WASHINGTON – A report published Wednesday stating that President Donald Trump regrets following the political advice of his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has revived Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of gaining U.S. support for widespread Israeli annexation in the West Bank.
The story on Axios described Trump as being disappointed with Kushner’s advice, particularly on the issue of criminal justice reform. Kushner led a major initiative on the matter in 2018, which won strong bipartisan support in Congress and was aimed at improving Trump’s standing with Black voters.
According to Axios, Trump thinks in retrospect that listening to Kushner on this issue was a mistake and is planning to “stick closer to his own instincts” ahead of the November election.
The report came out the same day that Netanyahu had promised his voters would be the starting point of the annexation process: July 1. There was no progress on annexation on Wednesday, but the possibility of Kushner losing some of his influence within the White House could have an impact on the subject in the next few weeks while the Trump administration finalizes its position.
Kushner is viewed by Israeli officials as a moderating force when it comes to annexation. Twice in the past six months, he has successfully slowed U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman from getting Trump to green light massive Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Kushner isn’t opposed to annexation per se, but the view in Israel is that he prefers a more cautious and calculated approach than Friedman.
In late January and early February, it was Kushner who put the brakes on Friedman and Netanyahu after the duo had publicly declared that Israel would start annexing all the settlements – just a month before the March 2 election. This was one of many instances in which Friedman seemingly interfered in Israel’s elections to aid Netanyahu. However, Kushner, who has led the work on the administration’s Middle East plan, said that no annexation would take place before the election.
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Both Kushner and Friedman have a personal history of supporting settlements, but Kushner has worked closely with the leaders and ambassadors of Arab countries in his current role in the administration. He has also heard concerns about massive and immediate annexation from senior Israeli officials – including Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, two retired army generals with decades of experience in the Palestinian arena.
Friedman, meanwhile, has remained committed to the religious right-wing causes that he invested in before becoming ambassador in 2017. The leaders of the settler movement in Israel see him as their main ally inside the administration.
Kushner’s main goal when it comes to Middle East diplomacy is to strengthen ties between Israel and important Arab countries, thus creating an alliance of countries that oppose Iran and support the United States. Friedman is focused singularly on the settlements issue.
Trump, who will ultimately have to decide whether or not to approve Israel’s unilateral annexation plan, has yet to be briefed on the subject. The president is currently busy with several crises that are engulfing the White House and threatening his reelection prospects: the coronavirus pandemic, the collapse of the U.S. economy and the racial tensions simmering across the country. He has not had time to hear the different arguments on annexation.
After the previous annexation back-and-forth ended with Kushner overriding Friedman, settler leaders and right-wing pundits in Israel viciously attacked Kushner, leading the Prime Minister’s Office to release a statement from Netanyahu expressing his appreciation and being grateful for his support of Israel. Netanyahu’s office had to release a similar statement last month in response to John Bolton’s best-selling book “The Room Where It Happened,” which contained a paragraph about Netanyahu disparaging Kushner’s lack of experience.
Those official statements won’t change the fact, though, that Netanyahu hoped the United States would adopt Friedman’s approach and simply give him a green light to go ahead with massive annexation back in January, right before the election. Kushner’s veto caused Netanyahu to make an embarrassing U-turn. The results of the election were not decisive, with no bloc gaining a majority, forcing Netanyahu to set up a unity government with Gantz.
Now, from his position inside the government, Gantz has also been speaking out against annexation. This week, he said that anything unrelated to the coronavirus crisis should wait until the government stops the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in Israel. Gantz also said what public opinion polls seemingly confirm: that Israelis are singularly concerned about the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic, and most of them simply don’t care about annexation right now.
The White House, where Kushner is the main person dealing with this issue, has made clear to Israel that it prefers to see an annexation plan that will be accepted by both Gantz and Netanyahu, in order to pushback against criticism that annexation is simply another election trick engineered by Trump and Netanyahu – this time to help Trump’s campaign ahead of November and cement his support among evangelicals. The White House wants to show that the move enjoys a wide consensus in Israel, including support from Gantz’s centrist, security-oriented party.
Gantz doesn’t have a “veto” on the matter, and it’s possible the administration will eventually go forward with a plan that he opposes. But the clear White House preference for a move that will also have his support has frustrated Netanyahu. The prime minister needs annexation mainly to please the religious right and the settlers, who supported him in the three election cycles over the past year, and continue to support him now even as he stands trial for corruption.
The problem for Netanyahu is that the kind of annexation Gantz could potentially support – limited in scope, coupled with some form of compensation to the Palestinians, and coordinated with Arab and European allies – would fall well short of pleasing the settlers. They, after all, have been promised by Netanyahu and Friedman that there will be full annexation of each and every settlement, not a partial move.
Netanyahu won’t admit it publicly, but he hopes that if Kushner will become weaker in the administration’s internal debate, there is more of a chance of Friedman getting Trump to approve a “maximalist” version of annexation – despite the fact that everyone from Gantz and Ashkenazi to the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia oppose this idea.
The White House is constantly hearing from all of those opponents. Kushner and other senior officials in the administration get dozens of phone calls against annexation on some days. Arab leaders, European leaders and senior members of Congress all share warnings and concerns about the implications of the move.
The last time there was such a flood of calls against a proposed move related to Israel was in November and December 2017, when Trump was about to announce the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem.
But there is one big difference between the two situations: the embassy move was an explicit campaign promise Trump made to his voters. The same cannot be said of annexation, which Trump has never even spoken about publicly. The only person who has made any promises on the subject is David Friedman – and not to American voters, but Israeli ones.