Breaking History for No Good Reason

On Middle East politics, Jared Kushner is not the disruptor he says he is.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Jared Kushner
Jared Kushner
Then-White House advisor Jared Kushner attends a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in Washington, on March 20, 2018. Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

My first inclination upon receiving Jared Kushner’s book, Breaking History: A White House Memoir, was to review it like most everyone else, heavy on the derision and snark. Yet after reading it, I thought better of it for two reasons. First, life is not Twitter. And second, Kushner was a real player in a presidential administration of consequence. He deserves to be taken seriously, especially when it comes to the part of the world where I have expertise and where the former president’s son-in-law focused considerable attention during his four years at the White House: the Middle East.

There was never any question that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others were going to gut Breaking History based more on who Kushner is—or the caricature of him—than his record while in government, his worldview, or the assumptions that underpinned his efforts in the Middle East. He may be everything his critics say he is, but he was also the Trump administration’s point man on serious issues such as Saudi Arabia and Israel’s relations with the Arab world, and he was central to the Trump White House’s efforts to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s a big deal and reason enough to consider Breaking History on the merits.

Unfortunately, the book offers neither a thoughtful reflection on the Trump team’s encounter with the Middle East nor an explication of the intellectual underpinnings of the “disruption” it claimed to bring to bear on the region’s thorniest problems. Instead, Kushner recreates his calendar, resulting in a tedious 512-page tick-tock of his White House years. In this replay, the careful reader will notice a contradiction at the heart of the book: Despite a title and narrative meant to reinforce the notion that Kushner was boldly shattering long-held, sclerotic, and ineffective policies in the Middle East, he did nothing of the sort.

My first inclination upon receiving Jared Kushner’s book, Breaking History: A White House Memoir, was to review it like most everyone else, heavy on the derision and snark. Yet after reading it, I thought better of it for two reasons. First, life is not Twitter. And second, Kushner was a real player in a presidential administration of consequence. He deserves to be taken seriously, especially when it comes to the part of the world where I have expertise and where the former president’s son-in-law focused considerable attention during his four years at the White House: the Middle East.

There was never any question that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others were going to gut Breaking History based more on who Kushner is—or the caricature of him—than his record while in government, his worldview, or the assumptions that underpinned his efforts in the Middle East. He may be everything his critics say he is, but he was also the Trump administration’s point man on serious issues such as Saudi Arabia and Israel’s relations with the Arab world, and he was central to the Trump White House’s efforts to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s a big deal and reason enough to consider Breaking History on the merits.

Breaking History: A White House Memoir, Jared Kushner, Broadside Books, 512 pp., , August 2022.
Breaking History: A White House Memoir, Jared Kushner, Broadside Books, 512 pp., , August 2022.

Breaking History: A White House Memoir, Jared Kushner, Broadside Books, 512 pp., $35, August 2022.

Unfortunately, the book offers neither a thoughtful reflection on the Trump team’s encounter with the Middle East nor an explication of the intellectual underpinnings of the “disruption” it claimed to bring to bear on the region’s thorniest problems. Instead, Kushner recreates his calendar, resulting in a tedious 512-page tick-tock of his White House years. In this replay, the careful reader will notice a contradiction at the heart of the book: Despite a title and narrative meant to reinforce the notion that Kushner was boldly shattering long-held, sclerotic, and ineffective policies in the Middle East, he did nothing of the sort.

The Trump administration’s efforts in the Middle East bore a striking resemblance to the bipartisan U.S. approach to the region that existed on Sept. 10, 2001: support for Israel and Washington’s Arab partners—regardless of the character of their regimes—and sustained pressure on Iran using mostly, but not exclusively, economic sanctions.

The gap between what Kushner imagined he was doing and what he was actually doing is not the only weakness of Breaking History. Virtually all former officials emphasize certain policies or events over others to show themselves and the administrations in which they served in the best possible light. Kushner is no different, but he is oddly silent or barely audible on a number of critical issues. U.S. President Donald Trump’s lead interlocutor with Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman mentions the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi only in passing. Kushner expresses regret over the dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist but judges that Mohammed bin Salman’s top-down reforms are far more important than censuring the crown prince for a crime everyone understands was done at his behest.

Others have also drawn this pragmatic but morally questionable conclusion, but Kushner does not even pause to offer any insight into Mohammed bin Salman or the contradictions between the brutality of the crown prince’s approach and the positive changes he has wrought in the kingdom. And although Kushner wants to break from history, he accepts the parameters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as they are and have long been: oil and security. He never considers the possibility that there might be risks for Washington by being so tightly bound to the crown prince.

One of those risks lies in Yemen and its civil war. In 2015, Mohammad bin Salman deployed Saudi forces to intervene on behalf of the Yemeni government that had just lost control of its capital. In the ensuing years, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has contributed to the instability of the Arabian Peninsula and a terrible humanitarian crisis. It has also aligned Saudi Arabia’s adversaries in Yemen, the Houthis, more closely with Iran and its regional proxy, Hezbollah, than they had been before the intervention, placing Iranian agents in a strategic location adjacent to critical shipping lanes and within striking distance of U.S. partners. On these issues, Kushner is silent.

