It hasn’t been announced with any fanfare and it’s unlikely it ever will. But with every news cycle, it’s becoming clear that President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner is no longer the U.S. administration’s point man for Middle East peace.
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Whether the shift is coming from Kushner himself or the president, the son-in-law-in-chief doesn’t seem to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically.
If true, it’s a major switch. Almost immediately after Election Day, Trump declared that Middle East peace czar was the role he believed his son-in-law should play. Speaking to The New York Times editorial board on November 23, he was asked whether Kushner would join him in the White House and in what capacity.
Trump sang Kushner’s praises and mentioned how he aimed to be the president to hammer out Israeli-Palestinian peace. Asked if this free association meant his son-in-law would be his man for achieving this goal, he said, “I think he’d be very good at it. I mean, he knows it so well. He knows the region, knows the people, knows the players.”
In mid-January, after the transition team announced that Kushner would indeed work in the White House as a senior adviser, albeit an unpaid one, Trump confirmed that Kushner’s main portfolio would indeed be the Middle East, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The night before his inauguration, he anointed Kushner in front of donors and supporters at a candlelight dinner at Washington’s Union Station.
“All my life I’ve been hearing that’s the toughest deal in the world to make,” Trump said, and then turned to his son-in-law. “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”
The reactions were stinging, memorably a quip that has been attributed to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that Kushner’s only qualification for the job was that he went to Jewish summer camp. Kushner, after all, has no experience in government or diplomacy only in real estate, with forays into media management and of course presidential campaigning.
The U.S. media focused on the many obstacles the inexperienced Kushner would face, with Politico calling his task a “mission impossible” and noting that “Kushner seems to have his hands full with the day-to-day” eruptions at the Trump White House. It was doubtful he could focus on a major project across the world.
Further evidence that Kushner was needed by his father-in-law’s side was his absence from the week-long mid-March visit to the region by Jason Greenblatt; the Trump envoy took a “listening tour” of key players on which to base a Trump policy in the region. One might presume that Greenblatt was reporting back to Kushner, who had met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. But in a less turbulent environment, it would have made more sense for the man presumably in charge to get the lay of the land himself and build the relationships necessary for deal-making.
Since his return from that trip, Greenblatt has been front and center when it comes to reports of Middle East policy formation. And now he is already back in the region, he is making the rounds of Arab states - his current Twitter feed is a series of photo ops with regional leaders at the Amman Arab summit, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a follow-up meeting to their get-together earlier in the month.
But the biggest sign that Kushner has shifted gears came this week when the White House announced with much fanfare that Kushner would head a new office, the oddly titled White House Office of American Innovation.
According to The Washington Post, the new entity would have “sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.” Media reports said the office would be its own “nimble power center” in the West Wing comprised of a “SWAT team of strategic consultants” who would “infuse fresh thinking into Washington.”
The announcement drew derision echoing that of the Middle East czar announcement. Pundits and comedians like Stephen Colbert mocked Kushner’s lack of experience, calling his new fiefdom the Bureau Of Obvious Nepotism. The multitude of tasks laid on Kushner were the butt of headlines like “Trump keeps giving Jared Kushner more jobs but is he any good at any of them?” and “White House Announces Jared Kushner Is Now Responsible For Everything.”
Assuming he can’t do it all, the intriguing question is why Kushner’s main assignments have shifted from foreign policy to domestic matters.
It could be that the blowback from Kushner’s earliest forays into foreign policy is motivating the pivot. It was just announced that Kushner will be testifying before a Senate committee investigating Russian interference in last year’s election; he’ll be answering questions about his tte–à–tte in December with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That preceded a newly revealed meeting with the head of a Russian bank that was under sanction by the Treasury Department; it turns out the executive was a “former spy and Putin crony.” Also, recent reports of business ties between Kushner’s family company and Israeli entities couldn’t have helped.
The explanation that would most please the Israeli government would be that Kushner’s diminished engagement means the White House has put a peace deal on the back burner. Under this thinking, Netanyahu has successfully warned that too much unpopular movement toward compromises could end his stewardship as prime minister by provoking a crisis with his right flank. Trump doesn’t want to be the American president whose policies help topple Netanyahu, whom he considers an ally.
The simplest explanation for the change: Donald Trump wants it that way.
According to numerous accounts, the president leans on a tiny circle of advisers and is increasingly dependent on Jared and Ivanka, the only voices he can really trust. After last week’s health-care-vote fiasco during which the Kushner family was famously on the Aspen ski slopes, much to Trump’s chagrin he may have decided that with his approval ratings dropping, he needs his right-hand man fully focusing on making America great again. He can’t be busy with his nose buried in maps of the West Bank.
Moreover, just as Trump has realized that repealing and replacing Obamacare isn’t so simple, he may have woken up to the fact that the quest for the holy grail of Middle East peace is a long exhausting slog. He may have looked realistically at the situation and seen that the odds of falling short were far higher than success that far more experienced and dedicated hands than Kushner have failed at the mission and walked away with their deal-maker reputations damaged.
If so, he could have decided that he doesn’t want his golden boy son-in-law anywhere near it. After all, if there’s anything that Donald Trump cares about, it’s the members of his family. And if there’s anything he hates and doesn’t want any of them getting near it’s failure.