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SABAN FORUM 2017 -- The most anticipated session on the schedule for this past weekend’s Saban Forum featured White House senior advisor Jared Kushner in conversation with Haim Saban. The appearance was Kushner's first opportunity to publicly discuss the Trump admin's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As can often be the case with overhyped events, some attendees were underwhelmed with the lack of news that Kushner made. However, those paying close attention were able to pick up some interesting takeaways. Here were a few key moments:
1. Why did he show up? Kushner was clearly not interested in making much news. Given the recent developments regarding former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s plea with lying to the FBI, Kushner’s strategy seemed to be one of projecting extreme confidence that everything is ok. Of note, Kushner's attorney Abbe Lowell was seen in attendance. Although sources claimed to Politico's Annie Karni that his presence was "simply in Lowell's off-the-clock capacity as a longtime figure in Washington's power Jewish community, not as a legal representative."
2. Making amends with the experts: Back in August, a recording of Kushner addressing Congressional interns was leaked. Yesterday, at the Saban Forum, the President’s son-in-law appeared eager to make up for those comments in which he criticized the Middle East experts who had preceded him. “We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books,” Kushner said at the time. At the forum yesterday, Kushner was overly respectful of the Middle East experts and former diplomats in the room, stressing a number of times, including in his brief opening remarks, “It’s really an honor to be able to talk about this topic with so many people who I respect so much, who have given so much to this issue.”
3. ... that strategy took away a potential talking point: Given that Kushner had a clear objective to show respect for the experts gathered, when he was later pressed by Saban on his team’s lack of experience, instead of noting how the so-called experts have failed until now, Kushner declared “it’s a perfectly qualified team.”
REPEAT THAT, WILL YA -- Saban: “I don’t know how you’ve lasted eight months with this lineup, and it’s impressive that it’s still going. There’s not a Middle East macher in this group. I mean, how do you operate with people who basically — you know, with all due respect, are a bunch of Orthodox Jews who have no idea about anything? What are you guys doing? Seriously I don’t understand this.” Kushner: “I’ll definitely say it’s not a conventional team.” Saban: "Oh, you can say that again, yeah absolutely.” Kushner: "That's what I said.” Saban: "Well, say it again.” Kushner: “Okay. It’s a perfectly qualified team in the way Haim sees it.” Saban: “How is that?” Kushner: “No, no, I was joking.” [Video]
4. Beating expectations in one area: The 36-year-old senior advisor even deployed some humor, at one point pretending to pull the administration’s secret peace plan out of his jacket pocket. “We know what's in plan, the Palestinians know what discussions we've had with them, the Israelis know what discussions we've had with them,” Kushner stated until Saban interrupted him: ‘So, you can tell us.’ “Okay, so let me start,” Kushner said with a serious face and reaching out to his pocket. He then added with a smile, “We are not going to disclose that today.”
5. Unique recollections on how Kushner and Saban met: During the 33-minute conversation, Saban recalled how he first met Kushner. “We have a guy who runs our foundation, and one day he calls me up and he says, ‘I am putting some documents in storage and there’s a letter from Jared Kushner - from 2010 - praising you.’ I said, ‘Praising me? I don’t know who the guy is. I never answered that letter.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it was about an article -- which I hated - in the New Yorker - they shredded me to pieces -- and he loved it.’ And I said, ‘Oops, here we go.’ So I called Jared, and he was very gracious This is how we met, and I'm glad I did so. We became friends and we exchange ideas on an ongoing basis.”
Kushner decided to give his version and, in the eyes of some attendees, might have suggested that perhaps Saban wasn’t as confident that Hillary Clinton would win and therefore sought a relationship with the Trump son-in-law. “We were in the middle of a presidential campaign, and needless to say we were on slightly different sides. And then I got a call from Haim Saban, and I said, “What the hell is going on here?’” Kushner recounted. “You said to me, ‘I am very concerned [about the US-Israel relationship]. I don't know much about Trump and I don't know what this means for Israel.’ I remember saying that you should hope that Trump wins if you care about the U.S.-Israel relationship because there'd be no better president who could strengthen the relationship and try to cause change in the region if Trump wins, and so I'm not going to put you on the spot at the forum and ask you if in retrospect you're happy with the outcome or not.”
6. Not just the Middle East: Kushner made sure to mention his work in strengthening the U.S. - Mexican relationship and noted that it was another issue he and Saban care deeply about.
