A few days after former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn testified in court that he had lied about Jared Kushner telling him to contact diplomats from Russia and other countries belonging to the U.N. Security Council in order to lobby against an Obama- inspired resolution to condemn Israel for its settlement policy, the president’s son-in-law made a rare public appearance. He talked for half-an-hour with the founder and sponsor of the Saban Conference at the Brookings Institute, Israeli-American media mogul and political activist Chaim Saban. An audience packed with foreign policy experts, Israel-supporters and dignitaries waited eagerly for Kushner to explain the mysterious peacemaking effort he has been leading in the Middle East for the last eight months. But Kushner was so vague in his rambling answers to Saban’s questions that when the interview was over, the audience had learned very little of substance.
Saban expressed skepticism at the makeup of Kushner’s diplomatic team, which includes himself; lawyers David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Jason Greenblatt; and Dina Powell, the only member of the team who has any formal government experience and expert knowledge in the field. She has been working in the White House as a deputy national security advisor under General H.R. McMaster, which means that nobody on Kushner’s team has any State Department diplomatic experience.
Kushner made it clear that he prefers it that way, as his team is trying a completely new approach after 20 years of failed traditional diplomatic negotiating efforts. In the process of explaining that his Middle East peace plan was not behind schedule because his team has “been very deliberate about not setting time frames,” Kushner added, “We’re businesspeople, we’re not politicians. . . We’re not trying to do this the way it’s been done before.”
He insisted that the unusual combination of three Orthodox Jewish men and an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, while unconventional, was “a perfectly qualified team” which has been working flawlessly together with complete mutual confidence and trust, and, most important, no leaks to the media or other outside parties.
KUSHNER’S “OUTSIDE-IN” REGIONAL APPROACH
Kushner provided no hints of the peace plan his team has been developing. He said his main effort is to find mutually acceptable solutions to the still unresolved “final status” issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as borders, security, refugees and the international status and sovereignty of Yerushalayim. His “outside-in” approach hopes that the solutions to these thorny issues will emerge from support and guidance by all pro-U.S. Arab regimes in the region with whom his team is maintaining regular contact.
Kushner acknowledged Saban’s point that there is no mutual trust between Israeli-Palestinian leaders, but said he remains “optimistic that there is a lot of hope for bringing a conclusion” because of the “great trust” he has seen develop on a personal level “between Israelis and Palestinians working together.”
When Saban challenged Kushner’s optimism, Trump’s son-in-law answered that the White House has made “significant progress” in unifying the region and the world against Iran’s aggression, but provided no details.
BUILDING AN ISRAELI-ARAB ANTI-IRAN ALLIANCE
“The regional dynamics play a big role in what we think the opportunities are. [Sunni Arab nations] look at the regional threats and see that Israel, who was originally their foe, is now their natural ally today,” Kushner said. “A lot of people want to see [a new regional alliance with Israel] put together, but we have to overcome the Israeli-Palestinian issue first before that can happen.”
Kushner said that there has been a major change in the strategic balance in region since Trump took office. “We’ve made significant progress. It will take some time, but if you look at the last year, before we came into office, a lot of countries felt Iran was being emboldened and there was no check on their aggression. . .
“The president has been very clear about his intentions on this issue, and going to Saudi Arabia and laying out a priority of fighting Iran’s aggression was significant.
“The Saudis care a lot about the Palestinian people, they believe the Palestinian people need to have hope and opportunity, and this has been a big priority for the king and the crown prince, finding a solution to this problem. They’ve been very committed to doing that. Not just the Saudis; all the countries in the region.” Kushner did not mention the names of any other countries, but it was understood he was talking about Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as partners in an informal anti-Iran alliance with Israel.
KUSHNER SEES PALESTINIAN ISSUE AS A DISTRACTION
He added that eight months into his peacemaking effort, he sees the constant incidents inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mostly as “a lot of distractions” with no inherent importance, yet they are “a lot of reason why this deal can go south very quickly.” His conclusion is that “A lot of the issues that come up on a daily basis are because of not having a final-status agreement. [That is why] we try to stay focused on solving the bigger [final status] issues.”
Kushner talked about the potential for developing a broad Arab-Israeli alliance to bring peace and prosperity to the people of the region. He credited one member of his team, Dina Powell, who “has been very instrumental in helping us develop a regional economic plan for what could happen after a peace agreement. We’re focused on what happens after an agreement, how you create a better environment ten years down the road.”
Kushner is convinced that “if we’re going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has to be solved.”
KUSHNER SUCCESSFUL IN STOPPING LEAKS
He admitted that at the outset, his team met “a lot of hesitancy from both sides to share ideas.” They had been burned by previous mediators who leaked embarrassing facts to the media and irresponsibly raised expectations on both sides to unattainable levels.
But that did not happen with Kushner’s team. Once both sides realized “that nothing they said was leaking out,” their attitude changed. They also saw the Americans were “listening [carefully] to what they had to say.” Kushner said the growing sense of trust “opened up our conversations a lot,” and enabled his team “to conduct honest and open dialogues with both sides.”
Yet Kushner shed no light at all on any progress his team has made on resolving the final status issues, or specific details about the negotiations themselves. He never mentioned the words “settlements,” borders,” “refugees,” “security,” or “Yerushalayim” during the 30-minute talk with Saban, nor did he mention any Israeli, Palestinians or Arab leaders by name.
