On January 19, 2017, a night before his inauguration as the 45th U.S. president, Donald Trump stood on a stage in Washington and praised Jared Kushner. “If you can't produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,” he told his son-in-law at the VIP reception. Trump added that the deal he was going to ask Kushner to present – peace between Israel and the Palestinians – was the “toughest deal” to get.
Three years later, the Trump administration is about to present Kushner’s document, widely known as “the deal of the century,” and it’s clear that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the last thing that will come out of it.
Kushner’s plan is written in a way that guarantees it will be rejected by the Palestinian Authority, and will be released after two years with no communications between the United States and the Palestinians.
At the start of the Trump administration, the Palestinian leadership was more optimistic. A senior PA official, who is very close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told a group of journalists and researchers in Washington that Trump’s background as a businessman and his erratic behavior could lead to big surprises on the peace front.
This hope was further strengthened by the Palestinian leadership’s first meeting with Jason Greenblatt, who was appointed as Trump’s envoy to the Middle East. Greenblatt, a lawyer for Trump and an Orthodox Jew, had no previous background in diplomacy or in the Middle East. His first trips to the region left a positive impression – of a person who was mostly coming to listen, and who asked many questions, including ones that showed a lack of basic knowledge.
Unlike others in Trump’s orbit, like his ambassador to Israel David Friedman and political adviser Steve Bannon – who were clearly affiliated with more extremist views – Greenblatt seemed like someone worth talking to.
In May 2017, Abbas met with Trump in the White House. The Palestinian leader praised Trump and told him in front of the cameras: “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.”
A month later, Trump took a step that further convinced the Palestinian leadership it wasn’t a waste of time to talk to the administration: He signed a waiver delaying the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, despite an election pledge not to do so. The White House explained that the waiver was signed in order to “maximize the chances” of Kushner and Greenblatt’s peace negotiations.
That was the first – and also last – time Trump took a step that was politically uncomfortable in order to promote a diplomatic solution to the conflict. He heard criticism and disappointment from evangelicals and right-wing Jewish supporters. He told many of those critics that the waiver wouldn’t be signed again. This meant that by the end of 2017, the peace plan talks were about to implode.
During the summer of 2017, Kushner and Greenblatt visited the region again, at a time of heightened political crisis on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. In Israel, corruption investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were creating a toxic political atmosphere; on the Palestinian side, the PA and Hamas were at loggerheads.
A senior Israeli security official who worked with the U.S. team told Haaretz that Greenblatt had “good intentions,” but also that the U.S. administration had “no strategy at all.”
During one visit to the Gaza border area, Greenblatt said the administration wanted to see the PA assume control of Gaza from Hamas. When both Palestinian and Israeli officials tried to hold more in-depth discussions on this idea with the American team, “we realized they had no idea how to do this,” says the former security official.
Then, in late October 2017, Trump informed his senior cabinet members (most of whom have since left the administration) that he would not be signing the embassy waiver again. In early December, he announced he was moving the embassy to Jerusalem and added a month later that, in taking that step, he had taken Jerusalem “off the table.”
When Trump made his embassy announcement, Kushner’s chances of getting an Israeli-Palestinian deal – which were slim to begin with – became lower than zero. The Palestinians completely severed ties with the administration and have boycotted it ever since. Kushner told people close to him that he believed the boycott was temporary, and that within several months the Palestinians, perhaps with the aid of key Arab countries, would return to the table.
That never happened. In the summer of 2018, Trump tried to appeal directly to the Palestinians by saying at an election rally in West Virginia that they would “get something very good” in return for the embassy move, “because it’s their turn next.”
By then, though, the Palestinians had become convinced Trump was not the one making the day-to-day decisions on the plan and the entire policy regarding Israel and its neighbors. They saw the growing influence of Friedman, who is widely seen as being in line with the religious right in Israel and the settlement movement.
While Trump was talking about the Palestinians being next in line to receive something, the administration cut all U.S. aid to them – including aid to institutions that are completely separate from the PA such as hospitals in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem.
It was during this period that views on the Kushner plan and its true intentions became more clear. The administration, working in close coordination with Netanyahu’s point man in Washington, ambassador Ron Dermer, concocted a plan that had nothing to do with Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was focused instead on giving the Israeli right its ultimate “wish list” – with a few, minor Israeli concessions that would allow the Arab world to save face and not completely reject the document.
