Talk of war with Iran is drowning out President Donald Trump’s efforts to bring peace to another part of the Middle East.
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, will gather regional officials and private sector leaders in Bahrain next week to unveil the first plank of the Trump administration’s long-awaited plan to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But anxious chatter about the escalating back-and-forth between the U.S. and Iran is drawing attention away from what many observers were already describing as a pointless exercise — neither Palestinian leaders nor an Israeli government delegation is expected to attend the event.
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“It’s certainly going to suck oxygen out of the room,” said Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have risen in recent weeks following attacks on international oil tankers that the U.S. blames on Iran, allegations Tehran denies. On Thursday, Iran’s Islamist leaders said they had shot down a U.S. military drone. They also have pledged to resume limited parts of their nuclear program next week, likely violating a 2015 international nuclear deal. That move is retaliation over the sanctions Trump has imposed on the country after pulling out of the nuclear deal last year.
Trump himself has said he wants to avoid a military confrontation, but has sent mixed signals on his intentions. After the drone downing Thursday, he initially tweeted, “Iran made a very big mistake!” But later in the day, he seemed to soften his tone, arguing the Iranians might have been confused. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” he told reporters.
Kushner and his team, meanwhile, have been keen to avoid drawing any links between the Bahrain event and the Iran crisis. In fact, they are intent on limiting the scope of the talks to economics, not politics. Invitees are mainly business leaders and regional economic officials, Trump administration officials say.
The economic plan is the first phase of a broader peace proposal Kushner and his team have worked on for more than two years. The second half, which will address thorny political questions, is set to be released in the fall. The goal is to end the seven-decade old conflict that erupted after Israel was created as a Jewish homeland, displacing many majority-Muslim Palestinians who were eventually left without a state of their own.
Administration officials also say that because the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians’ governing body in the West Bank, is not coming, they decided not to invite Israeli officials for fear of injecting unneeded politics into the atmosphere.
“You’re going to see a very well thought out economic vision for the Palestinian people,” Trump aide Jason Greenblatt recently told i24News. “We have specifically tried to keep it away from politics.”
But Iran, coincidentally, is also a major reason several Arab countries are attending the Bahrain workshop in the first place. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia view the rise of Iran in the Middle East as their No. 1 strategic threat. As a result, worries about Iran have to a large extent displaced concerns about the Palestinians.
These Arab countries see attending the Bahrain event as a way to curry favor with Trump, who, in their eyes, has given Tehran the rough treatment it deserves, analysts and former U.S. officials say. The countries have even stepped up their security cooperation with the Israelis, a once-unthinkable move, because of shared wariness of Iran’s ambitions.
The leaders of these countries aren’t overly enthusiastic about the Trump team’s peace plans — or the administration’s treatment of the Palestinians so far. But they see showing up in Bahrain as a small price to pay given the Iran threat, even if it doesn’t lead to anything resembling Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“Overall, it is a relatively low-cost move, since they will all probably say in their statements that economic development for the Palestinians should not be at the expense of a political solution,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iran’s clerical leadership has also long supported factions of the Palestinian resistance that have engaged in armed struggle against Israel and reject its right to exist.
Since assuming the presidency, Trump has taken several controversial steps that Israel long sought but which have alienated the Palestinians. Most prominently, the administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, angering the Palestinians, who lay their own claims to the city. Trump officials have also slashed humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, tried to narrow the definition of who counts as a Palestinian refugee, shuttered the Palestinian offices in Washington, D.C., and closed the U.S. diplomatic office in Jerusalem that dealt directly with the Palestinians.
Kushner has indicated that his peace proposal, if and when it is released in full, will not include the concept of a two-state solution, long a central tenet of most potential peace plans for the region. And because of the economic emphasis of the plan, Kushner and other Trump aides have faced allegations that the administration is trying to buy off the stateless Arab population — allegations they deny.
Greenblatt told i24News that although the Trump team will lay out its economic vision in Bahrain, the gathering is not a donors’ conference. Pledges by other countries to help fund the economic plans could come down the road, if there’s positive movement on the political side, he said.
Because of Israeli political tumult — the country has to hold a new election in September — the political piece may not get unveiled till November.
Although Israeli political leaders won’t be attending the Bahrain event, Israeli business leaders will, Greenblatt added. He said that the Palestinian boycott is a “huge missed opportunity.”
“We hope that the Palestinian people will understand what awaits them if we achieve peace,” Greenblatt said.
Berman, of the American Foreign Policy Council, noted that there could be some advantage to having Iran drain public attention away from the Bahrain gathering. A smaller spotlight could give attendees more room to breathe and have frank discussions.
“In business terms, it could be a soft launch, where the U.S. signals its economic interest in the region while acknowledging the political environment isn’t right yet because we have to worry about Iran,” Berman said.
Even as he stressed the promise that the Trump team’s economic vision holds, Greenblatt acknowledged that resolving the Palestinian-Israeli issue isn’t the top priority for many of the Bahrain event’s attendees, at least not the way it once was.
“Iran is the center of the problems in the Middle East today,” Greenblatt told i24News. “Anybody who says [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] is the core conflict of the Middle East I think is very mistaken.”