Jared Kushner, it seems, is feeling optimistic.
On Sunday, in his first-ever interview with a Palestinian newspaper, the U.S. president’s son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy said that despite appearances to the contrary, “prospects for peace are very much alive” and confirmed that the administration is getting ready to release its long-awaited plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Asked how that plan is different from previous efforts, Kushner explained he has done “a lot of listening” and is convinced the Palestinian people are “less invested in the politicians’ talking points” than they are in seeing how a deal will improve their prospects for a better life.
Given the serious risks of escalating violence, the desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the continued costs of the status quo, Kushner’s desire to move forward even in the face of long odds is understandable. Unfortunately, his interview also revealed that he is living in a fantasy world and preparing an approach more likely to compound the current problems than to resolve them. The assumptions on which he appears to be basing his plan—whatever its precise contents turn out to be—are so flawed that it is fair to wonder if his aim is really to start serious negotiations, or simply to please President Trump’s base by gearing up to blame the Palestinian side for the failure to come.
The first fantasy is the notion that the obstruction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—who refused to meet with Kushner on his latest trip—can be countered by taking the peace plan “directly to the Palestinian people.” Kushner suggests that Abbas is avoiding him because he’s “scared we will release our peace plan and that the Palestinian people will actually like it.” That’s not likely. Abbas is indeed unpopular with most Palestinians—his approval rating hovers just above 30 percent—but it’s hardly because he’s too hardline on Israel. In our own extensive discussions with Abbas and his negotiating team as White House Middle East advisers during the Obama administration, we found them deterred most of all by the fear they could not sell further concessions to their people, who were seething about years of continued Israeli settlement expansion, land confiscation, and increased limits on Palestinian movement. And that problem is even greater today. In fact, more Palestinians now oppose a two-state solution than support one, and a majority—57 percent—say that such a solution is no longer practical because of Israeli settlement expansion, which now extends deep into the West Bank. Over 35 percent of Palestinians now support a one-state solution—in other words, a single country with an Arab majority and equal rights for all—a solution increasingly appealing to Palestinians under the age of 30.
Because of these trends, the next Palestinian leader will almost certainly be less rather than more ready to make concessions—if he even supports a peace process at all. In fact, recent polls show that Abbas would lose a presidential election contest against Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas (which doesn’t even recognize Israel and supports violence), and that Haniyeh, in turn, would be defeated by Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian nationalist currently in an Israeli jail for the 2002 murder of Israeli citizens.
Kushner’s second fantasy is the idea that he and the administration he represents are better placed to succeed than all their failed predecessors—a goal that seems to animate Trump as much as achieving Middle East peace itself. But while it is already clear that Trump is a terrible dealmaker who has yet to conclude any significant international agreement (the unilateral concessions to North Korea in exchange for a vague pledge to “work towards” denuclearization do not qualify), Middle East peace may be the issue on which he is least well-placed to succeed. While all U.S. administrations have always been closer to Israel than to the Palestinians, they all at least tried to play the role of honest broker in the name of finding some workable compromise, and were seen as necessary partners in the eyes of Palestinians.
But Trump has abandoned even the veneer of objectivity. Just last month, he unilaterally gave Israel one of its most coveted prizes in negotiations, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without getting anything in return. To make it worse, he then celebrated the unilateral move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—a move opposed by 128 countries at the United Nations—with a big ceremony organized just one day before Palestinians observe the nakba, the catastrophe of their expulsion in 1948. The embassy ceremony was attended by dozens of Republican-only members of Congress and included speeches by evangelical pastors known primarily for bigoted remarks against Mormons, Jews, and Muslims, suggesting the whole thing was more about domestic politics than Middle East peace.
While dozens of Palestinians in Gaza were killed in clashes with the Israeli Defense Forces, the Trump administration chose neither to express sympathy for the Palestinians killed nor to join international calls for Israeli restraint. Trump has, on the other hand, cut financial assistance for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) out of pique that the Palestinians have not given him the requisite “appreciation or respect,” as if humanitarian aid, even when it serves U.S. national interests, should be awarded in return for flattery. His administration has offered unconstrained support for settlements, with an ambassador who has fought against use of the word “occupation” and refers to “Judea and Samaria,” as favored by Israeli settlers, instead of traditional U.S. references to the West Bank. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Palestinians stopped talking to the administration. It is hard to see how the United States under Trump will ever be seen as an honest broker, or be able to go around Abbas, when two-thirds of Palestinians oppose the resumption of contacts with U.S. negotiators and 88 percent view the United States as biased in favor of Israel.
The third Kushner fantasy is that the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan will help him overcome these major challenges. It is true that the Trump administration has forged close ties with leaders of these countries, largely on the back of its strong stance against Iran, open spigot for arms sales, and setting aside traditional concerns about human rights. And it is also true that these regional leaders share with Israel a common strategic perspective on Iran and on Islamic extremism, and that with so many other challenges on their plates—from low oil prices to Yemen and Syria—they don’t prioritize the Palestinian issue as much as previous generations.