7. Is MBS focused on the Israeli - Palestinian conflict? Kushner claimed that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) cares deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. "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,” he said. In a panel earlier in the day at the Saban Forum, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman disputed the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ranks high on the Crown Prince’s list of concerns. “When I first started going to Saudi Arabia in the 90s, you know, you couldn't go to a private home and the first thing on the table wasn’t Israelis and Palestinians. Today, you can't go to private home and the first question isn’t ‘red wine or white wine?’ Okay?” Friedman said. “I was there for three days (last month), I didn't hear the Israel-Palestine thing come up at all, and I tried to engage [MBS] on that; he wouldn't bite.”
8. Bringing Linkage Back: Kushner also appeared to revitalize the “linkage” theory that peace is key to solving the broader problems of the Middle East. "I think that if we're going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole, this issue has to be solved,” he asserted.
9. What will happen with the Embassy? On the eve of another deadline on the Jerusalem Embassy Act, Kushner said that Trump is still deliberating whether to announce the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. “The president will make his decision. He is still looking at a lot of different facts. He'll make sure he does that at the right time.”
10. The White House's approach to other "issues" getting in the way of the ultimate deal: “We've been very focused on the deal... You see a lot of reasons why this deal can go south very quickly, and there's a ton of distractions that come up. My team deals every month with maybe three or four different issues that that'll come up, and everyone says this is the end of it, if it doesn't work, and I tell my guys – we're not chasing rabbits. And they will say, ‘These aren’t rabbits, these are elephants. These are big deals.’ I say that means they're slower, we'll get to them after. But a lot of the issues that come up on a daily basis are because of not having a final-status agreement. We try to stay focused on solving the bigger issues.” Question on our mind: Which issues was Kushner referring to? Is it the Taylor Force Act or moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or reconciliation with Hamas? [JewishInsider] Watch the full Kushner Saban interview here [CSPAN]
HOW IT PLAYED -- “Kushner Makes as Little News as Humanly Possible in First Public Appearance Since Flynn Indictment [Slate] Jared Kushner on Stage: Hearing His Voice, at Last, if Little Else [NYTimes] Jared Kushner Responds (Very Briefly) to Flynn's Plea Deal [TheAtlantic] Barak Ravid: "Kushner wasn't critical either of Israel or the Palestinians, but some of the points he made are contrary to Netanyahu's positions." [Axios]
Brookings Institute's Tamara Cofman Wittes emails us... "Generally speaking, peace negotiators don't want to make much news until they can announce an agreement on something, and Kushner made clear yesterday that keeping lips sealed was part of their trust-building strategy with the parties. So it's no surprise his appearance was 99.8% content-free. The question is whether there is a substantive peace plan underneath the coyness, or whether this is all cover for the fact that they haven't achieved any common ground; whether, after all their listening tours and quiet diplomacy, it turns out achieving Middle East peace is a lot harder than they thought. We have plenty of examples to teach that doing Middle East peacemaking badly is worse than not doing it at all. Raising expectations they can't meet, or running into the buzzsaw of highly symbolic issues, can all-too-easily tip this conflict into a crisis. Let's hope the Trump Administration can at least avoid these sorts of mistakes. "
Aaron David Miller tells us... “The fact that Kushner said nothing in respect to substance is quite consistent with the way they have been operating. Is it to protect nothing or is it to protect something of real value?”
Michael Koplow, Policy Director of the Israel Policy Forum: “They have done an incredible job of not leaking any details at all. I give him an A+ for the process in terms of staying directly on message... I still don’t buy the argument that if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that brings peace to Syria, ends the fighting in Yemen or magically eliminates Iran’s revisionist designs on the region."
