Washington: For three years, presidential senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, a man of many portfolios, spent considerable time on a plan aimed at addressing the intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
He was generally quiet about what he was doing, maintaining a patina of diplomatic circumspection.
Now, however, after the plan was released last week in a White House ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and no Palestinians in attendance, Kushner seems to have plenty to say – mostly harsh criticism of the Palestinians who were not involved in shaping the plan and flatly rejected it.
His tone, current and former officials said, reflects the unlikelihood that the plan will survive, even though it could have far-reaching consequences.
Over the weekend, the 22-nation Arab League unanimously rejected it, despite Kushner’s assurances that numerous Arab states were on board. The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation followed suit Monday.
The plan, enthusiastically embraced by most Israelis, would deny the Palestinians an independent state and lead to a single “apartheid” system in which the Palestinians living in the West Bank are second-class citizens, said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Abu Al Geit, who is Egyptian.
If Israel follows through on some of the plan’s tacit promises – such as imposing Israeli sovereignty over at least a third of the occupied West Bank, including the crucial Jordan Valley – those steps will prove extremely difficult to reverse.
Some people who have spoken to Kushner privately during the months of sputtering talks involving Israel and a number of Gulf States said his harsh rhetoric reflects his true feelings about Palestinians, which he kept at bay before unveiling the plan. He also may be hoping to apply greater pressure on the Palestinians.
“He was probably holding off because he didn’t want to totally close the door,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace-plan negotiator and now director of the Middle East Project, a policy institute. “Once you’ve put out the plan, what’s the use of sugarcoating it with anyone?”
Levy was among numerous experts, diplomats, international officials and Democratic lawmakers who blasted the Trump-Kushner plan for failing to address Palestinian aspirations for nationhood and for making tough demands on Palestinians before they could even ask for a demilitarised state, while granting a near-full slate of concessions to Israel. The plan also denies the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, offering instead a collection of slums to the east of the city.
Many experts said the deal was a nonstarter for Palestinians, but were unclear whether Kushner realised that.
Philip Gordon, the White House senior official on the Middle East under the Obama administration now with the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested Kushner’s language reflects his impatience and angry frustration.
“He feels like he’s invested three years in this. It’s his moment of glory on behalf of the president. And (the Palestinians are) standing in his way,” Gordon said.
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, which assesses global risks, said Kushner – scion of a family long dedicated to conservative pro-Israel causes – might have calculated that any sort of deal would be impossible if the Palestinians, especially under Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, were involved in the drafting stages.
The Palestinians formally broke off ties with the Trump administration and refused to engage in negotiations after Trump unilaterally reversed decades of US and international practice by declaring occupied Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. He moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem, part of which Palestinians want for their own capital, one of several pro-Israel steps Trump has taken.
“If (the Palestinians) refuse to negotiate or come to the table now, the likelihood that this is all a fait accompli goes up a lot,” Bremmer told the Los Angeles Times.
It was in a television interview with Bremmer that Kushner made some of his stinging comments.
“Look, they played the victimhood card. Now, it’s like they want their rights. They want a state,” Kushner said Friday in comments aired on public television. “Basically what we’re saying to the Palestinians is put up or shut up.”
Speaking a day earlier to veteran CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour, Kushner was dismissive of Palestinian leadership, whose members he is known to disdain.
“If they don’t (agree to negotiate), then they’re going to screw up another opportunity like they’ve screwed up every opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence,” Kushner said.
Some of Kushner’s rhetoric in the aftermath may be owing to a small power struggle with the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer and a longtime promoter of colony expansion. Immediately after Trump unveiled the plan, Friedman announced that Israel could go ahead with annexation in the West Bank – a step that Kushner wanted to delay until after the upcoming Israeli elections March 2.
Kushner publicly contradicted Friedman, and Kushner was immediately attacked by Israel’s far right and radical colonist movement. Kushner countered with his negative comments and ultimatums about Palestinians.
Netanyahu, apparently bowing to Kushner and loath to get in the middle of an intra-administration tiff, abruptly called off his plans to approve annexation in a Cabinet meeting Sunday.
Kushner, a 39-year-old real estate developer, has also been caustically dismissive of the diplomatic history and peace plans that came before him. He’s described previous efforts as “fairy tales” and “tired old ideas” that failed.
“I’ve been studying this now for three years,” Kushner told Sky News Arabia. “I’ve read 25 books on it. I’ve spoken to every leader in the region. I’ve spoken to everyone who’s been involved in this.”
Kushner included in the plan what is described as a $50 billion investment scheme for Palestinians, although it is not specified where the money would come from. People who are familiar with Kushner’s thinking say he approached the plan the way a business entrepreneur would: cash for concessions and compliance. But that approach ignores Palestinian history, nationalism and dignity, Gordon said.