Jared Kushner and the Art of Humiliation

Trump’s son-in-law has become known as a deal-maker. But with the Palestinians, his approach appears to be take it or leave it.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy, and Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump congratulates his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner after the swearing-in of senior staff at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump congratulates his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner after the swearing-in of senior staff at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

If nothing else, Jared Kushner is no longer seen as a lightweight by many in Washington. The aloof princeling who at the beginning of the Trump administration was consigned to the gossip pages as merely one-half of “Javanka”—and as a bumbling bystander in the Russia investigation—has burnished his reputation in recent months as a deal-maker, even by his father-in-law’s standards.

Kushner, who is married to President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and is a senior White House aide, is credited with helping to rescue Trump’s new NAFTA deal last fall. In a widely ridiculed remark, recently departed U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley even called him a “hidden genius.” Kushner was also said to be the drive and inspiration behind Trump’s uncharacteristic enactment of a major criminal justice reform law—a personal obsession of Kushner’s since his father, a real estate developer, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for witness tampering, tax evasion, and illegal donations.

Although many questions remain about the 38-year-old Kushner’s judgment and experience—until he got to the White House, he mainly bought and sold buildings—what distinguished him most in those earlier negotiations, according to participants, was his determination to meet with parties on all sides and compromise to get the job done.

But Kushner’s handling of another task Trump has given him, the Middle East, stands in stark contrast. By many accounts, his management of the long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan—a few details of which are expected to be revealed at a conference in Warsaw this week—has been very different in style and substance.

Kushner, the leader of a negotiating troika that also includes his aide Jason Greenblatt (a former real estate lawyer for the Trump Organization) and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, has relentlessly prosecuted a campaign to reduce the Palestinian cause in stature by unilaterally settling what used to be known as “final status” issues. One by one, the Trump administration has piled humiliations on the Palestinians. It was at Kushner’s urging, according to sources, that Trump announced he was moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus in one blow deciding an issue that a previous generation of American negotiators had delicately left to final talks. Kushner also pushed for ending the formal U.S. relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), denying a “right of return” for Palestinians to Israel, and defunding Palestinian refugees.

The administration’s financial cuts have forced other countries in Europe and the Persian Gulf to help shoulder the burden of funding the Palestinians’ needs. But they threaten to gradually erode U.S. influence on the ground.

Kushner, moreover, has been the brains behind the long-term strategy to bring other Arab nations on board—in particular Saudi Arabia—in normalizing relations with Israel, even before the Palestinian issue is settled. It was another cart-before-the-horse approach that has outraged the Palestinian leadership, which declared the move to be in violation of the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which called for peace first and recognition of Israel after.

As Kushner himself explained in a January 2018 email obtained by Foreign Policy last summer: “Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are, our goal has to be to make thing significantly BETTER! Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

But his main goal appears to be breaking the hopes of Palestinians for anything resembling a fully sovereign state of their own and to force them to settle for economic benefits, according to Middle East experts who have been consulted on the Kushner approach or studied it. “This administration is determined to strip away, as they see it, the false realities that underscored the Palestinian narrative and by implication traditional U.S. policy,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. Middle East negotiator.

So far, however, Kushner’s efforts have led only to Palestinian outrage and his own embarrassment, especially after the Arab ally he was most successful in cultivating in his efforts to gain recognition of Israel, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was implicated in the murder of a Washington Post journalist and became an international pariah. The Palestinian response has been to refuse to engage with Washington at all. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, dismissed the “Warsaw fiasco” as another attempt to reconfigure the politics of the Middle East in a way that favors Israel and disadvantages the Palestinians.

Kushner and his team, she said, have undermined trust with the Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, dismissing the existence of millions of Palestinian refugees, and cutting off all humanitarian assistance to Palestinians.

“We are extremely skeptical,” Ashrawi said. “The American position is entirely biased and complicit with Israel. The Palestinians have no confidence whatsoever in Jared Kushner and his ilk, including Greenblatt and Friedman.” She did not note—though others have—that Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman are all Orthodox Jews with a deep commitment to Israel.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said last week that the Palestinian Authority would not send representatives to the U.S.-sponsored conference of foreign ministers and heads of state—including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—in Poland.

“The Warsaw conference is an attempt at bypassing the Arab Peace Initiative and destroying the Palestinian national project,” Erekat said. After the embassy was moved in 2018, the Palestinians declared that the United States could no longer be a credible mediator in peace talks.

Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said it was still possible that key regional powers—Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—could prevail on the Palestinians to participate in U.S.-led peace talks. But he added that could happen only if the United States consults with the Arabs more directly before releasing the peace deal and if the final plan is consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative. That, he said, means that any peace proposal that stands a chance of securing Arab support will require an embrace of a two-state solution.

“If it doesn’t have a Palestinian state, it negates the Arab Peace Initiative,” Omari said. “If there is no talk of a Palestinian state, then the Arabs can’t say it is compatible with the Arab Peace Initiative.”

According to some who are familiar with Kushner’s approach, he understands that the Palestinians will need to get something substantive out of any deal or he’ll be laughed out of the room. “They don’t want to come out with something that people will say is completely outrageous,” said Robert Malley, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator. Malley said he expects to see two demands of Israel “at a minimum”: the creation of a Palestinian state and a Palestinian capital established in parts of East Jerusalem. “Those are two elements that it’s going to be hard for Israelis to accept.”

As Trump himself declared last August, speaking at a political rally, Israel will pay a “higher price” in peace negotiations after his decision to move the embassy and the Palestinians will “get something very good” in return “because it’s their turn next.”

But in the nearly six months since then, nothing has been on offer, except for Trump’s terse declaration at the United Nations last September: “I like a two-state solution. That’s what I think works best.”

In contrast to his earlier, backroom efforts at negotiating consensus over a new NAFTA and criminal justice reform, a defining feature of Kushner’s Middle East diplomacy has been the practice of taking bold, unilateral steps—such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and cutting off aid to Palestinian refugees—to pressure the Palestinians to bend to Washington’s will.

“The strategy has not been effective,” Omari said. He noted that the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem made it harder for Arab leaders to embrace Kushner’s peace plan. “The embassy move, rather than pressure the Palestinians, has empowered them.”

Since Trump’s inauguration, Omari said, key Arab governments have looked to Kushner—as they would to any U.S. envoy—for two things: Can he deliver the U.S. president (a proposition that remains untested), and can he manage the complexities of Middle East diplomacy with skill? So far, the results have not been encouraging.

Some details of the Kushner plan are expected to be revealed at the Warsaw conference on Feb. 13 and 14. Kushner and Greenblatt then plan to travel to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and other Arab countries to enlist support. According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the schedule for Poland, the “whole event is structured for sort of free-flowing and dynamic conversation. We’ve also said all along the way that we’re not expecting everybody to agree on all of the issues. How could that be?”

But U.S. and Western officials say the parts expected to be unveiled mostly focus on economic aid—and European nations have not been privy to Kushner’s plan. “From what he has said publicly and privately, a significant chunk of what will be discussed [in Poland] is going to focus on the economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza,” said one Western official whose government will be represented in Warsaw. “They have kept just about everybody at arm’s length from this. They don’t want a running commentary on bits and pieces of the plans. They just want to unveil it as a take-it-or-leave-it approach.”

David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,  said that there is “zero chance” that the Trump administration will put forward a peace plan before Israel’s national election in April. But Makovsky said the election could provide a critical “flex point” in Israel’s politics that could help propel the administration’s peace proposal forward.

If Netanyahu wins another term, as is widely expected, he may find it politically expedient to form a coalition with centrist political parties willing to sue for peace. “Netanyahu can’t really say no to Trump,” Makovsky said. “The Trump peace plan may be his ticket to creating more political space for himself.” The key for Kushner, he added, will be to find a way to persuade Arab powers, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to say “there is enough in this plan that is worthy of further discussion, something that makes it hard to say ‘no,’” Makovsky said. That would “make it harder for the Palestinians to slam the door.

“That is where the skill is going to come in,” Makovsky said. “Right now, their instinct is to say not just ‘no’ but ‘hell no.’”

Kushner, the former owner of the New York Observer, has often been mocked as a diplomatic dilettante, and critics have questioned whether he is mainly doing the bidding of the ultra-hard-line Netanyahu, who is an old family friend. But according to a longtime friend who spoke to FP, Kushner was engaged in many of these issues “way before his father-in-law was seriously talking about a run for president. Very early on, way before Mohammed bin Salman was named as the Saudi king’s successor, he identified [him] as the likeliest heir.”

Above all, Kushner wants to be taken seriously—and so far, on the Middle East, he is not.

“I think [his peace plan] is dead the second it’s put down,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official who served on former Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace team. “They have just completely lost the Palestinians. There is no getting back unless Trump takes huge steps in the direction of the Palestinians.”

“This foolish theory that you can squeeze the Palestinians and they will give up is not how the Palestinians operate,” Goldenberg said. “It’s dug the Palestinians in harder.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch