MANAMA, Bahrain — Ashraf Jabari, a little-known businessman from Hebron, might have seemed an unconventional representative for the Palestinians at the first step of a Middle East peace-building effort by the Trump administration that has so far been far from conventional.
He joined an eclectic array of attendees at a 1½-day meeting in the Bahraini capital of Manama, where President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, unveiled the White House vision for what the region could look like if Israelis and Palestinians achieved peace, making possible $50 billion in investment proposed for the region.
The roughly 300 other delegates who received invitations included a 15-year-old Emirati touted as a child prodigy, the head of the Indian stock exchange and American rabbis involved in interfaith activity in the Persian Gulf area.
Some participants with little connection to the region said they weren’t sure why they were invited. Some were enthused.
The speakers included representatives of the private equity firm Blackstone, the courier service DHL and a Nigerian billionaire, who said that despite not having visited the West Bank and Gaza, he was happy to share his “time-tested” approach to supporting young entrepreneurs.
“We specifically designed this to try to not bring foreign ministers here,” Kushner explained. “What I found is the more that I dealt with the traditional policy community on this, people are just stuck in a paradigm that never seems to move forward.”
The summit, at Manama’s 50-floor Four Seasons Hotel, an imposing concrete-pillar construction that juts out of its own 12-acre private island in the turquoise waters of Bahrain Bay, was organized by Richard Attias & Associates, the global communications firm behind Saudi Arabia’s Davos in the Desert. A White House official declined to directly comment on who funded the event, which booked the entire 273-room hotel for two days.
By inviting the business community and finance ministers, Kushner had been able to find more people who see the problem “the same way I do,” he said, “which is that it actually is a solvable problem economically.”
The speakers largely avoided the political issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The aim was to keep this devoid of politics,” Kushner said.
The White House plans to roll out the political elements of the peace initiative at a later date. Jason Greenblatt, the White House peace envoy, said he hoped the political plan would be released because the White House team had “worked very hard” on it. But Israel’s decision to call new elections for September had “certainly changed our thinking.”
He called the long-standing proposal for a two-state solution, with one for Israelis and anther for the Palestinians, a “slogan of the past.” The economic plan envisages “open borders” but no clarity on how that might be achieved.
He said if these White House political proposals do not get traction, “I’m not sure that we will take the time to take pledges” for the $50 billion in proposed investment.
It was Jabari, the Palestinian businessman, who finally touched on the politics in his Wednesday afternoon session on “developing a thriving local business environment.”
When asked by British broadcast journalist Nik Gowing, who described the Kushner plan in his questions as “very firm proposals” wrapped up “in a very detailed document with an enormous annex of data,” whether the plan could benefit him, Jabari replied that it could — if Palestinians had a state.
About 20 Israelis — business executives and journalists — traveled to the workshop, and organizers said the achievement of their attendance should not go unnoticed.
“Fantastic” was how Israeli Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, described his Wednesday morning meeting with the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, for which he slipped away from the Four Seasons.
“There’s a theme to what I do and I’m trying to pursue that theme,” he explained. That theme is summed up on his business cards that read “Self-Appointed Ambassador-at-Large to the State of Israel.” He was the man responsible for paying Madonna to play in Israel last month and bringing the Giro d’Italia cycling race to Israel in 2018. He said he had “constructive” discussions with the crown prince on joint ventures.
A journalist from the Times of Israel took the opportunity to organize morning prayers in the Manama synagogue.
“This is an example of the future we can all build together,” Greenblatt, who attended the prayers, later wrote on Twitter.
Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to the Palestinian team during negotiations over the Oslo accords in 1993, said the Palestinians are just a “pawn in the middle” of an effort that’s really about normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf area, which see a shared threat of Iranian expansionism.
“If they think they can raise the money they are delusional,” she said. “But I’m increasingly thinking that wasn’t the intention. For me, this was all about Iran.”