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Trump team faces tough audiences as it sells Mideast plan

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Jared Kushner

FILE – In this May 18, 2018 file photo, White House adviser Jared Kushner speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. There is little enthusiasm among U.S. allies for Kushner’s planned Mideast conference at the end of June, 2019. The conference, presented as phase one of his long-awaited plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, has put pro-Western countries like Jordan and the Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. They can’t afford to snub an invitation from their American benefactors but are wary of endorsing a plan that does not include Palestinian independence. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — President Donald Trump’s top Mideast advisers face skeptical audiences as they visit several locations in the region and in Europe starting Tuesday to rally support for what they have billed as a workshop on the economic foundations of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The White House is promoting the June 25-26 meeting in the Gulf state of Bahrain as the first phase of its long-awaited Mideast peace plan, which envisions large-scale investment and infrastructure work, much of it funded by wealthy Arab countries, in the Palestinian territories.

But American officials say the Bahrain conference will not include the core political issues of the conflict: borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees or Israeli security demands.

A White House official said the trip, with stops in Morocco, Jordan, Israel and Europe “is part of our ongoing efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians” but offered no specifics. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Palestinians will not attend the Bahrain meeting, rejecting the parameters of the conference, while key American allies Egypt and Jordan have not announced their plans for participation.

For now, the Americans are pinning their hopes on wealthy Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, hoping their regional influence and deep pockets can make the conference a success.

The Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, along with host Bahrain, have accepted invitations to attend. This has fueled Palestinian jitters that they will come under heavy pressure to accept large sums of money in exchange for freezing or abandoning aspirations for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.

“The deal of the century or the deal of shame will go to hell, with God’s will, and the economic project they are working on next month will go to hell too,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said this week. “Whoever wants to solve the Palestinian issue must start with the political issue, not by selling the illusions of billions (of dollars.”

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son in law, announced the plans for the Bahrain conference last week, saying it would focus on economic issues and investment in the Palestinian territories.

The absence of a political horizon has put American allies in the region in a bind. Heavily reliant on the U.S. for political and military support, it is difficult for countries like Jordan to say no to the invitation. But the Palestinian issue resonates deeply with the Arab public and it is difficult for leaders to embrace a plan that does not promise the Palestinians a state.

In accepting the invitation to the Bahrain conference, Gulf countries have been careful to express solidarity with the Palestinians but have also signaled flexibility.

These countries have forged quiet relationships in recent years with Israel, driven primarily by a shared animosity to Iran. Those concerns, and readiness to engage with Israel, appear to outweigh any sympathies they may feel with the Palestinians.

“Dialogue with Israel is a positive thing,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, recently told journalists. “I think this is something that we need to do, but at the same time the dialogue with Israel doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree with them politically.”

Palestinian officials have called on Arab countries not to attend the Bahrain workshop. Abbas is expected to step up those calls at a pair of conferences later this week in Saudi Arabia. But changing their minds may be difficult.

In a recent editorial, the editor in chief of a Saudi newspaper with close ties to the palace urged the Palestinians to give the Trump plan a chance.

“The Palestinians should negotiate hard, and then take what they can to secure a nation state for future generations,” Faisal Abbas wrote in the Arab News. “There is nothing to be gained from a refusal to come to the negotiating table.”

In another important diplomatic breakthrough, Qatar, which has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with Saudi Arabia, has agreed to attend, a possible precursor of a broader reconciliation among Gulf rivals.

Beyond the Gulf, the plan appears to face skepticism.

Jordan is in an especially sensitive situation. A majority of the population has Palestinian roots, and the kingdom borders the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the heartland of any future Palestinian state. Any perception that Jordan is selling out the interests of the Palestinians would be deeply unpopular and possibly even destabilizing.

Ahead of Kushner’s arrival, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, indicated he is uncomfortable with the economy-first approach.

The official Petra news agency said that in a phone call with his Irish counterpart, Safadi stressed that “any economic plan to handle the consequences of the conflict can’t be an alternative to a comprehensive political plan that aims at fulfilling the two-state solution.”

“Safadi stressed that all efforts for solving the conflict need to begin from the fact that ending occupation is the path for peace,” the agency said.

Egypt, a key U.S. and Israeli ally that borders Gaza, also has not said whether it will attend. An Egyptian official said businessmen who do business with Israelis might take part in the conference as “individuals.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has repeatedly called for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Kushner’s visit to the region started Tuesday in Morocco, a moderate Arab state that has low-level ties with Israel. From there he was to head to Jordan, then Israel and on to Europe.

The European Union has not said whether it will attend the conference, while Russia, another key player in the region, late Tuesday called the meeting an attempt by Washington to enforce its views on the Middle East.

A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized what it called the United States’ “stubborn desire to replace the task of achieving a comprehensive political settlement with a package of economic bonuses that dilutes the principle of two states for two peoples.”

After more than two years of work, Kushner’s team still has not unveiled its political vision. But his few public statements have indicated they will focus heavily on so-called economic peace while sidelining or ignoring the longstanding Palestinian goal of independence. The two-state solution continues to enjoy the broad support of the international community.

Abbas and his autonomy government in the West Bank cut off ties with the White House after Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed it to its capital. Though Trump said his declaration did not determine the city’s final borders, the Palestinians saw the move as unfairly favoring Israel. U.S. cuts in aid, and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington, further deepened their suspicions.

Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, noted this week that the Palestinians were not even consulted about the Bahrain conference. “Let us be clear,” he wrote in the New York Times. “There will be no economic prosperity in Palestine without the end of the occupation.”

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Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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