Five Things to Know This Week: As Bahrain workshop launches, expectations couldn’t be lower
1. There’s a lot to watch this week, from Bahrain to Miami
Let’s start with Bahrain, which will play host for the Trump administration’s workshop on Palestinian and Middle East economy. This is the first phase of the much-anticipated Jared Kushner “deal of the century,” but as a first step it has little to offer. Gathering in Manama will be Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and other U.S. officials, alongside representatives of Arab countries and international organizations, but no Israelis (who were not invited) or Palestinians (who refused to come).
A slideshow presentation released by the White House in advance of the summit outlines the idea behind this gathering: raising up to $50 billion (about half of it for the Palestinians and the rest to several Arab states) for projects that will advance the economy and change life on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza. Kushner referred to it as the “opportunity of the century.”
2. As Bahrain workshop launches, expectations couldn’t be lower
Critics are tearing apart the Bahrain workshop even before it kicks off, arguing it’s nothing more than a bunch of re-heated ideas with zero funding behind them. There is also no proposed pathway to a political solution of the conflict that would enable turning these economic promises into reality. For the most part, this criticism is well deserved. After two years of work, the Kushner team’s promise can be summed up in a glossy prospectus depicting a flourishing new Middle East, without a word on how the parties are going to reach this goal and without anyone putting any cash on the table.
So why should you keep an eye on the Bahrain summit? Because it’s the first time in years that the world is coming together to discuss advancing peace in the Middle East. And because it will be Kushner’s debut on the world stage of Middle East peacemaking. And because this could end up remembered in history as not only the start, but also the end of the Kushner peace initiative.
3. What to look for in the Democratic debates
If you’re not a peace process geek or feel less than enthused by the sight of Israeli TV reporters broadcasting (for the first time in 25 years!) from a Gulf country, Bahrain may not be the most exciting event this week. Luckily, there are a couple of Democratic presidential debates taking place in Miami. Hosted by NBC and split into two sessions due to the unprecedented number of candidates, the debate will serve as a chance to get a sense of the field and become acquainted with candidates that few voters outside of Iowa or New Hampshire have ever heard of. Plus, to keep an eye on some of the issues that will take center stage as the race moves forward. The New York Times did a great job with its video questionnaire covering many of these issues, including Israel, the once-consensus topic turned political hot potato. Eighteen of the candidates responded, and Joe Biden’s absence was notable, but their answers to the “Israel question” were important in setting the tone: Democratic candidates, by and large, have gone beyond the point of automatic support for Israel and are no longer afraid of voicing criticism. At the same time, they all expressed the importance of America’s friendship with Israel and their wish to maintain the alliance.
Look for Wednesday and Thursday’s debates to showcase how the candidates deal with the “Israel issue” in the setting of a heated debate, with a national audience watching, a setting in which every word will be carefully analyzed in months to come.
4. The Iran showdown isn’t over yet
President Trump took the nation through a roller coaster of emotions with his response to Iran’s downing of an unmanned U.S. drone. First he irked Democrats and many Republicans with a threat of imminent military retaliation, then he disappointed hawks by calling it off at the last minute. Now Trump is shifting gears once more, focusing on economic sanctions and cyber attacks instead of an overt military strike. But we’re still in the midst of the crisis. Iran has demonstrated its knack for escalation whenever it feels the burden of economic pressure, and the U.S. is still maintaining a significant military presence in the region, ready to pull the trigger if and when Iran decides to take the next step. In between, Israel is watching with a mix of concern and hope. Concern that Iran might use a proxy attack on Israel as a way to send a message to the U.S., and hope that Trump will deliver on the promise to forge a new reality with Iran, one that includes a tougher nuclear agreement and new limitations on its ballistic missile program and its support for terror groups across the Middle East.
5. Politicizing the Holocaust—round 792 and counting
This time around, it’s Republicans’ favorite target—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and everyone’s trigger of choice, using Holocaust comparisons to criticize the Trump administration. To summarize the drama-du-jour: AOC referred to U.S. immigration facilities along the border with Mexico as “concentration camps;” Republicans, other right-wingers and some on her own side accused her of desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims; Holocaust scholars expressed various views; AOC shot back at critics, and the cycle is far from complete. Just follow your favorite politician/expert/pundit to get their take. Everyone has an opinion.
This isn’t the first time these issues come up, and clearly will not be the last. The rule for all is usually the same: Holocaust comparisons are never a good idea. Sometimes they are pretty accurate, other times they are no more than slander. But there will always be at least some who are offended, and remember that always, always, the comparison will only help your rivals take advantage of the opportunity to avoid discussing the issue itself. After all, it’s always easier to debate terminology and history than ask why immigrant children are being held in prison in subhuman conditions.