But these changing regional perspectives do not mean Arab leaders will expend the political capital to deliver the Palestinians, even if they could. There is no doubt Kushner heard positive words from Arab friends in private meetings on his just-finished four-day trip to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar, before going to Israel. But he should not hold his breath waiting for those leaders to publicly embrace positions on peace that the Palestinians—and the vast majority of their populations—reject. This is especially true on the issue of Jerusalem, where any softening of the Saudi or Egyptian backing for Palestinians would be immediately denounced—and taken advantage of—by their rivals in Iran, Qatar, and Turkey.
The fourth fantasy is that the Palestinians can be bought off with economic assistance to compensate for political losses. In his interview with the Palestinian newspaper, Kushner suggested that the Trump administration could “attract very significant investments in infrastructure … that will lead to increases in GDP and we also hope a blanket of peaceful coexistence.” Putting aside that the Trump administration has not even made or been able to attract major investments in U.S. infrastructure, which makes one wonder about the West Bank and Gaza, this emphasis on economic issues has been tried unsuccessfully many times before. During the Oslo era of the 1990s, then the 2002 Roadmap for Peace and the Bush administration’s Annapolis process, and finally Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort during the Obama administration, successive U.S. administrations have tried to enhance the prospects for peace by improving conditions on the ground. It is of course laudable to promote much-needed economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, but Kushner should know by now that prosperity will never substitute for political peace. The key issues remain borders and sovereignty; security; settlements and occupation; refugees; and Jerusalem. No Palestinian leader can survive in office by promising economic benefits alone.
Finally, there is the problem that Israelis under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly never agree to the sort of deal that would be necessary to make Palestinian or Arab acceptance even remotely feasible. In the past few years, Netanyahu has stopped even talking about support for the two-state solution, which he first accepted in a highly caveated way in a 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University. A majority of members of the current Israeli cabinet do not even support the creation of a Palestinian state, much less the concessions Israel would need to make to achieve it. And with Netanyahu and his wife the subject of several serious corruption inquiries, the prime minister likely sees his only hope as to keeping that hardline cabinet together to stave off or delay potential indictments. It is far from clear that the Israeli people themselves are prepared to make the major compromises required for peace, including the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. But it is quite clear that the current Israeli government is not ready to do so. In his interview, Kushner questions whether Abbas has the ability or the willingness to “lean into finishing a deal.” But neither does Netanyahu, and the fact that Kushner only calls out one side is telling. It is itself part of the problem.
After 18 months of conversations, assisted by the able Jason Greenblatt, who has consulted a wide variety of experts and officials from all countries, Kushner must know all this. So is he naive or something else? Why would he move forward with a plan with such poor prospects of success?
It could be he is operating on the notion that it’s always better to try and fail than not to try at all. But this is also misguided. The only thing worse than not advancing the peace process is raising hopes and expectations only to deflate them soon thereafter. We’ve seen this dynamic play out too many times in the past, from the Camp David summit of 2000 to the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2008 to the Kerry process in 2013-2014, with each failure soon followed by violence. Luckily for Kushner, in this case expectations could not be much lower. But introducing yet another peace plan only to have it pronounced dead on arrival just emboldens opponents of compromise, and even supporters of violence, on both sides.
Another reason to proceed would be to blame the Palestinians, rather than the difficult context and Trump’s mistakes, for failure to make “the ultimate deal.” If past is prologue, we can expect the Israeli side to say “yes, but” (while meaning “no way”) and that the Palestinians will fall into the trap of rejecting a U.S. plan or not engaging at all. This would please parts of Trump’s base and may get the administration off the hook for trying, but it would only further divide the Israelis and Palestinians, while exacerbating partisan divides on Israel in the United States as well.
Kushner might think Palestinian rejection will slow support for efforts to censure Israel internationally. But this is also wrong. Trump’s total lack of credibility on this issue, after the decisions on Jerusalem and UNRWA in particular, mean that most in Europe and elsewhere will conclude that the Palestinians rejected the plan because it was unfair and not because they are opposed to peace. The lopsided UN vote against Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem shows that it is the United States, and not the Palestinians, who are isolated. In fact, the cancellation of a recent soccer match between Israel and Argentina in part because Netanyahu’s government insisted on the political symbolism of holding it in Jerusalem may signal an acceleration in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. After all, supporters of BDS may say, if the U.S. supports only one side in the conflict, what else is there left to do? Solidifying this view by introducing a dead-on-arrival peace plan will not do Israel or anyone else any favors.
We have devoted many years to working on this issue and worry about the consequences of the status quo, both for Israel’s future as a secure, democratic, and Jewish state and for the future of some 6 million Palestinians. We have seen, and participated in, our share of ill-fated and even ill-advised peace efforts. But the reality is that under present circumstances, with the current Israeli and Palestinian governments, at this point the two-state solution is itself a fantasy. Neither the Palestinian nor Israeli people, nor their leaders, are currently prepared for the compromises required for a deal, and accentuating this reality will only make things worse. In diplomacy, as in medicine, the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” can be a worthy principle. Jared Kushner would do well to consider it now.