Trump, his son-in-law and the elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal
Boston - US President Donald Trump is relying heavily on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to restart the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace track but, like the health care issue in the United States, it is much more complicated and difficult than either of them imagined.
In addition to handling the peace process portfolio, Kushner has been charged with heading the newly created Office of American Innovation, which is tasked with making the US government bureaucracy more efficient.
To couple those domestic duties with overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is daunting, to say the least, especially for someone as young as Kushner, 36, who has no government or diplomatic experience.
Although one could argue that efforts by professional US diplomats to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have come to naught and, therefore, a fresh approach may be needed, Kushner has already run into roadblocks that have been around for some time.
First is the issue of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As real estate businessmen, Trump and Kushner understand both land and buildings. Trump seemed to grasp this problem when he received Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House in February, requesting publicly that the Israeli leader halt settlement building for “a bit.”
Trump may have been advised by Kushner to level this mild criticism of Israeli settlement building to entice the Palestinians to enter peace talks.
Regardless, Netanyahu continued settlement construction and, in a posting on Twitter, said “there won’t be a government better for the settlements than our government.” On July 5, the municipality of Jerusalem, with the tacit approval of the Netanyahu government, announced plans to build 800 units in the Jewish-populated areas of East Jerusalem and 114 units for Israeli Jews in Arab neighbourhoods of the city.
Whether Kushner and his colleague, Jason Greenblatt, an international trade negotiator whom Trump has also tapped to work on the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, have made an issue of such settlement building to Netanyahu is not known but he and Kushner do know that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sharply criticised the continuation of such settlement construction. Greenblatt travelled to Israel the week of July 10 for another round of meetings.
When Kushner and Greenblatt met with Abbas in May in Ramallah, media reports said, the meeting became contentious over the issue of Palestinian Authority payments to families whose relatives have been convicted of terrorism. Abbas accused the two Americans of taking Israel’s side.
The other major hurdle is the issue of incitement to violence, which the Israelis have made a major issue. Reportedly, Netanyahu showed Trump a video of Abbas’s statements before Trump’s meeting with Abbas in Ramallah, making his meeting with the Palestinian leader problematic.
As if these issues were not tough enough, the Israeli state prosecutor on July 6 filed a lawsuit against the estate of a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem who rammed his car into a group of Israelis, killing four of them. Such a lawsuit could invite Palestinians who hold dual citizenship to file their own lawsuits in foreign courts against Israelis who have killed Palestinians.
How Trump and Kushner try to get the peace process restarted in this atmosphere is anyone’s guess but, for the time being, just getting the two sides to talk face-to-face is a huge challenge.
Trump had expressed optimism that he would be the president who would clinch the “ultimate” deal and stated publicly in front of Abbas at the White House that “there is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever.”
He, Kushner and Greenblatt are quickly finding out that there are plenty of reasons why it has not come about.
Part of Kushner’s plan seems to be to use his contacts with the Saudis, especially with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz with whom he has cultivated a friendship, to lean on the Palestinians to be more flexible, while Trump uses the same approach with his new friend, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
However, without firm US pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction it will be hard for any Arab leader to pressure the Palestinians to make concessions.
During the presidential campaign, Kushner convinced his father-in-law that he could bring about a peace deal. Reality has come uncomfortably to the forefront. The ultimate Israeli-Palestinian deal remains as elusive as ever.