Defending the ‘Deal of the Century’ while keeping the details secret

“A peace plan that does not include ‘state,’ that does not include ‘Jerusalem,’ won’t sell," said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy Family Programme.

Sunday 12/05/2019
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at a symposium of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, May 2. (Reuters)
Hands of fate. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at a symposium of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, May 2. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - While he refused to provide details of what has been billed as the “Deal of the Century,” Jared Kushner, adviser to US President Donald Trump, said he believes the Middle East peace plan would provide a new place from which both the Israelis and the Palestinians to start.

That plan may not include a two-state solution, however.

“If you say ‘two-state,’ it means one thing to the Israelis, it means one thing to the Palestinians,” Kushner said. “We said, ‘You know, let’s just not say it. Let’s just say, ‘Let’s work on the details of what this means,’”

Since Kushner spoke May 2 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Soref Symposium, Israel and Gaza have engaged in the worst fighting since 2014, with more than two dozen people killed. The violence calls into question the likelihood that any solution can be orchestrated by Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law, and the Trump administration.

Trump immediately showed his support for the Israelis, who said the fighting began after a Hamas sniper shot at two Israeli soldiers on the border.

“Once again, Israel faces a barrage of deadly rocket attacks by terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Trump said on social media. “We support Israel 100% in its defence of its citizens. To the Gazan people — these terrorist acts against Israel will bring you nothing but more misery. END the violence and work towards peace — it can happen!”

The fighting could be related to Palestinian leaders seeking loosened restrictions on goods through the Israeli blockade in exchange for peace during Israel’s hosting of Eurovision.

The fighting may show that the economic incentives likely to be unveiled by the Trump administration may not be enough to push the idea of a one-state solution.

The plan, the release of which has been delayed until after Ramadan, follows moves in Israel that have analysts assuming it does not include a two-state solution.

Those include the Trump administration moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Then, Trump appeared with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office just before Israeli elections. Trump also granted Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and, after Netanyahu was re-elected, met with approval his plan to annex all or part of the West Bank.

The Trump administration has also cut off aid to the Palestinian people while continuing to send billions to help with Israeli security.

“We know what’s in the plan,” Kushner said May 2. “We believe it’s virtuous. We believe it’s something that’s better for both sides.”

Experts who spoke after Kushner’s speech said the plan can’t have buy-in in the Middle East if people aren’t included in it, that the Palestinians may end up feeling as if they’ve been set up, that Arab countries don’t appear to have enough clout with the Palestinians to be included and that the smartest thing for Palestinians to do may be to pre-empt the expected outcomes of the plan.

If the plan fails, they said they hope the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate with the Palestinians and the Israelis or the consequences could be dire.

Kushner, from a conservative Jewish family, said neither Israeli nor Palestinian leadership know the details of the plan.

“To date, we’ve kept the details really close,” he said. “The way you know that is that nothing has leaked.”

Neither side has anything to lose in looking at the proposal, Kushner said, though the Palestinians likely have more to gain. He said the “average Palestinian” doesn’t have faith in the government, their neighbours, Israel or Americans.

“We want the Palestinians’ lives to get better and we want Israel’s security to get stronger,” he said.

Kushner said past failures were caused by getting caught up in ideologies and in not creating concrete, actionable plans.

“It’s as if he’s saying: ‘You failed to draw the line. We will draw the line for you,” said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier-general in the Israel Defence Forces and the Milton Fine International fellow at the institute. People aren’t interested in operationalising plans that they don’t believe in, he said.

Kushner said there would be a heavy economic component to the plan but Palestinians may then feel they are being bought out, Herzog said. By polling Palestinians, they learnt that the Palestinians didn’t understand what was going on in the peace process because the negotiating was done at the leadership level, he said. That didn’t give people any room to believe in it.

David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on Arab-Israel relations and former senior adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under US President Barack Obama, said there was significance in what he didn’t hear in Kushner’s speech, as well as in what was not emphasised.

“He said kind of off-handedly ‘not two states,’” Makovsky said. “To hear it on record, I think is very significant.”

He noted that there was “no mention of the Arab states,” adding that he believes that’s because the Arab states will not be able to temper the response from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“If you make it a secret, you can’t make news,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy Family Programme on the US-Israel Strategic Relationship and a former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “If you make it secret, you can’t get people to buy in. They’re asking us to take it on faith. In a region where any decision is life or death, no leader is going to take it on faith.”

And there’s a reason that the conflict remains unresolved:

“A peace plan that does not include ‘state,’ that does not include ‘Jerusalem,’ won’t sell,” Omari said.

Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to Obama, said he hoped the plan exceeds Palestinians’ expectations, which he said the administration has “driven to a low point.” He also said he hopes the administration has done enough for Netanyahu that they could ask him for something in return, he said.

“I’ve spent 30 years working on this,” Ross said. “I want them to succeed.”

The panellists said they fear Abbas will reject the proposal out of hand and then Netanyahu will annex what he’d like from the West Bank.

“Here I wonder if Abbas will surprise us,” Makovsky said. “If it’s repudiated by everyone, then it doesn’t work. Can [Abbas] step in and pre-empt that?”

Abbas could, potentially, ask to sit down with Netanyahu to see if they can work things out. Ross said that would be out of character but that it would be the smartest route.

The panellists also said the administration has no other plan if the peace plan fails. Kushner refused to address the possibility. “We’re talking about something radioactive,” Herzog said. “I did not hear any word about the risk.”

The conflict has created years of violence, he said, so the administration must be willing to negotiate if any of the parties reject the plan. “They’re going to do this,” Ross said, “and the president is going to be invested in this.”

Kushner said he’s come to see how big a role the United States can play in trying to resolve the issue but that Trump would make the final decision about releasing the plan.

“If we can make breakthroughs that can help people live better lives and live safer lives, then I think there’s nothing better than trying to pursue peace between people, even though it’s really hard,” Kushner said.

On May 8, an Israeli newspaper with ties to Netanyahu — Israel Hayom — said it had a leaked copy of the proposed plan but admitted it was “quite possible that this is a fabricated document.”

The document was reported to say that a Palestinian state would be established in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, minus the Israeli settlements. The Palestinians would give up all but light weapons and Israel would provide protection, while opening borders and helping, with the United States, Europe and Arab countries, rebuild infrastructure, including an airport on Egyptian land.

If Israel objects, the leaked document states, the United States would stop all funding; if Hamas and Fatah object, the United States would stop all aid to the Palestinians. If the Palestine Liberation Organisation agrees without Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it would start another round of violence in which the United States supports Israel.

The newspaper reported that the White House said it would not “respond to another speculative report that is inaccurate and does not help.”