Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son in law, Jared Kushner, was in the Middle East over the summer to begin pitching the basics of his long-promised peace plan for ending the intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Accompanied by U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, Kushner made visits to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar to discuss his proposed plan. He’s been working to gain their support for a U.S. plan that very much favors Israel’s political and territorial objectives.
The Times of Israel reported that officials from those Arab countries told the Kushner team that publicly revealing details of his plan — without East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and without a remedy for refugees — could destabilize the entire region. Palestinian officials told the Israeli daily Haaretz that Arab nations were united in their commitment to only support a plan that provides for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In any peace process that proposes to end the 70-year-old conflict, there are key issues that still await final negotiation: borders and sovereignty, Israeli settlements and occupation of Palestinian land, security, right of return for Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. Kushner has approached most of these difficult, unsettled issues by unilaterally deciding them in Israel’s favor, and then pitching his decision to the Arab states for their approval and support.
In December 2017, the Trump administration defied both wide international consensus and decades of U.S. policy by unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Then, in January 2018, Trump cancelled $65 million in humanitarian aid that had been promised to the UN relief agency UNRWA for health care, education and social services for Palestinian refugees. And in May 2018, Trump proceeded to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite weeks of protests by Palestinians at the Gaza border. In multiple tweets, President Trump said that he was canceling Palestinian aid because they gave him “no appreciation or respect,” and in order to pressure them into accepting his deal.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas finally announced that the Palestinians would no longer meet with the Trump team, saying that it had shown itself too pro-Israel to be an honest broker in peace negotiations.
While the full U.S. plan has yet to be released to the public, an outline has been pieced together. Kushner’s Big Plan appears to consist of the following:
- Palestinians give up expectation of East Jerusalem as their capital.
- Israel withdraws from a few villages outside Jerusalem, allowing Palestinians to create something of a capital in that area. Israel remains fully in the Old City.
- Every Jewish settlement on Palestinian land remains.
- Israel controls the entire Jordan Valley.
- No right of return for Palestinian refugees.
- Little contact between Gaza and the West Bank, rendering the Palestinian state non-contiguous and effectively unviable.
- Israeli forces withdraw from what would be the Palestinian state.
- Investment from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others will flow into the new Palestine.
Even before these elements of Kushner’s proposed plan were publicized, the lack of balance on the Trump/Kushner regional team was already concerning those who still hope for a fair and durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians:
- Jared Kushner is a real estate developer, with no experience in either diplomacy or government. He was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish family, and is married to Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka (who converted to Judaism). His father is a long-time friend of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu — close enough for Netanyahu to stay at the Kushner residence when he visits New Jersey.
- Jason Greenblatt, Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, has been executive vice president and chief legal officer to Donald Trump and the Trump Organization. Greenblatt is also an Orthodox Jew, with no diplomatic experience.
- Donald Trump’s choice as U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an American bankruptcy attorney who has represented Donald Trump and the Trump Organization in their bankruptcies. He too is Orthodox, son of a Conservative rabbi, with no diplomatic or foreign policy experience. Friedman has argued against a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, has provided financial support to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, and has referred to the liberal J Street Jewish lobby as “worse than kapos” (those who assisted the Nazis in the ghettos). He has also said that an independent Palestinian state is not a necessity, and suggested in a June 2016 interview for Haaretz that Donald Trump was open to Israel annexing parts of the West Bank.
Further undermining Friedman’s role as a fair mediator of the conflict, it was reported by Politico on June 16th that he has thwarted efforts by the U.S. State Department to evaluate whether the Israeli military was guilty of human rights abuses against Palestinians. Israel is the world’s largest recipient of aid from the U.S. ($3 billion annually), and U.S. law would prohibit aid to a country found responsible for human rights abuses.
In their assessment of Ambassador Friedman, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz concluded: “Based on statements he has issued and columns he has penned, Friedman is positioned on the far right of the Israeli political map—more hardline in his views than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
- U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence was chosen by Jared Kushner for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign ticket. Pence is an evangelical Christian, providing Trump with important U.S. electoral support. The complication this creates for a fair and durable resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is this: Pence and many other American evangelicals are “Christian Zionists,” who hold the firm belief that scripture, as they see it, will be fulfilled and Christ will “return” only when the Jewish people occupy all of the Holy Land. That would, of eschatological necessity, make them opposed to a sovereign Palestinian state.
In reviewing the list of Trump representatives in the region, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk asks: “Was it not possible, within the entire US diplomatic corps and America’s ‘advisers’ to find even one Muslim American to join the team?”
The Trump team’s near-total lack of experience in foreign policy and diplomacy, along with its difficult-to-miss Israeli nationalist sympathy, would alone seem lethal to the peace process. But there are also issues on the Israeli side that confound negotiation toward a two-state resolution:
- The long-time position of Netanyahu’s Likud party is firm opposition to the two-state solution. As recently as early January 2018, the Likud voted to pursue the annexation of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, and to extend Israeli law into the occupied territories.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed in March 2015 that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, promising to ramp up construction of Israeli homes in Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods. In January 2017, he spoke of his willingness to consider a Palestinian “state minus”, by which he meant a state without full sovereignty. In February 2017, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio: “I think all members of the security cabinet, and foremost the prime minister, oppose a Palestinian state”.
