invited (Israel) or refused to attend (the Palestinians). Deciding the future economic viability of the West Bank and Gaza without the parties to the conflict is foolhardy. Outside interested parties and numerous potential investors—private as well as governmental—is certainly exciting and enticing, but to what end.
Examples of historical failure of this model of negotiation are numerous. Any trained diplomat or scholar could have advised the arrogant Trump negotiators that the Congress of Vienna and the Versailles Conference both failed, in part, because they sought to carve up the spoils of wars without any reasonable sensitivities to the needs, concerns, and participation of the indigenous nations. In the Middle East, whatever was achieved by the Bush Administration in 1991 at the Madrid Conference was mitigated in great part by the actual physical absence of the PLO—except by telephone line from Tunis.
One of the most emphatic demands that Israel has correctly asserted throughout the years of negotiating with the Palestinians and with all its Arab neighbors is the need for face-to-face talks. It proved correct with Egypt at Camp David as well as with Jordan. Whatever success was achieved in Oslo and the subsequent Oslo process was accomplished because the parties to the conflict actually met.
The United States was totally surprised in 1977 when Anwar Sadat announced that he had accepted Menachem Begin’s invitation to visit Jerusalem. President Carter facilitated the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David, but it was the direct talks which achieved positive results. Similarly, Presidents Bush and Clinton were merely informed of the results of the Palestinian and Israeli Oslo talks, and were not parties to them. The Rabin-Sadat handshake may have been finalized on the White House lawn by Bill Clinton, but the U.S. was not a party to the negotiations.
The Bahrain Conference can help Middle East investment and serve as a clever way to bring much of the potential Arab world into a more engaged Western investment. It can publicly demonstrate how Western financial support can help increase economic growth in the Arab world, but it will not secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Finally, the large specter of Iran hangs over the entire scene in Bahrain. The intra-Muslim tensions present a huge cloud over the entire discussions. Participants may have believed that they could stay focused on their major purpose, but observers recognize the region has been greatly distracted by the bellicose actions of Iran and the U.S. in the Gulf.