In Bahrain, US to launch economic part of Mideast peace plan amid skepticism

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Palestinian demonstrators carry banners during a protest against the US-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, June 24, 2019.
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A worker places a banner at the pavilion where the US-hosted event ‘Peace to Prosperity’ takes place outside Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, Bahrain. (Reuters)
Updated 25 June 2019
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In Bahrain, US to launch economic part of Mideast peace plan amid skepticism

  • Two-day meeting billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed blueprint to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process
  • But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event

MANAMA/JERUSALEM: The first stage of President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be launched on Tuesday at a conference the White House touts as a bid to begin drumming up $50 billion in investment but which Palestinians deride as an “economy first” approach doomed to fail.
The two-day international meeting in Bahrain, led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed broader political blueprint to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which will be unveiled at a later date.
But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in the Bahraini capital, Manama.
There will be close scrutiny as to whether attendees such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states show any interest in making actual donations to a US plan that has already elicited bitter criticism from Palestinians and many others in the Arab world.
Bahrain, a close American ally and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been making preparations for weeks.
Although the conference is supposed to focus on economics, Gulf Arab states hope their presence will also show their solidarity with the Trump administration over its hard-line against Iran, a senior Gulf diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Under the plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50 billion over 10 years, with $28 billion going to the Palestinian territories — the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip — as well as $7.5 billion to Jordan, $9 billion to Egypt and $6 billion for Lebanon.
Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5 billion transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.
“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘deal of the century,’” Kushner told Reuters, referring to the lofty nickname that Trump’s peace plan has assumed over the past two years.
“This is going to be the ‘opportunity of the century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”
Kushner, a senior Trump adviser who like his father-in-law comes from the world of New York real estate, is presenting his plan in a pair of pamphlets filled with graphs and statistics that resemble an investment prospectus.
But pushing back against critics who accuse Kushner of trying to forge a strictly “economic peace,” he told Reuters last week: “A lot of past attempts have failed. Calm down ... and keep an open mind.”
Even so, expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes that the economic plan — billed “Peace to Prosperity” — will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.
Any such solution would have to settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory Palestinians want to build that state.
The Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel normal ties with the Arab world in exchange for a Palestinian state drawn along borders that predate Israel’s capture of territory in a 1967 war and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees. Israel has rejected some of the initiative’s main provisions.
Hanging over the entire initiative are persistent questions about whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” a long-standing principle of Middle East peacemaking that involves creation of an independent Palestinian state.
But the Trump team has consistently refused to commit to it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has his own domestic problems, facing an election, and possible corruption charges after a long-running police investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.
“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. Although no Israeli government ministers will attend, an Israeli business delegation is expected.
Palestinian leaders have boycotted the workshop, and are refusing to engage with the White House — accusing it of pro-Israel bias after a series of recent Trump decisions. Kushner told Reuters that “some” Palestinian businessmen would be present.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.
“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” he said.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has found itself in rare agreement with its arch-rival Abbas. “The Palestinian people only and no one else can represent the Palestinian cause,” Hamas official Mushir Al-Masri said.
Kushner insists, however, that the economic plan is intended to help draw Palestinians back to the negotiating table by showcasing the benefits a peace deal could bring.
Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli business executives and journalists with their Arab counterparts would be significant at a time of rising tensions with Iran.
“People realize that the real threat to that region is Iran and their aggression, and Israel and a lot of the other Arab states have a lot more in common today than they did before,” he said.
David Makovsky, a Washington-based Middle East expert, agreed that although the principal focus of the event was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Iran is higher on the chain of interest right now.”
However, Makovsky, whom the White House has invited as an observer, said of the Trump-Kushner plan: “No one believes you can solve this thing economically without addressing the political issues.”


Retired Lebanese soldiers in tense standoff with army during benefit cuts protest

Updated 19 July 2019
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Retired Lebanese soldiers in tense standoff with army during benefit cuts protest

  • Dressed in military uniforms, large numbers of veterans attempted to force their way through barricades set up to stop demonstrators reaching the city’s parliament building where a final vote on a controversial draft austerity budget was taking place
  • The meeting to vote on the 2019 draft budget came after a marathon three days of discussions

BEIRUT: Retired Lebanese soldiers on Friday came close to clashing with the country’s army when weeks of protests over planned benefit cuts reached boiling point in the capital Beirut.
Dressed in military uniforms, large numbers of veterans attempted to force their way through barricades set up to stop demonstrators reaching the city’s parliament building where a final vote on a controversial draft austerity budget was taking place.
A military source told Arab News that the Lebanese army leadership had decided to block access to Najma Square, in Beirut’s Central District, where Parliament members were sitting.
But former soldiers, joined by the parents of army martyrs and activists from the Sabaa and Communist parties, surrounded the building in nearby streets before attempting to push through barbed wire, concrete and metal barriers erected by the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces.
The protesters, waving Lebanese and army flags, got as far as the entrance to Maarad Street, on which Parliament is located, putting them in direct confrontation with the Lebanese troops.
Ten brigades of reinforcements were drafted in to help push back the veterans before protest leaders eased tensions by calling for a retreat to a nearby square to avoid any further clashes.
The meeting to vote on the 2019 draft budget came after a marathon three days of discussions. Before entering the parliamentary session, Lebanese Minister of Defense Elias Bou Saab said that “misleading the retired soldiers” would be “harmful to the image and demands of the protesters” and called on them to carry out “peaceful demonstrations.” He added that there had been mixed and confused messages regarding benefit cuts.
However, retired Brig. Gen. Georges Nader had vowed that protesters would not back off until the vote on their benefits was dropped.
Discussing the protests in Parliament, Samy Gemayel, president of the Phalange party, objected to the reduction in the army budget, to which Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said: “This has been concluded on the bases of an understanding with the army and the military establishment.”
MP Paula Yacoubian said that “retired soldiers are trying to storm Parliament,” to which Berri said: “Those who want to storm Parliament have not yet been born.”
The row had centered on a controversial article concerning amendments to the country’s income tax act, and Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil insisted on defending it. He said: “It does not cost the retired soldiers, for instance, more than 3,000 Lebanese pounds ($2) per month. This amount rises to 400,000 pounds for brigadiers.” He added: “Which country in the world gives a retiree 85 percent of his salary?”
After a meeting between the minister and Nader in Parliament, the retired brigadier general went out to reassure the veterans that cuts from their salaries in respect of medicine and income tax would be reduced. Less intense protests continued for more than three hours before Parliament approved the relevant article in the budget.
Meanwhile, Berri had started the Parliament session by reading a resignation submitted by Hezbollah MP Nawaf Musawi.