KUSHNER STONEWALLS U.S. EMBASSY ISSUE
His host and interviewer, Chaim Saban, seemed to become annoyed when Kushner declined to give any hint about Trump’s expected decision about moving the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim, or reports that the president would sign another six month waiver to avoid moving the embassy, and would instead announce U.S. recognition for the first time of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital city, despite warnings from Palestinian and Arab leaders.
The soft-spoken presidential son-in-law made it clear that he was in control of the interview and would not be maneuvered into revealing anything unintended by Saban’s friendly but probing questioning. Brushing aside Saban’s insistent demands for an immediate answer, Kushner said that the president is still “looking at a lot of different facts” and Trump will “make his decision” on moving the embassy. “He’ll be the one who wants to tell you, not me, so he’ll make sure he does that at the right time,” Kushner said.
MASTERING “THE ART OF SAYING NOTHING”
Saban was not the only one in the room who found himself frustrated by Kushner’s gentle but effective evasive tactics. “It’s the art of saying nothing,” said former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose generous peace offer at Camp David in 2000 to Yasir Arafat was rejected despite the urging of summit host President Bill Clinton. But Barak added that it would be premature for Kushner to get into details yet, so he “doesn’t blame him” for refusing to reveal his own ideas about what a peace agreement should look like. In fact, Kushner said that his intent, in contrast to former Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach, was “to find a solution that comes from the region, not to impose something.”
“The president has a very long career of accomplishing things that a lot of people say were impossible. The most recent example of that is the [presidential] election. We think its achievable,” Kushner said.
TRUMP’S INTEREST IN A SOLUTION
He later told Saban that the reason his peacemaking efforts are making progress is because, “the president sees this as something that has to be solved and he has put a lot of his personal time into it to see that it happens.”
Kushner added, “both sides really trust the president, and that’s very important. . . As this process has gone through, our team has tried very hard to do a lot of listening, not just with Israelis, with Palestinians. It understands what their views and red lines are. We’ve done the same with different countries in the region.”
Former Democrat congressman Robert Wexler said that Kushner and his team “deserved credit” for their efforts to revive the peace process, but other foreign policy veterans in the forum audience said they’d withhold their judgement until Kushner reveals more details of the plan he is developing.
WHEN KUSHNER INTERVENED TO HELP ISRAEL AT THE U.N.
During his introduction of Kushner, Saban thanked him for “making the effort” to intervene last December, as a member of the president elect’s transition team, against the Security Council resolution condemning Israel which Obama refused to veto. Kushner accepted the recognition from Saban and mild applause from the audience without comment.
Saban, a generous contributor to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, then recalled the first time he encountered Kushner during the presidential campaign. He had asked Kushner whether his father-in-law’s rhetoric in support of Israel was genuine, and Kushner assured him that it was.
Saban then said that as president, Trump has acted as a sincere friend of Israel. Kushner responded by explaining that his father-in-law’s “foreign policy objectives, peace and prosperity,” arise from his desire “to create as much peace and economic growth [as possible]. This is very personal for him, and he sees it as integral to his values.”
Kushner added, “The difference between this president and the past is that he wants to fight hard to get as much of that economic growth into America. He wants to make good deals for our country, he wants to figure out how to create opportunities to bring that back.”
When Saban asked Kushner personal questions about how he and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have adjusted to family life in Washington in the spotlight of the White House, he responded, “We try not to be distracted by the day to day. We don’t pay a lot of attention.” He said he and his wife are trying to make the most of the opportunity to work for the country and have a positive impact “before the sand goes through the hourglass.”
Kushner boasted about the success his team has enjoyed in preventing any leaks about their efforts out of media reports. “We’ve solicited a lot of ideas from a lot of places,” Kushner said. “There is obviously a lot of speculation.”
Mimicking reporters’ questions, Kushner added, “‘There is a plan, what is it? Are these four points in or out?’”
His team’s response has been, “We all kind of laugh and say, okay, we’re just not going to play the guessing game. . . . We know what’s in the plan. The Palestinians know what discussions we’ve had with them, the Israelis know.” Kushner does not believe anyone else has a need to know.
WHAT IS KUSHNER HIDING?
Writing for the Breitbart website, its Israel correspondent, Aaron Klein, says Kushner’s remarks at the Saban Forum reveal “dangerously delusional thinking when it comes to issues of U.S. national security, the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, and the larger Middle East.”
Klein said Kushner overstates the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by calling it a necessary pre-condition for establishing Israel as a member of a stabilizing regional anti-Iran alliance with the Sunni Arab states.
The Palestinian Authority has rejected attractive U.S.-sponsored peace offers in 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008 and 2014, without even making a counteroffer.
Some fear that Kushner’s rhetoric about respecting “the red lines of both sides” draws a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinian cause, and that his talk of seeing “great trust between Israelis and Palestinians” is the same dangerous pipe dream upon which the false promises of the failed Oslo peace process was built 20 years ago.
Klein cited an unnamed former Trump administration official who said of Kushner, “Jared has in essence reverted to the Susan Rice, Obama administration playbook for blaming Israel for the problems in the Middle East. These are talking points directly from J Street. Jared was clearly following instructions from Dina Powell and H.R. McMaster, who have been pushing viewpoints that Israel is a destabilizing force in the region.”
These complaints about Kushner, associating him with Obama’s policies, Powell and McMaster, are the same criticisms lodged against him by former White House advisor Steve Bannon, who now runs the Breitbart website.
To be sure, there is no evidence that he has betrayed Israel by giving too much credence to the claims against it by the Palestinians. They point out that the strong support for Israel by one of his team members, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, is beyond question, and that Trump administration policies are far more pro-Israel than those of Barack Obama and his predecessors.