Shortly before he was inaugurated as president in January 2017, Donald Trump said of Jared Kushner: “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”
Pulling off the “deal of the century” – peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world – would have been a large task for anybody. But the president’s son-in-law, tasked by Trump to deliver his goal, had never spent a day working as a diplomat or in government service. Instead, like the president, his previous experience largely consisted of negotiating property deals.
That Kushner may not have been the best pick to navigate the complex and treacherous world of Middle East diplomacy and politics has become painfully apparent over the past two years. Eighteen months after he told a Palestinian newspaper “we are almost done”, Kushner’s much-vaunted peace plan still hasn’t seen the light of day. Indeed, even Trump’s ultra-loyal secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, now appears to be openly mocking the president’s son-in-law. Last week, he responded to a question at a congressional committee hearing as to when the plan would be released: “I think we can say in less than 20 years. I prefer not to be more precise.”
With the Israeli elections entering their final strait, that may all be about to change. It has long been speculated that Trump will wait until after Israel has voted, and its domestic politics are less fraught, before rolling the plan out. The secrecy with which Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy, have conducted their dealings means that there is little clear information about what might be in the plan. However, its chances of swiftly becoming a historical footnote now appear high.
The US effort was based on the so-called “outside-in” approach – drawing on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to secure an agreement between Israel and pragmatic Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to break the log-jam in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
This approach has been encouraged by two Arab states with friendly relations with Israel – Egypt and Jordan – and appeared more realistic given Israel and the Sunni Arab states’ shared antipathy toward, and fear of, Iranian expansionism. In the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman, and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed, some observers also saw a younger generation of Arab leaders who might be willing to cut an historic deal with Israel.
The long-awaited Trump peace plan was thus believed to rest on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states investing heavily in reconstruction and redevelopment projects in Gaza and the West Bank. At the same time, Israel would look for its security concerns to be part of any deal, with moves towards Palestinian statehood tied to a broader agreement which normalises relations between the Jewish state and those Arab nations – such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – which have refused to recognise its existence for the past seven decades.
This approach already appeared to be in difficulty last summer when Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, apparently handed the Palestinians a virtual veto, telling their president, Mahmoud Abbas: “We will not abandon you. We accept what you accept and we reject what you reject.”
In particular, Salman is said to have backed Abbas on the status of Jerusalem and the need for Israel to accept a Palestinian “right to return”. This would allow not simply Palestinian refugees displaced in 1947 and 1948, but also their descendants – a figure which is believed to run to several million – to return to Israel, thus ending its Jewish majority. Israel has indicated it would accept a nominal number of refugees and pay some compensation, but believes the bulk of refugees and their descendants should be accommodated by a new Palestinian state. The news from Riyadh apparently left the president’s son-in-law “startled and angry”.
However, Kushner’s gambit suffered a potentially fatal blow in October after Prince Mohammed was suspected to have been involved in the brutal murder in Istanbul of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As President Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, commented at the time: “The Saudi partner needs to be predictable, needs to be reliable, needs to be responsible. What this incident tell us is that that’s not the Saudi partner we have right now.” A more seasoned and experienced player than Kushner may have heeded the warnings of the US intelligence community who had previously assessed Prince Mohammed to be “a naive, inexperienced and ambitious upstart who was not prepared for a position of great power”.
But Kushner also appears to have little grasp of Middle East realpolitik. This was evident in Trump’s decision last month to unilaterally recognise Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights; a move which follows his earlier decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Whatever the arguments surrounding the US move with regard to the Golan – critics suggest the notion that this territory, captured in the 1967 war, could be handed back to the Iranian-back Assad regime in Syria is somewhat farcical – it has caused extreme irritation in Arab capitals.
There is, moreover, a stark contrast between the muted reaction which greeted Trump’s Jerusalem move in December 2017 and the stronger response which followed his actions with regard to the Golan. Saudi Arabia, for instance, noted that it would have “negative effects” on the peace process, while the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation called it an “explicit violation” of UN Security Council resolutions.
“Giving the Arabs a gut punch with Golan will not help get them to the table,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University’s Centre for Security Studies told Bloomberg. “It shows deep disrespect for the Arabs at large. It is a huge loss of face.”
The more aggressive tone reflects growing doubts in Arab states that Israel will, as Trump once promised, “pay a price” for the concessions critics say the president has doled out to it.
As Michael Stephens, a researcher for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, also told Bloomberg: “From the Gulf States’ position you cannot keep accepting concessions when there is little to be gained in fungible terms. People talk about a shift in the mindset of Gulf leaders, and yes, there is, to some extent that has already happened. But I cannot imagine that is the case when the U.S. and Israel are unilaterally changing the rules of the game.”
In February it was reported that Kushner wished to push a plan for huge economic investment in the West Bank and Gaza as a way of establishing an environment in which both Israel and the Palestinians could make political concessions. The plan is said to involve a $25bn investment in the West Bank and Gaza over 10 years, with a further $40bn earmarked for Egypt, Jordan and potentially Lebanon. Kushner envisaged much of that money would come from the Gulf states.
However, veteran US negotiators have cast doubt about the viability of such an approach. “It’s going to be a very hard sell politically as well as economically,” Martin Indyk, a former special envoy for Middle East peace under Obama, suggested to the New York Times. “If the bargain is we’ll put in $65 bn so you Palestinians and Arabs will back off your political demands for an independent state based on ’67 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, I don’t think they’re going to raise the money to pay for it. The whole proposition appears to be based on false assumptions.”
It is not just cash that Kushner appears to be expecting the Arab states to stump up. In February, heindicated in a rare TV interview that his plan would address the contentious issue of borders. Kushner said that in addition to its economic component, the proposal also contained a “political plan, which is very detailed” and “really about establishing borders and resolving final-status issues”.
But this reference to borders does not seem to refer to the conventional notion of land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, according to a book published last month, Kushner hoped Jordan would give land to the Palestinian territories, and, in return, Jordan would get land from Saudi Arabia, and that country would get back two Red Sea islands it gave Egypt to administer in 1950.
And, of course, perhaps the greatest stumbling block the plan faces is the steadfast refusal of the Palestinians to engage with the US initiative following Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. Relations between Washington and Ramallah have since further declined as the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and cut aid to the Palestinians.
For the “deal of the century”, it looks like the least auspicious of circumstances in which to launch.