The “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain has been subject to much mockery since it concluded last Wednesday, the vast majority of it deserved. It was an economic peace conference without the presence of impacted parties, held so that untrustworthy partners can make pledges to which no one will hold them. IPF’s Michael Koplow was spot on in calling the whole shindig “the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

I suppose to some extent we should be relieved; the expectations set for the administration’s economic plan for the Palestinians are basically nonexistent, meaning this conference did not do much to raise hopes in the region only for them to be crushed at the most inopportune time. I don’t normally agree with Eugene Kontorovich, a staunchly pro-Israel law professor at George Mason University, but he was close to right when he said the conference was a “low-risk, low-return initiative.” More likely it will turn out to be a low-risk, no-return affair. The same can’t be said for the so-called “political component,” which White House peace lead Jared Kushner admitted in Manama was essential for the ambitious economic and governance plans talked about at the conference to be implemented. 

As of now, all signs point to the administration producing a plan that will receive an automatic rejection from the Palestinian side, if only for the fact that the Trump administration has been so shockingly dismissive of their interests and concerns throughout the process. So it is hard to imagine the plan, if ever released, will not favor Israeli interests on questions of territory, refugees, and the very meaning of ‘statehood’. The administration has signalled as much with its decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and effectively cutting off the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the broader Palestinian population from American humanitarian aid. The footage this week of Ambassador David Friedman, alongside White House envoy Jason Greenblatt, wielding a sledgehammer against an underground wall beneath a predominantly Palestinian area of East Jerusalem, will not help the administration restore the ties with the Palestinian Authority that are necessary to advance any initiative. 

Despite the clear biases of the Trump team, the Palestinian boycott of the Bahrain conference was only effective in dealing a self-inflicted wound of increased isolation. True, nothing was achieved last week, but a problematic narrative of Arab states accepting the status quo or a “solution” that sees Palestinians content with a permanent arrangement inferior to statehood still took hold. During the conference, Bahrain’s foreign minister gave an interview with The Times of Israel that was widely and wrongly perceived to be opening the door for rapprochement with the Jewish state. The presence of Israeli journalists in an Arab country that has no formal relations with Israel was emphasized repeatedly in foreign press accounts.

In truth, this is all overblown. Jordan and Egypt reportedly confirmed their attendance only after they were guaranteed Israel would not be in attendance; Bahrain has had a clandestine relationship with Israel for many years and the foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, was clear in his interview that he had no intention of undermining the Palestinian position; no Arab state expressed willingness to walk away from the basic framework presented in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative; and even Ashraf Jabari, a deeply controversial figure among Palestinians for his cordial relations with settlers, punctured the bubble by mentioning Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. As if to hammer home the point that no sea change was coming, Oman, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually visited last year, announced it would open a diplomatic mission in Ramallah. 

But the confusion is, in part, a result of the Palestinians absenting themselves from the forum. There are important truths only the PA could have brought to the discussion. For one thing, there is the overwhelming evidence that the main impediment to Palestinian economic growth is the Israeli occupation. In April, the World Bank said the Palestinian private sector was being “crowded out” by the PA’s increased borrowing needs, a direct result of American and Israeli sanctions. In that light, why would investors take such risks with tens of billions of dollars if their Palestinian partners’ ability to deliver is dependent on the decisions made by a foreign government and military? 

The opportunity to expose the evident contradictions in these plans on such a prominent stage as the one offered in Bahrain should not have been refused so quickly. The Palestinians would have found allies in the countries pressured by the Trump administration to attend. In any event, as the DC idiom goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Arab states, while sympathetic to the Palestinians, are not stand-ins for official Palestinian representatives, to say nothing of eccentric businesspeople loathed by their compatriots. 

The Palestinian leadership’s resentment toward a conference held for their “benefit” by an American administration that has punished them was justified; abdicating their responsibility to advocate for Palestinian interests in international forums was not. If the Trump administration writes a disastrous political plan for Palestinians next, it will do so with momentum from a conference at which the official Palestinian perspective was voluntarily silenced.