Damascus - President Donald Trump’s appointment of an inexperienced 29-year-old White House staffer as Special Middle East envoy has raised serious questions about his commitment to peace in the Arab World.
Middle East watchers were taken aback with the sudden naming of Avi Berkowitz to handle peacemaking in their troubled region, saying that he is too junior — and young — to be taken seriously.
In addition to lacking any hands-on experience in the field, he happens to be an avowed Zionist Jew, signalling a clear bias towards Israel.
“I am astonished how Arab governments meekly accept the egregious and deliberate humiliations heaped upon them by successive American administrations,” Ali Allawi, Iraq’s Defence Minister from 2003 to 2004, told Gulf News.
“The contempt with which the Palestinian cause is met by the US is now so obvious that to deny it is in fact to be complicit in it.”
“This is an eye opener, and a wake up call to all" said Saeb Erekat, top Palestinian negotiator, describing times under Trump as “the lowest point ever between Palestinians and Israel.”
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “The reasons are well known except for those who live in the alternative world of imagination. Occupation corrupts. They must end it.”
Berkowitz graduated from Harvard University Law School in 2016, months before Trump was elected president.
He joined the Trump team as assistant director of data analytics, and from there, entered the White House as an aide to his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
A 2017 Business Insider profile of Berkowitz quoted former White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks as saying his main duties were “daily logistics like getting coffee and coordinating meetings.”
Allawi added: “I find it extraordinary that we are even discussing the qualifications of this neophyte when his own boss’s qualifications are deeply suspect; and the entire apparatus of US policymaking in the Middle East has now become the plaything of ultra-Zionists.”
“They [Kushner and Berkowitz] are of the same generation,” said Syrian journalist Ebrahim Hameedi, who covered the peace process under the Bush and Clinton administrations from 1991 to 2000. They speak the same language and get along exceptionally well.
“Yes, they are young, but so are world leaders nowadays,” Hameedi told Gulf News. “We don’t have Jacque Chirac at the Elysee, for example, but President Macron, who came to power at the age of 40 back in 2017. It’s an indicator of how dedicated the Americans are to peace in the Middle East, but also of the new order in the US administration. Under Trump, the system has become far more presidential than before. He wants staffers to do the job, or should we say ‘employees’, rather than seasoned peacemakers with vision, initiative, and ideas.”
Kushner himself had zero foreign policy experience before the election of his father-in-law, coming from a background in New York real estate. The same applied to Berkowitz’s predecessor Jason Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer who was US Special Envoy to the Middle East until last week. Many drew painful comparisons between him and predecessors like Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, or Anthony Zinni.
These men handled the peace process after the Madrid Peace Conference, and worked with seasoned interlocutors like Yasser Arafat, Hafez Al Assad, and King Hussain.
Indyk had served on Warren Christopher’s team and twice as US ambassador to Israel before becoming executive vice-president of the Brookings Institute.
Ross was director of foreign policy planning under George H.W. Bush and special Middle East coordinator under Bill Clinton. Zinni, a career officer, was commander of CENTCOM and special envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in 2002.
These men hammered out the Oslo Peace Agreement between Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and handled Syrian-Israeli peace talks from 1990 to 2000.
Indyk commented on Berkowitz’s appointment via Twitter, saying: “It’s a considerable downgrade of the position. Nice guy; but doesn’t have the weight or experience of Trump’s former real estate lawyer.”
“Its just another indication that US Middle East policy cannot be taken seriously,” said Nikolaos Van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Egypt who also handled Palestinian affairs in 1991-1996.
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “This is not because of his age, because 29-year-olds can also have brilliant ideas, particularly if they have in-depth knowledge of, and experience in, Middle Eastern political affairs. But he does not.”
Van Dam, also a scholar of the Middle East, continued: “He will take a one-sided pro-Israel position anyhow, if only for internal political considerations, as part of which he has to take the powerful pro-Israel lobby into serious account. As long as the US president is motivated by internal electoral affairs rather than making a serious effort to helping achieve a satisfactory Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, as part of which Israel has to make serious concessions to the Palestinians, American policies concerned should be considered as rather destructive, because they will further contribute to destabilisation and destruction in the Middle East.”