MORE SABAN FORUM HIGHLIGHTS -- Tom Friedman: “There is one caution I would have for my Israeli friends and that is -- I saw [Minister Yuval] Steinitz talking about Israel talking to Saudi Arabia, and that’s just really stupid For any Israeli minister to talk publicly about Israel's relations with Saudi Arabia, is just bloody stupid If Israelis have any interest in seeing [MBS’s] reforms succeed, how about shutting up, you know. I know that’s hard, but I think that that would be my best advice. You are not doing him any favor to get a headline out on that.” [Video]
Netanyahu compares Iran to the Nazi regime in Germany: “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia recently referred to President Rouhani as ‘the new Hitler in the Middle East.’ Obviously, there are some important differences between Nazi Germany and the Islamic Republic of Iran, but both regimes do have two important things in common: one a ruthless commitment to imposing tyranny and terror, and second, a ruthless commitment to murder Jews.” [Video]
MAKING NEWS: Ehud Barak told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that as Defense Minister under Prime Minister Netanyahu, he failed to convince the defense establishment to support an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Barak also said he thought that decertifying the Iran nuclear deal was a mistake. ”It's a bad deal, but is a done deal,” he explained. [Video]
Moving Tribute to Sen. John McCain, who tweeted: "Humbled to be honored @BrookingsInst’s #Saban17 Forum today. The three amigos were back together on one stage to discuss our critical US-#Israel alliance & the importance of US international leadership." [Twitter]
SABAN'S MINYAN CLUB: Former Senator Joe Lieberman, retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, WINEP's David Makovsky, Saban Capital Group's Fred Gluckman and Amitai Raziel, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Hager Pacific's David Hager, MK Elazar Stern, Mayor of Efrat Oded Revivi, AIPAC's Elliot Brandt, Brookings' Shalom Lipner, at Havdalah on Saturday night. [BHOL; Pic]
Saban Forum guests -- including former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and MK Elazar Stern -- sing Psalms together: "On the sidelines of the forum, several of the guests on Friday visited the new Museum of the Bible... The guests were seen discussing the various exhibits and at one point, stopping at an overview of Jerusalem to sing a verse from the 23rd Psalm, "Mizmor LeDavid," to the melody of the late hassidic composer Rabbi Benzion Shenker." [INN]
TALK OF THE REGION: "Talk of a Peace Plan That Snubs Palestinians Roils Middle East" by Anne Barnard, David Halbfinger and Peter Baker: "Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis... The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank... would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants... One Lebanese government official who received a call was most surprised by what he said was a Saudi suggestion that the Palestinians could have Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, as their capital." [NYTimes]
ZOMLOT'S PALS: Yesterday at the Saban Forum, Husam Zomlot, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was busy chatting with a range of attendees. Zomlot appearing to make a case to White House advisor Jason Greenblatt [Pic] Zomlot whispering in the ear of UAE Amb. Yousef Al Otaiba [Pic] And finally, Zomlot schmoozing directly with Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli's Minister for Regional Cooperation [Pic]
“Kushner Is Leaving Tillerson in the Dark on Middle East Talks, Sources Say” by Nick Wadhams and Erik Schatzker: “In recent weeks, Tillerson has attempted to put the brakes on key parts of any potential plan, the people said, saying he does not want the Saudis to get mixed messages from U.S. diplomats and the president’s son-in-law. The White House denied the contention that Kushner isn’t fully communicating with Tillerson and the State Department Kushner frequently visits the State Department to brief Tillerson about his efforts in the Middle East, but the worry is that, whether by design or neglect, Kushner hasn’t kept the secretary of state or his top aides informed about many of the details of his overseas negotiations. Tillerson has concluded that even Trump didn’t know all of the details of Kushner’s discussions with the crown prince.” [Bloomberg; CNN]
--Kushner told Saban yesterday: "We work with all the agencies very well... people in the State Department and all the different agencies. So we've got plenty of lawyers around who are looking to get involved if we need any more help."
BIG DEAL: "Trump approves National Security Strategy" by Jonathan Swan: "President Trump has signed off on the core elements of the National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS is as important as strategy documents get. It will explain how Trump's "America First" mantra applies to the vast range of threats America faces, including Chinese economic competition, Russian influence operations, and the weaponization of space. Sources familiar with the document call it "hard-nosed" and "realistic" — and less ambitious and idealistic than prior efforts. Critics will likely argue it forfeits American values and moral leadership." [Axios]
PODCAST PLAYBACK -- Ambassador Ron Dermer talks to Susan Glasser on The Global Politico: "He offered his first public comments on a story that underscored the close alliance between the Trump team and the Netanyahu government: the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn... Dermer confirmed to me that he personally had consulted with the Trump team in the effort to head off the U.N. Security Council resolution rebuking Israel for its West Bank settlements – and urged them to lobby other foreign governments to kill the measure. Dermer said he was “not sure” whether he had spoken directly with Flynn, but acknowledged, “I definitely spoke to officials” in what would become Trump’s administration..."
"In our interview, Dermer praised MBS, as he is known, and said he should be applauded for his “boldness” in carrying out domestic reforms, but the ambassador highlighted another factor that is also putting peace talks back on the agenda: the enemy-of-my-enemy common ground.... the theory of the case behind the Middle East policy Dermer is pushing... is already fairly evident. “The Iranians,” he told me, “want Riyadh for breakfast and Jerusalem for lunch, and they want New York for dinner.” [Politico]
DRIVING THE WEEK -- The Palestinian Authority and Jordan launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at stopping President Donald Trump from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a move reportedly expected later this week. Over the weekend, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamed Bin Salman, King Abdullah of Jordan, Egyptian President Sisi, French President Macron, Turkish President Erdogan and the Emirs of Kuwait and Qatar and asked them to intervene with the U.S. on this issue. Meanwhile, the Jordanians have begun consultations on convening an emergency meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster dismissed concerns that moving the embassy or recognition of Jerusalem would deal a blow to the administration's peace efforts. “There are options involving the move of an embassy at some point in the future, which I think... could be used to gain momentum toward a peace agreement, and a solution that works both for Israelis and for Palestinians," he said on Fox News Sunday.