Kushner and Greenblatt were briefing journalists by late 2018 that the plan could come out soon, even without the Palestinians, saying: “We don’t need them.” The administration envisioned a plan that would be accepted by Netanyahu, rejected by the Palestinians, and celebrated by Trump’s evangelical supporters – giving him another talking point to use ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Warnings of how the plan would impact Jordan did not deter the administration.
But then, in December 2018, a big surprise arrived from the Israeli side: Netanyahu’s government, which was supposed to remain in place for another year, fell apart and called an early election for April 9. The administration at first said the political crisis wouldn’t impact its plans, but soon reversed course and said it would only publish the document after the election.
A day after the election, when it became apparent that the right-wing parties had received a five-seat majority in the new Knesset, Trump congratulated Netanyahu on his victory, while his then-national security adviser, John Bolton, said the plan would be released “in the very near future.”
At this point, an internal debate began in the administration over whether to publish the plan during the coalition negotiations in Israel or wait until Netanyahu officially secured a government. Kushner and Greenblatt eventually decided to wait – a decision that some in the administration would come to regret.
They came to Israel on May 29, expecting to meet a triumphant Netanyahu and to discuss the final details of the peace plan’s release. Instead, they landed in the middle of a major political crisis: the right-wing bloc had splintered over disagreements about religious policies, Netanyahu had failed to form a government and Israel was headed to another election in September.
This was a serious blow to the Kushner team. They had to reevaluate, eventually deciding to divide their plan into two parts. Its economic sections were released in June, ahead of an international economic workshop on the Middle East the administration organized in Bahrain. No Israeli or Palestinian officials attended. The economic chapter of the plan was released one Saturday morning in late June, and by Monday it was no longer in the headlines.
Two and a half months later, the White House announced that Greenblatt was leaving the administration in order to spend more time with his family. His responsibilities were taken over by Kushner’s close aide Avi Berkowitz, who had no prior diplomatic experience.
The results of the September 17 election, and the continuation of the political deadlock in the country, caused a further delay for the U.S. administration. But two weeks ago, with Israel now heading toward a third election in less than a year (on March 2), things changed again. Suddenly, Israeli media outlets were beginning to report – based on leaks from official Israeli sources – that the peace plan would be published soon, during the election campaign.
The administration’s decision to finally release the document this week – just five weeks before Israelis go to the polls and at the same time as the Knesset is supposed to begin voting on Netanyahu’s attempt to receive immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases – has led Israeli pundits across the ideological spectrum to describe the entire ordeal as a blatant intervention in Israeli politics, and an attempt to help Netanyahu evade prosecution. The White House denies this.
Netanyahu, who originally hoped that the peace plan would somehow disappear and never see the light of day, realized after several months into Trump's term that the administration was going to put out something, at some point. This caused him to try to influence it as much as he could, with the help of Friedman and Dermer.
The final plan includes a long list of things that could easily be marketed as “historic achievements” to right-wing Israelis. It gives Israel the ability to annex all the settlements and keep full control of Jerusalem. On the issue of refugees, it could include some sort of international compensation mechanism, but not one that would be seen as problematic for Israel.
Israeli sources who have been briefed on the plan say it will basically maintain the current situation: Israel will keep the settlements and its military presence in the West Bank, while the Palestinians will be offered limited sovereignty on the majority of the West Bank – but in a way that is not feasible because it will be completely carved up by the settlements.
The only parts of the plan that will be hard for ideological, religious right-wingers in Israel are the need to accept a Palestinian state – even if in practice that would never actually come to be – and also a requirement from Israel to dismantle dozens of illegal outposts in the West Bank.
On the issue of Jerusalem, the plan will give the Palestinians a very small consolation prize by offering them the possibility of establishing a capital in “outer neighborhoods” in the eastern part of the city – a far cry from proposals that had been discussed in previous peace plans.
One thing is clear at this point: The administration long ago gave up on the idea of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The current drama is more about Israeli and American politics than anything else.
Two years ago, Kushner said in private conversations that his job was to “make it hard” for the Palestinians to reject the plan, and “not to give them an easy way out.” This week, however, no one has any doubt that the Palestinians will reject the plan, and do so without hesitation. Perhaps that was the administration’s real intention all along.
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