Jared Kushner’s Middle East Fantasy

Gordon, Prem Kumar, The Atlantic, Jun 25, 2018

In an
interview with a Palestinian newspaper, the president’s son-in-law has revealed
himself to be either strikingly naive—or deeply cynical.
Zvulun / Reuters

Kushner, it seems, is feeling optimistic.

Sunday, in his first-ever interview with a Palestinian newspaper, the U.S.
president’s son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy said that despite
appearances to the contrary, “prospects for peace are very much alive” and
confirmed that the administration is getting ready to release its long-awaited
plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Asked how that plan is different from
previous efforts, Kushner explained he has done “a lot of listening” and is
convinced the Palestinian people are “less invested in the politicians’ talking
points” than they are in seeing how a deal will improve their prospects for a
better life.
Given the
serious risks of escalating violence, the desperate humanitarian situation in
Gaza, and the continued costs of the status quo, Kushner’s desire to move
forward even in the face of long odds is understandable. Unfortunately, his
interview also revealed that he is living in a fantasy world and preparing an
approach more likely to compound the current problems than to resolve them. The
assumptions on which he appears to be basing his plan—whatever its precise
contents turn out to be—are so flawed that it is fair to wonder if his aim is
really to start serious negotiations, or simply to please President Trump’s
base by gearing up to blame the Palestinian side for the failure to come.
The first
fantasy is the notion that the obstruction of Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas—who refused to meet with Kushner on his latest trip—can be countered by
taking the peace plan “directly to the Palestinian people.” Kushner suggests
that Abbas is avoiding him because he’s “scared we will release our peace plan
and that the Palestinian people will actually like it.” That’s not likely. Abbas
is indeed unpopular with most Palestinians—his approval rating hovers just
above 30 percent—but it’s hardly because he’s too hardline on Israel. In our
own extensive discussions with Abbas and his negotiating team as White House
Middle East advisers during the Obama administration, we found them deterred
most of all by the fear they could not sell further concessions to their
people, who were seething about years of continued Israeli settlement
expansion, land confiscation, and increased limits on Palestinian movement. And
that problem is even greater today. In fact, more Palestinians now oppose
a two-state solution than support one, and a majority—57 percent—say that such
a solution is no longer practical because of Israeli settlement expansion,
which now extends deep into the West Bank. Over 35 percent of Palestinians now
support a one-state solution—in other words, a single country with an Arab majority
and equal rights for all—a solution increasingly appealing to Palestinians
under the age of 30.
of these trends, the next Palestinian leader will almost certainly be less
rather than more ready to make concessions—if he even supports a peace process
at all. In fact, recent polls show that Abbas would lose a presidential
election contest against Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas (which doesn’t even recognize
Israel and supports violence), and that Haniyeh, in turn, would be defeated by
Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian nationalist currently in an Israeli jail for
the 2002 murder of Israeli citizens.
second fantasy is the idea that he and the administration he represents are
better placed to succeed than all their failed predecessors—a goal that seems
to animate Trump as much as achieving Middle East peace itself. But while it is
already clear that Trump is a terrible dealmaker who has yet to conclude any
significant international agreement (the unilateral concessions to North Korea
in exchange for a vague pledge to “work towards” denuclearization do not
qualify), Middle East peace may be the issue on which he is least well-placed
to succeed. While all U.S. administrations have always been closer to Israel
than to the Palestinians, they all at least tried to play the role of honest
broker in the name of finding some workable compromise, and were seen as
necessary partners in the eyes of Palestinians.
But Trump
has abandoned even the veneer of objectivity. Just last month, he unilaterally
gave Israel one of its most coveted prizes in negotiations, recognition of
Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without getting anything in return. To make it
worse, he then celebrated the unilateral move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to
Jerusalem—a move opposed by 128 countries at the United Nations—with a big
ceremony organized just one day before Palestinians observe the nakba, the
catastrophe of their expulsion in 1948. The embassy ceremony was attended by
dozens of Republican-only members of Congress and included speeches by
evangelical pastors known primarily for bigoted remarks against Mormons, Jews,
and Muslims, suggesting the whole thing was more about domestic politics than
Middle East peace.
dozens of Palestinians in Gaza were killed in clashes with the Israeli Defense
Forces, the Trump administration chose neither to express sympathy for the
Palestinians killed nor to join international calls for Israeli restraint.
Trump has, on the other hand, cut financial assistance for the United Nations
Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) out of pique that the Palestinians have not
given him the requisite “appreciation or respect,” as if humanitarian aid, even
when it serves U.S. national interests, should be awarded in return for
flattery. His administration has offered unconstrained support for settlements,
with an ambassador who has fought against use of the word “occupation” and
refers to “Judea and Samaria,” as favored by Israeli settlers, instead of
traditional U.S. references to the West Bank. It is no surprise, therefore,
that the Palestinians stopped talking to the administration. It is hard to see
how the United States under Trump will ever be seen as an honest broker, or be
able to go around Abbas, when two-thirds of Palestinians oppose the resumption
of contacts with U.S. negotiators and 88 percent view the United States as
biased in favor of Israel.
The third
Kushner fantasy is that the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan will help him
overcome these major challenges. It is true that the Trump administration has
forged close ties with leaders of these countries, largely on the back of its
strong stance against Iran, open spigot for arms sales, and setting aside
traditional concerns about human rights. And it is also true that these
regional leaders share with Israel a common strategic perspective on Iran and
on Islamic extremism, and that with so many other challenges on their