KAFE KNESSET -- Embassy Watch -- by Tal Shalev and JPost's Lahav Harkov: While the PMO is still keeping its distance from the explosive Jerusalem Embassy move or recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, some of Bibi’s senior ministers are openly declaring support for the move, despite the reported strong Jordanian and Egyptian opposition. “It’s a very crucial decision and this is a historic opportunity,” Defense Minister Liberman said today. Read today's entire Kafe Knesset here [JewishInsider]
HEARD YESTERDAY -- Retired General David Petraeus at The Simon Wiesenthal Center annual Chicago dinner honoring Leo Melamed: “Our partnership with Israel also makes America safer. Indeed the Israel-U.S. relationship is an asset, not a liability, for our United States The collaboration between American and Israeli governments brings very significant strategic benefits to both countries.” [Video]
FLASHBACK -- Petraeus told Congress in 2010: "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel." [WashPost]
** Good Monday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email Editor@JewishInsider.com **
BUSINESS BRIEFS: Early Uber advisor Bradley Tusk on selling his shares, and the fights he’ll wage in 2018 [TechCrunch] Now on Oracle’s Campus, a $43 Million Public High School [NYTimes] Israeli serial startup stars of blockchain tech return with QEDit, a zero-knowledge proof diligence tool [TechCrunch]
TALK OF THE NATION: “Greek Orthodox Church Sells Land In Israel, Worrying Both Israelis And Palestinians” by Daniel Estrin: “In a city contested by both Israelis and Palestinians, the story of church-owned land in Jerusalem has always been sensitive. A former Israeli city planner, Israel Kimhi, said he mapped out all the church-owned lands in Jerusalem for an atlas he helped prepare in the early 1970s. But he said the Israeli government censor prohibited the map from being released to the public Some fear that investors with deep pockets and ideological ambitions — Israelis wanting a toehold in a Palestinian area of the city, or vice versa — might pressure a church into selling a property, giving Israelis or Palestinians one more win in the real estate battle for control in the city.” [NPR]
PROFILE: “Meet ‘Supergirl,’ the World’s Strongest Teenager” by Corey Kilgannon: “During weekend powerlifting competitions, when the crowd is revved up and that bar is loaded with hundreds of pounds — Naomi [Kutin] squats 321 pounds and dead lifts 365 pounds — she turns into Supergirl...“In school plays, I get stage fright, but I don’t have stage fright in powerlifting, even if I’m in front of hundreds of people,” said Naomi, whose modern Orthodox Jewish family follows strict religious rulesNaomi is the subject of a documentary “Supergirl,” to be broadcast Dec. 18 as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS. The Kutins are often the only observant Jewish family at lifting meets, and they bring a large box of kosher food and drinks... Because of Sabbath rules, they do not compete on Saturdays, when many of the female trials are held. Many tournament officials allow Naomi to lift on Sunday with men competing in the heavyweight category.” [NYTimes]
SPOTLIGHT: "Success Academy's Radical Educational Experiment: Inside Eva Moskowitz’s quest to combine rigid discipline with a progressive curriculum" by Rebecca Mead: "To Moskowitz’s detractors, Success’s celebration of standardized test-taking—students attend “Slam the Exam” rallies—is a cynical capitulation to a bureaucratic mode of learning. Success Academy has attracted large donations—in the past two years, the hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson has given forty-five million dollars to the group—and Moskowitz’s opponents say that such gifts erode the principle that a quality education should be provided by the government. Last fall, Donald Trump summoned Moskowitz, who is a Democrat, shortly after he was elected President. Although she declined to be considered as his Education Secretary, she was widely criticized for agreeing to the meeting, including by members of her own staff." [NewYorker]
ISRAEL-DIASPORA RELATIONS: “Has Netanyahu written off liberal US Jews?” by Gil Hoffman: “Netanyahu’s closest confidants were divided on Saturday night about whether or not he believes non-Orthodox Jewry in the US will disappear in two generations Makor Rishon diplomatic correspondent Ariel Kahane quoted Netanyahu on Friday as making that prediction in closed conversations and saying that Israel had to prepare accordingly. According to the report, Amb. Ron Dermer has been heard making similar assessments recently The sources said Netanyahu believes that due to the diminishing numbers among American Reform and Conservative Jews, Israel should instead rely for the future on the growing Orthodox population and Evangelical Christians “To the best of my knowledge, those are not his views,” said Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren.” [JPost] Avraham Infeld, the first Jewish Agency community envoy: 'Israel Has Become the Most Disunifying Force in the Jewish Community' [Haaretz]
