US insists Palestinian economic plan precondition to peace * UN seeks funds for UNRWA

MANAMA: Jared Kushner yesterday 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 first agree if they want a peace deal. Opening the long-awaited Middle East peace initiative of his father-in-law, US President Donald Trump, at a conference in Bahrain, Kushner 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 opened the two-day event before a gala dinner. In a data-driven presentation in the style of a corporate executive, the 38-year-old adviser to Trump 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 said that the political plan would come later - and that the Palestinians should first embrace the economic component, which promises billions of dollars in investment in infrastructure, tourism and education.

"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. 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."

The Palestinian Authority and its rival Hamas have both denounced Kushner's so-called "Peace to Prosperity" initiative, saying it amounts to a bid by the unabashedly pro-Israel Trump to buy them off in return for not enjoying their own state. Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that the Trump administration "is insinuating that they know what is best for the Palestinian people" without addressing the underlying issue of Israeli occupation. "Such inciting campaigns aim at making the people and leadership of Palestine accept the dictations, threats and tyranny of both the US and Israel - and they are doomed to fail," the veteran Palestinian negotiator said in a statement earlier yesterday.

Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets in the occupied West Bank to denounce the conference, burning pictures near Hebron of Trump and the king of Bahrain. In unprecedented scenes, the kingdom 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 to their mutual hostility towards Iran.

Netanyahu, who has also criticized the Palestinian boycott, has spoken in recent months of annexing parts of the West Bank, a move that could effectively end hopes of a two-state solution. The Trump administration has hinted that its political plan will not mention a Palestinian state - a sharp shift from the goal of years of US diplomacy. Trump has already taken landmark steps to support Israel including recognizing bitterly contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and Kushner is a family friend of Netanyahu.

Saudi Arabia, which sent its finance minister, in a statement said it supported "all international efforts aiming to achieve prosperity in the region". But it also called for a "comprehensive and just peace" and reiterated its call for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have signed peace deals with Israel, were attending but only sent mid-level officials.

Prominent figures taking part in the Bahrain conference included International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, World Bank President David Malpass and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Richard LeBaron, a former US diplomat in the Middle East, said that the Trump administration fully expected that the Palestinians would stay away. But Bahrain allows Kushner to portray Palestinian leaders as not caring about their own people as he keeps advancing Israeli interests, said LeBaron, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. "The 'failure' of the Manama workshop will be success for the Trump strategy," he wrote in an analysis. "It will permit Kushner and his colleagues to claim that they tried their best to address the situation and allow them to blame others for not cooperating."

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on UN member states yesterday to fund the agency that works to help Palestinian refugees as he opened a donors' conference for the body, which is boycotted by the US. The conference was being held the same day the Trump administration was presenting in Bahrain the economic part of the long awaited Middle East peace plan. More than a year ago the Trump administration stopped sending money to the UN agency for the Palestinians, called UNRWA and called for it to be dissolved, saying it was no longer justified 70 years after the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the creation of Israel.

"Today, I humbly ask all donors to maintain their support for UNRWA at last year's level," said Guterres. "We know what is at risk: education for a half million children; 8 million healthcare visits a year; emergency relief for 1.5 million. In Gaza alone, one million Palestine refugees depend on UNRWA for food," he said. Last year, UNRWA relied on extra money from member states and internal savings to cover a $446 million budgetary hole. This year it unveiled a budget of $1.2 billion, unchanged from 2018.

Unless enough money is pledged yesterday, the agency could fall back into the red by the end of the month, Guterres warned. And that could mean delaying school openings in late August or September, the agency says. Founded in 1949, UNRWA runs schools and provides health care for some five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Israel and the United States do not like the fact that Palestinian refugees can pass on refugee status to their children and want to reduce the number of people receiving aid from UNRWA. The Palestinians say this violates their rights. - Agencies