Trump, his son-in-law and the elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal

Sunday 16/07/2017
Daunting task. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner in the West Bank City of Ramallah, last June. (Reuters)

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.