plates—from low oil prices to Yemen and Syria—they don’t prioritize the
Palestinian issue as much as previous generations.  
But these
changing regional perspectives do not mean Arab leaders will expend the
political capital to deliver the Palestinians, even if they could. There is no
doubt Kushner heard positive words from Arab friends in private meetings on his
just-finished four-day trip to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar, before
going to Israel. But he should not hold his breath waiting for those leaders to
publicly embrace positions on peace that the Palestinians—and the vast majority
of their populations—reject. This is especially true on the issue of Jerusalem,
where any softening of the Saudi or Egyptian backing for Palestinians would be
immediately denounced—and taken advantage of—by their rivals in Iran, Qatar,
and Turkey.
fourth fantasy is that the Palestinians can be bought off with economic
assistance to compensate for political losses. In his interview with the
Palestinian newspaper, Kushner suggested that the Trump administration could
“attract very significant investments in infrastructure … that will lead to
increases in GDP and we also hope a blanket of peaceful coexistence.” Putting
aside that the Trump administration has not even made or been able to attract
major investments in U.S. infrastructure, which makes one wonder about the West
Bank and Gaza, this emphasis on economic issues has been tried unsuccessfully
many times before. During the Oslo era of the 1990s, then the 2002 Roadmap for
Peace and the Bush administration’s Annapolis process, and finally Secretary of
State John Kerry’s effort during the Obama administration, successive U.S.
administrations have tried to enhance the prospects for peace by improving
conditions on the ground. It is of course laudable to promote much-needed
economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, but Kushner should know by now
that prosperity will never substitute for political peace. The key issues
remain borders and sovereignty; security; settlements and occupation; refugees;
and Jerusalem. No Palestinian leader can survive in office by promising
economic benefits alone.
Finally, there
is the problem that Israelis under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will
almost certainly never agree to the sort of deal that would be necessary to
make Palestinian or Arab acceptance even remotely feasible. In the past few
years, Netanyahu has stopped even talking about support for the two-state
solution, which he first accepted in a highly caveated way in a 2009 speech at
Bar Ilan University. A majority of members of the current Israeli cabinet do
not even support the creation of a Palestinian state, much less the concessions
Israel would need to make to achieve it. And with Netanyahu and his wife the
subject of several serious corruption inquiries, the prime minister likely sees
his only hope as to keeping that hardline cabinet together to stave off or
delay potential indictments. It is far from clear that the Israeli people
themselves are prepared to make the major compromises required for peace,
including the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of settlers from the West
Bank. But it is quite clear that the current Israeli government is not ready to
do so. In his interview, Kushner questions whether Abbas has the ability or the
willingness to “lean into finishing a deal.” But neither does Netanyahu, and
the fact that Kushner only calls out one side is telling. It is itself part of
the problem.
After 18
months of conversations, assisted by the able Jason Greenblatt, who has
consulted a wide variety of experts and officials from all countries, Kushner
must know all this. So is he naive or something else? Why would he move forward
with a plan with such poor prospects of success?
It could
be he is operating on the notion that it’s always better to try and fail than
not to try at all. But this is also misguided. The only thing worse than not
advancing the peace process is raising hopes and expectations only to deflate
them soon thereafter. We’ve seen this dynamic play out too many times in the
past, from the Camp David summit of 2000 to the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2008 to
the Kerry process in 2013-2014, with each failure soon followed by violence.
Luckily for Kushner, in this case expectations could not be much lower. But
introducing yet another peace plan only to have it pronounced dead on arrival
just emboldens opponents of compromise, and even supporters of violence, on
both sides.   
reason to proceed would be to blame the Palestinians, rather than the difficult
context and Trump’s mistakes, for failure to make “the ultimate deal.” If past
is prologue, we can expect the Israeli side to say “yes, but” (while meaning
“no way”) and that the Palestinians will fall into the trap of rejecting a U.S.
plan or not engaging at all. This would please parts of Trump’s base and may
get the administration off the hook for trying, but it would only further divide
the Israelis and Palestinians, while exacerbating partisan divides on Israel in
the United States as well.
might think Palestinian rejection will slow support for efforts to censure
Israel internationally. But this is also wrong. Trump’s total lack of
credibility on this issue, after the decisions on Jerusalem and UNRWA in
particular, mean that most in Europe and elsewhere will conclude that the
Palestinians rejected the plan because it was unfair and not because they are
opposed to peace. The lopsided UN vote against Trump’s decision to move the
embassy to Jerusalem shows that it is the United States, and not the
Palestinians, who are isolated. In fact, the cancellation of a recent soccer
match between Israel and Argentina in part because Netanyahu’s government
insisted on the political symbolism of holding it in Jerusalem may signal an
acceleration in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against
Israel. After all, supporters of BDS may say, if the U.S. supports only one
side in the conflict, what else is there left to do? Solidifying this view by
introducing a dead-on-arrival peace plan will not do Israel or anyone else any
We have
devoted many years to working on this issue and worry about the consequences of
the status quo, both for Israel’s future as a secure, democratic, and Jewish
state and for the future of some 6 million Palestinians. We have seen, and
participated in, our share of ill-fated and even ill-advised peace efforts. But
the reality is that under present circumstances, with the current Israeli and
Palestinian governments, at this point the two-state solution is itself a
fantasy. Neither the Palestinian nor Israeli people, nor their leaders, are
currently prepared for the compromises required for a deal, and accentuating
this reality will only make things worse. In diplomacy, as in medicine, the
Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” can be a worthy principle. Jared Kushner would
do well to consider it now.