PICK YOUR OP-ED -- Ehud Barak in The New York Times “We Must Save Israel From Its Government: The entire debate is actually only over the fate of the isolated settlements... Even if it is not possible to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this stage — and it probably is not — it is obvious that continued construction in those isolated settlements directly damages Israel’s vital interests In the service of this agenda, Mr. Netanyahu elevated fake news, alternative facts and whataboutism into art forms in Hebrew, long before those terms gained any traction in English.” [NYTimes]
Elliott Abrams in Newsweek “Netanyahu is quietly charming the world: This is no automatic development, but a tribute to the energy, dedication, and perspicacity of Prime Minister Netanyahu. They aren’t just welcoming Israel; they are welcoming him. They are interested in his extraordinary country, obviously, but also in his personal understanding of economic change, of the role of military strength, and of world affairs Netanyahu’s critics ought to be honest enough to acknowledge what he has achieved for his country in countering isolation, BDS, and anti-Semitism and greatly widening and deepening Israel’s global ties.” [Newsweek]
Kennedy Center celebrates icons without Trump -- by Jeff Mason: “Television producer and writer [Norman] Lear, 95, who is famous for producing the hit comedy “All in the Family” as well as “Maude,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” said it felt great to become a Kennedy Center honoree. “It probably feels the same as it might have felt at 80. Everything else does,” he quipped. Lear said he was not upset that Trump chose not to attend. “It wasn’t a hand I needed to shake.”” [Reuters]
TRANSITION: “Rep. Sander Levin announces retirement” by Brent Griffiths: “Rep. Sander "Sandy" Levin (D-Mich.) announced on Saturday that after 18 terms in Congress, he will not run for re-election next year Levin's brother Carl, was also elected to Congress and served as Michigan's senator from 1979 until 2015. According to the Associated Press, they were the longest-serving sibling duo in congressional history.” [Politico]
-- Levin’s op-ed: “The voters respected my strong belief that stereotypes and prejudice do not represent the measure of an individual or of a community. In one of my elections, a primary opponent suggested that I could not represent Macomb County because I had never owned a Christmas tree. But I have always felt rooted there.” [DetroitFreeNews]
Walter Isaacson writes... "Why I Left DC: I began to believe that one way to counteract the national bitterness, and to regain a spirit of American optimism, was to get local. I could have done it in many places, perhaps even by getting involved with community activities in Washington, but it felt more meaningful to do it in my hometown, where I was shaped. I felt it was time for many of us who had moved to Washington in our youth to go back to cultivate our own gardens. A way to fight against America’s dysfunction would be to tend to the locales where the plague had not yet spread. I became a member of New Orleans’s city-planning commission, took a job teaching history at Tulane, and signed up with some local school organizations." [Washingtonian]
WEEKEND WEDDING: “The Bachelor's Erica Rose Is Married! Inside Her Lavish Wedding Ceremony” by McKenna Aiello and Alli Rosenbloom: “The newly minted Mr. [Charles] and Mrs. Sanders tied the knot in a traditional Jewish ceremony at temple Emanu El (in Houston, Texas), a source told E! News... "Erica's father walked her down the aisle while Erica held her daughter Holland in her arms as they approached the Chupah." A first, more formal cocktail reception held at their synagogue featured a string quartet and harpist.” [EOnline]
BIRTHDAYS: Biographer and winner of the 1980 National Book Award, A. Scott Berg turns 68... Television director and producer, Dan Attias turns 66... Founder, senior Rabbi and lead guide of the Adventure Rabbi program based in Boulder Colorado, Jamie Korngold turns 52... Politics editor at Breitbart California and publisher and founder of FlashReport, Jon Fleischman turns 50... Actor best known for playing Stuart Bloom on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Kevin Sussman turns 47... Founder and CEO of Relativity Media, he has financed more than 200 films representing more than $17 billion in revenue, Ryan Kavanaugh (family name was Konitz) turns 43... Senior regional field director at the ACLU, she was previously a campaign manager at the Center for American Progress, Sarah Baron turns 27... Israeli fashion model, as a 14-year old she became the lead model for Dior, she now works for Dior, Chanel and other couture firms, Sofia Mechetner turns 17... Tony Sarif...
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