Looking back, Kushner cannot provide a single insight about how the Abraham Accords could or should affect the U.S. approach to the region.

The decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—which was a major break from the past—gets a total of six pages. Yet there seemed little point in being this bold. Kushner recounts his father-in-law asking him what he will get in return from Israel. In response, Kushner can only muster the “goodwill of Israelis” so they will make concessions down the road. Kushner clearly had little grasp of Israel’s political dynamics.

When it comes to forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Kushner, like many in the Washington foreign policy community he so clearly disdains, does not even bother to ask, “Why do we do this?” That would have been truly disruptive. Instead, like the peace processors before him, Kushner wades into a conflict that is unresolvable. He never considers what U.S. interests taking on this task serves and at what cost.

His peace processing turns out to be more of the same, with the one wrinkle that, instead of leaving everything to negotiation, Kushner’s plans spell out the endgame in detail. He apparently did not understand that there was a reason that all the smart and accomplished people who came before him did not elaborate the details of a conflict-ending agreement. Isn’t that where the devil dwells? Anyway, Kushner’s results were the same as those of his predecessors Dennis Ross, George Mitchell, and Martin Indyk.

Kushner blames the failure of his plan called, “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Israeli and Palestinian People”—which seems to be cribbed from a 1979 proposal that the World Zionist Organization developed—on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That is an easy play. Abbas is corrupt, fearful of his own people, and content with the status quo.

Throughout, Kushner takes every opportunity to excoriate Abbas and cast him in the worst possible light. In one passage he writes of the Palestinian leader, “He smoked constantly, so every few minutes he would pull a cigarette from the table, put it in his mouth, and wait for an attendant to light it. I thought Abbas seemed more like a king than the representative of an historically downtrodden refugee population.” This all may be true, but the passage reveals something quite odd about Kushner’s book. He expended significant energy to clinch a peace deal, but he has little to say about the Palestinians, and he evinced no interest in understanding their version of history or their view of what is just.

Yet unlike other peace envoys who came before him, Kushner never bothers to consider where he and his plan may have gone wrong. Setting aside the fact that it left the Palestinians with a narrow archipelago of quasi-sovereignty along the spine of the West Bank, Kushner and his team seemed to believe that if the Palestinians could be convinced of their total defeat, they would give up. They did not and will not. Steadfastness and resistance are by now critical components of Palestinian identity. Swap out Abbas for another Palestinian leader and the outcome would have been the same.

The Trump administration did have a major achievement in the Middle East: the Abraham Accords. By many measures, including the reporting at the time and the recollections of those involved on all sides, Kushner played an instrumental role in the agreements. Well after the fact, Arab and Israeli officials praise Kushner for his efforts, arguing that the Abraham Accords could not have happened under any other administration.

Much criticism has been written about the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan—including that it proceeded despite Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip, the copious amounts of weaponry the Trump administration promised the UAE, and the quid of U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara for the pro quo of normalization with Israel. These are valid criticisms of the Abraham Accords, but the peace agreements have also produced economic benefits, scientific collaboration, security cooperation, and, importantly, increased people-to-people contacts.

Still, when it comes to his and the Trump administration’s signature accomplishment in the Middle East, Kushner demonstrates a lack of self-awareness and depth. He makes it seem like the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was some astonishing development—similar to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in 1977—rather than a logical step for two countries that had been inching toward normalization over the previous five years.

“I had underestimated how little connection there was between the two countries,” Kushner writes. More likely, he was just unaware of the extent of ties even before formal normalization. Athletes from Israel participated in international competitions in the UAE. Before Israel established an embassy there, Israel had a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi that was officially connected to the International Renewable Energy Agency but which many observers understood acted like an unofficial embassy. Emirati-Israeli security cooperation was also an open secret. When I ran into a former Israeli minister in Dubai late in 2021, I asked him if it was his first visit to the UAE. He looked at me oddly and said, “Steven, this is my 33rd visit.”

Looking back, Kushner cannot provide a single insight about how the Abraham Accords could or should affect the U.S. approach to the region. Does it make pivoting to Asia easier? Will the agreements further entrench the United States in a region his father-in-law very much wanted to leave? What are the shortcomings of the Abraham Accords? The agreements are historically important, but Kushner can’t think of anything deeper to impart to his readers other than the who, what, and when of it all.

The Middle East occupied much of the Trump administration’s time, yet Kushner’s recounting of these events is empty. Breaking History is just words on 512 pages with no lessons, no meaning, and no new way of looking at old problems. If a book can be white noise, Kushner has produced it. If it was meant to set the record straight, it failed. It is the work of a dilettante.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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