Analysis

Kushner's Peace Faces Tough Recovery After Trump's Jerusalem Bombshell

Jared Kushner's speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict earlier this week had even skeptics wondering if the Trump administration might achieve the unachievable. And then Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital

Palestinian children look at vandalized graffiti depicting US President Donald Trump and slogans against US Vice President Mike Pence in the West Bank, December 7, 2017.
Palestinian children look at vandalized graffiti depicting US President Donald Trump and slogans against US Vice President Mike Pence in the West Bank, December 7, 2017. AFP Photo/ Thomas Coex

Update: Amid Jerusalem Crisis - Top Middle East Adviser Dina Powell Quits White House

It may seem like an age now, but it was only four days ago that Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, waxed lyrical about Israeli-Palestinian peace at the annual Saban Forum in Washington.

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Kushner's speech was delivered confidently, and was convincing enough for a number of those in the audience to express second thoughts on the Trump administration's peace efforts. Maybe, some wondered, the administration was actually going to surprise the skeptics on the issue? And then, three days later, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Kushner's speech in Washington was in line with traditional American foreign policy, and it was delivered in a moderate and calculated tone. Kushner said that in order for Israel to achieve peace with its Arab neighbors it will first have to solve its conflict with the Palestinians. He emphasized the importance of listening to the perspective of both sides and mentioned that despite the lack of trust between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, there were many instances of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation taking place on the ground, and that they justified a cautious optimism. 

Both in Israel and in the United States Kushner's speech was received with anger and alarm among supporters of Israel's West Bank settlements. Breitbart News, the far-right website edited by Trump's former political adviser, Steve Bannon, went on the attack, awarding a Kushner-bashing article the top spot on the news site that day. The article accused Kushner of adopting the policies and positions of the Obama administration and of harming Israel. 

>> Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians protesting Trump's Jerusalem decision ■ Trump proves U.S. was never an honest broker | Analysis ■ Trump's recognition of Jerusalem may force Israel to pay an unexpected price | Analysis ■ Israelis, why are you celebrating? | Opinion >>

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, released a statement expressing his organization's "concern" over some of Kushner's statements. One leading right-wing Israeli pundit wrote that despite Netanyahu's corruption investigations and coalition problems, the Israeli prime minister's biggest problem, as of Sunday night, was Jared Kushner, who was "adopting the Saudi point of view" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Former State Department and Pentagon official Ilan Goldenberg identified two points Kushner made that were worth pointing out, despite being considered "conventional wisdom" on the matter.

His first point was that "Israel can't bypass the Palestinians and go directly to the Arab world." His second, "that the most important thing was to focus on the final status issues, not on daily distractions that come up along the way." 

Goldenberg, who worked for the Obama administration and has been highly critical in recent months of the Trump administration's foreign policy, told Haaretz that many people who listened to Kushner's speech at the Saban Forum were impressed by Kushner's approach.

"There were two reactions I was hearing from people. One was: 'Wow, this guy is serious, he knows what he's talking about,'" recalls Goldenberg. "The other reaction was: 'That's a great speech, but it doesn't really represent the administration's policy.'" Goldenberg concluded that Trump's announcement on Wednesday about Jerusalem proves that the second interpretation was more accurate. 

In the 24 hours that have passed since Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the Palestinian Authority has declared that the United States can no longer act as a mediator in the conflict, and that the two-state solution is no longer relevant. Arab countries, including American allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, issued harsh statements against the Trump administration, a first since the 45th president took office. The future of the peace efforts led by Kushner and by Trump's special envoy Jason Greenblatt is in serious doubt. 

The White House has been briefing the press that it believes that peace talks will be resumed and that in the long run, the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital will only contribute to their success. The argument the administration is hinting at without explicitly saying it, is that by giving this "gift" to Netanyahu, the administration has made future Israeli concessions more likely. The logic being that Israel will feel itself in a stronger position and will view the United States as a trusted partner. Kushner and Greenblatt, according to the White House, both strongly supported Trump's decision on Jerusalem. 

So far, there has been no evidence to support the idea that the White House has or will receive any concessions from Netanyahu in return for the historical decision. Most public accounts of the decision making process that led to the announcement on Wednesday have emphasized Trump's wish to appeal to his Evangelical Christian support base and to a small group of influential right-wing donors, such as Sheldon Adelson. Strategic thinking about the peace process was barely mentioned in most of those reports. 

"The claims that this will somehow help the peace process look like an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons," says Goldenberg, adding that it's not clear the White House knows how exactly it wants to proceed. 

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said that there is merit to the argument that the administration could get better results in future peace talks following this decision.

"This speech doesn't challenge the Palestinian and Arab claims to East Jerusalem. This is only about acknowledging Israel's reality, it's not about precluding the Palestinians from pursuing their own objectives."

The White House also emphasized in briefings to reporters that the boundaries of Jerusalem will be decided in final status negotiations, which they believe will ultimately take place, even if that seems hard to imagine in the current atmosphere. 

The administration also told Haaretz that Trump invited Abbas to visit him in the White House in a few weeks, when Abbas will be in Washington for a medical procedure. No date has been set yet for the meeting. Trump expressed his wish to discuss the administration's peace plan with Abbas.

In his speech on Sunday, Kushner stated that while it's true that Netanyahu and Abbas don't trust each other, the most important thing, from his point of view, is that both leaders trust president Trump. On Thursday, Haaretz asked the White House if the peace team led by Mr. Kushner still believes Abbas and the Palestinians have trust in the American president

"The President made clear how committed he is to peace and nothing he said in his speech prevents a comprehensive peace deal that works for all sides," a senior White House official said in reply. "We anticipated and understand that there will be a cooling off period but are going to continue to work on our plan and will see where the parties are when we are ready to release it."

Hady Amr, a former State Department official who was involved in a number of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations offered a different view: "In just a few minutes, Trump demolished U.S. legitimacy," Amr said. The one thing he heard repeated again and again from his Arab contacts since the decision was made was that the United States is "no longer the address for the peace process."