Kushner pitches Palestinians 'Opportunity of Century' -- as condition to peace

Manama (AFP) - Jared Kushner on Tuesday called for the Palestinians to accept the "Opportunity of the Century" that he says will pump $50 billion into a stagnant economy but told them they must agree to it first if they want an eventual peace deal.

Opening the long-awaited Middle East peace initiative of his father-in-law, President Donald Trump, in Bahrain, the White House adviser insisted that the administration has not "given up" on the Palestinians, whose leadership is boycotting the US-led "economic workshop".

"Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary pre-condition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues," Kushner said as he kicked off an intimate two-day gathering at a luxury hotel on the Gulf.

Pacing a round stage and pointing to graphs in the style of a corporate executive, the 38-year-old real estate executive and family friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the need for a political solution.

"To be clear, economic growth and prosperity for the Palestinian people are not possible without an enduring and fair political solution to the conflict -- one that guarantees Israel's security and respects the dignity of the Palestinian people," he said.

But Kushner plans to present his political plan later, and the economic framework deliberately omits the language of land swaps and final political statuses that have vexed peace negotiators for decades.

Kushner said the Palestinians should first embrace the economic part, which sets the ambitious goal of creating one million Palestinian jobs in a decade through $50 billion of investment in infrastructure, tourism and education in the territories and their Arab neighbours.

While dismissing the mocking description of his peace plan as the "Deal of the Century", he quickly offered another label.

"This effort is better referred to as the Opportunity of the Century, if the leadership has the courage to pursue it."

"My direct message to the Palestinian people, is that despite what those who have let you down in the past say, President Trump and America have not given up on you," he said.

- 'Doomed to fail' -

Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, disagreed.

"The Trump Administration haven't only given up on Palestine, but on peace, justice and basic principles of humanity," the veteran Palestinian negotiator tweeted.

Erekat earlier said that the Peace to Prosperity plan was "doomed to fail" and was based on the idea "that they know what is best for the Palestinian people".

Trump is an unabashed supporter of Netanyahu and has taken landmark steps to back Israel, including recognising bitterly divided Jerusalem as the Jewish state's capital.

The administration has hinted that its political proposals to come later this year will not call for the creation of a Palestinian state, the goal of decades of US diplomacy, and that it could accept Netanyahu annexing parts of the West Bank for Israel.

Accusing the United States of trying to buy them off, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to denounce the Bahrain conference.

In the Gaza Strip, controlled by Islamist militants Hamas, a general strike shuttered most shops and restaurants, while protesters in Hebron earlier burned pictures of Trump and the king of Bahrain.

In unprecedented scenes, Bahrain welcomed dozens of Israelis including academics and journalists despite the lack of diplomatic relations.

The United States has hailed the "workshop" as bringing together the Israelis with Gulf Arabs, due largely to their mutual hostility towards Iran.

- Optimism on development -

The second day of the conference will hear from business leaders and the heads of international development banks on the prospects for the Palestinian plan.

Taking the stage after Kushner, Dubai mogul Mohamed Alabbar said he felt as if other Arabs had the interests of the Palestinians in mind.

"I feel like I represent them, because it is my story -- Palestine and its people. The Palestinian issue is something that's close to my heart," said Alabbar, whose Emaar Properties owns the world's tallest tower, Burj Khalifa.

He hoped that development of the Palestinian territories could take off quickly, saying that with a "good environment that I can operate in, there's no limit what can be done."

Oil-rich Gulf states, which would be expected to foot the bill if the plan moves ahead, sent high-powered delegations but other nations were more discreet.

Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have signed peace deals with Israel, sent only mid-level officials.

Richard LeBaron, a former US diplomat in the Middle East, said the Bahrain conference allowed the Trump administration, while advancing Israel's interests, to say that the Palestinians do not care about their people.

"The 'failure' of the Manama workshop will be success for the Trump strategy," LeBaron, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote in an analysis.