Netanyahu has during his tenure accelerated construction of Israeli settlements on land that would be part of a future Palestinian state. A June 18th New Yorker article, “Donald Trump’s New World Order,” spoke of the maps of the West Bank that had been prepared by the State Department during the Obama administration, showing that “When the (Israeli) settlement zones, the illegal outposts, and the other areas off limits to Palestinian development were consolidated, they covered almost sixty per cent of the West Bank.” The settlement issue is considered by many experts to be at the heart of difficulties in reaching a fair and durable peace.
And now more than ever, with Netanyahu facing corruption charges in his country, he needs the support of the far right in his Likud Party in order to avoid indictment. He is unlikely to risk losing that support by making what they would see as concessions to the Palestinians.
- Gideon Sa’ar, a leading contender for Likud leadership and for the prime minister position after Netanyahu’s departure, stated emphatically in March 2018 that the two-state solution is dead. Bloomberg reported that Sa’ar instead supports “a regional approach that would involve Egypt and Jordan and leave the Palestinians with less than full sovereignty.” That position seems to have crystallized into the Kushner Big Plan.
- And on July 19th, the Israeli Knesset passed their weighty “nation-state bill”, declaring that the right of national self-determination in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” Of specific concern for Palestinians is that it asserts a unique Jewish right of self-determination over lands considered by many Jewish people to be historically Jewish — which would essentially preclude any possibility of a two-state solution.
And finally, the most recent actions by the Trump administration have cemented what seems now to be a general, even global, mistrust of the U.S. and Kushner’s proposed peace plan for the region:
- On August 25th, the elimination by the Trump administration of $200 million in economic support for programs in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
- On August 31st, the cancellation of $300 million in funding for UNRWA, the UN agency that provides humanitarian and educational assistance to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees. While there are parts of the UNRWA mandate that may bear clarification (there have been some complaints that UNRWA advocates for Palestinian right-of-return across the generations, which could itself complicate efforts toward a two-state solution), eliminating food and educational aid for millions of Palestinians did not address any real issues — it simply alienated one party to the conflict, and threatened a humanitarian and security catastrophe.
- Also in August, advocacy by both Jared Kushner and U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley that the issue of Palestinian refugee “right of return” be taken off the table in peace talks, without mention of anything Israel might be expected to give in return.
- On September 9th, the withdrawal of $25 million in aid previously committed to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which is the primary provider for cancer care, cardiac and eye surgeries and neonatal intensive care for Palestinians — thereby threatening thousands of Palestinian lives.
- On September 10th, the announcement that the Trump administration would be shuttering the Washington, D.C. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office, which is the Palestinian diplomatic mission in the United States. They also revoked the U.S. visas of the PLO ambassador and his family.
Aaron David Miller, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former adviser to six secretaries of state, spoke of the Trump administration policies as “economic and political war” against the Palestinians: “In 40 years following U.S. policy in and outside government (I have) never seen any Administration simultaneously support Israel so uncritically and go after Palestinians so harshly both without logic, purpose or national security rationale.”
The indicators are unfortunately numerous that if a just and durable peace for Israelis and Palestinians is to be achieved, this U.S. president and his son-in-law do not have such a peace as their objective. The Trump team is made up entirely of Orthodox Jewish attorneys and real estate developers who have joined with U.S. evangelicals to support a one-state solution favoring Israel. While there are many, many Jews the world over who support a two-state solution (including many who are religious), none of them are on the Trump/Kushner team. The suggestions and policies from the team do not support a two-state solution — that is, they do not support the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Most Palestinians seem to know this. The official response from the Palestinian Authority came from Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas:
“The road to peace is clear – commitment to the two-state solution, a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. This is the road to any negotiations or any meetings.”
Nimrod Novik, long-time foreign policy adviser to former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, spoke to Al-Monitor about the Kushner proposal: “Within the parameters they are talking about, it is going to lead nowhere.”
From Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel: “The chances of a peace plan actually producing anything like a viable negotiation is somewhere between zero and none.”
And from Peter Lerner, who served as spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces for 25 years: “…the ramifications of these abrupt steps will only empower the radicals. The deal of the century can’t be made with Israel alone, and hardballing the Palestinians into submission is likely to blow up on Israel’s doorstep.”
In their June 25, 2018 article for the Atlantic, Philip Gordon and Prem Kumar (both of whom worked on the Israeli/Palestinian challenge for the Obama administration) expressed their feeling that “the president’s son-in-law has revealed himself to be either strikingly naive — or deeply cynical.” What seems likeliest to them, as well as to many others, is that Jared Kushner is fashioning a plan so impossible for Palestinian leadership to accept that when they inevitably reject it, both the White House and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu will be able to claim that the Palestinians “reject peace.”
The final and succinct word, from the late Uri Avnery — Israeli writer, soldier turned peace activist, and former member of the Israeli Knesset, who decried the radical shift in American policy shortly before his passing last month:
“There is no third alternative. It’s either two-states or a colonial Jewish state in all the country … And all the power of the United States will not suffice to keep the Palestinian people down forever. The Big Plan is just another prescription for eternal war.”