Analysis

Kushner Tries to Win Support for Peace Plan in Arab World – and Inflames Israeli Right

Trump’s special adviser is trying to dispel the notion that his plan is biased toward Israel, but isn’t finding buyers on either side for what he’s selling

Jared Kushner looking on during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, February 14, 2019.
Kacper Pempel/ REUTERS

As Jared Kushner toured the Middle East this week in order to promote his mysterious plan for regional peace, a new political war broke out among Israeli right-wingers.

Hayamin Hehadash leader Naftali Bennett went on the attack, warning that Kushner and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were going to create a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank following the April 9 election. Right-wing voters who wanted to avoid such a scenario, Bennett cautioned, should vote for his party. In response, Netanyahu’s Likud went after Bennett, emphasizing that only Netanyahu will be able to withstand international pressure.

This political spat makes it hard to remember, but only two years ago the Israeli right was in a state of euphoria following Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House.

In his first joint appearance with Netanyahu, in February 2017, Trump said he didn’t care whether the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would include one or two states. His administration also released a statement emphasizing that settlements in the occupied West Bank were not the main obstacle to peace.

The response in Jerusalem saw the beginning of a right-wing pressure campaign aimed at convincing Netanyahu to “use the historic opportunity” created by the Trump presidency and to unilaterally annex some settlements.

Yet two years on, all of that seems like a long-distant saga. Trump is now being used in the propaganda of right-wingers not as an opportunity Netanyahu needs to use, but as a threat to be protected against.

It is not only Bennett’s new party campaigning on such a message, but also parties to its right and even some elements within Likud. The centrist and left-wing parties, meanwhile, are mostly ignoring Trump’s peace plan because they – just like the right-wing parties – have no idea what the plan’s actual contents are.

The panic on the right was apparent earlier this week after Kushner gave an interview to Sky News Arabia, which generated a few vague headlines about his peace plan.

Kushner, a special adviser to and son-in-law of Trump, didn’t really disclose any significant details – but his statements immediately dominated the media in Israel. Some commentators wondered why he decided to give the interview in the first place: Did he anticipate the effect it would have on the election campaign in Israel? Was the U.S. administration trying to send a message some six weeks before Israelis go to the polling stations?

Kushner was indeed trying to send a message this week, but not to Israelis. The interview he gave during his visit to the United Arab Emirates was his first international television interview since he began working on the administration’s peace plan – and it’s no coincidence that he chose to give it to a channel broadcast throughout the Arab world.

Both Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – the president’s special envoy to the region, who accompanied Kushner on the trip – are trying to dispel the notion that their plan is extremely biased toward Israel, which is how the Palestinian Authority constantly describes it. They hope that once the plan is published, after the Israeli election, several Arab countries will react positively to it and agree to consider it as a basis for negotiations.

Their ultimate dream is that the plan helps improve ties between Israel and the Sunni Arab world.

In order to fight back against what they perceive as the Palestinians’ unfair portrayal of their plan, Kushner emphasized in his interview that it will touch on the “core issues” of the conflict – including the borders question. He added that the administration wants to see a unified Palestinian entity, instead of the present split between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the PA-controlled areas of the West Bank.

These were statements that should be almost obvious when discussing a peace plan. Can there be a plan for settling a conflict, anywhere in the world, that doesn’t touch on the “core issues” of said conflict? Did anyone ever imagine that this peace plan wouldn’t say anything about borders? And as for stating that there should be one united Palestinian entity – Kushner said it very explicitly this week, but similar statements had been made previously by other administration officials.

In other words, Kushner offered the bare minimum in his attempt to convince viewers across the Arab world that the peace plan is serious, and that the administration isn’t working for Netanyahu but for peace in the region. He said nothing about a Palestinian state or a partition of Jerusalem – positions that were included in previous U.S. peace plans.

Yet even the few words of substance he did say were enough for Bennett to create a political firestorm. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the Palestinian issue topped the local news agenda for 48 hours, before making way for Netanyahu’s corruption investigations. Still, the very fact that Israelis were debating this issue is something of an achievement for Kushner and Greenblatt.

But the events of the past week also emphasized the challenges facing the peace team: There is simply no way of constructing a plan that will be acceptable to both Naftali Bennett and the leaders of the Sunni Arab world.

The countries Kushner and Greenblatt visited this week, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are relatively soft on this issue compared to the countries they didn’t stop at, such as Jordan and Egypt.

Reuters reported Wednesday that, according to a source, the plan presented this week did not appear to take into consideration previously stated Arab demands on the status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return and Israeli settlements in occupied territory.

A second source in the Gulf region told the news agency: “The Americans are still in the process of presenting various ideas and scenarios, but don’t appear to have arrived at final parameters of a plan. They know that there are final-status issues that are nonstarters for regional allies and the Palestinians alike,” referring to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

But any plan that contains even the minimal level of Israeli compromise necessary to get the Arabs on board will almost certainly run into strong opposition from Netanyahu’s political challengers on the right.

The White House is well aware of these complications. Earlier this week, the pro-Netanyahu free newspaper Israel Hayom, funded by Sheldon Adelson, reported that administration officials are expressing pessimism in behind-closed-doors briefings about the chances of their plan being accepted.

A White House official told Haaretz in response: “We remain committed to releasing our peace plan, which we feel will provide people on both sides a vision for peace and an opportunity for a brighter future. While we feel that our plan is fair, realistic and implementable, we are not blind to the challenges we face. If this was an easy problem to fix, it would have been solved a long time ago. Ultimately, it will be up to the parties to negotiate a final peace agreement.”