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Middle East World

Kushner may not be Kissinger, but at least he’s not Kerry

The personal Middle East diplomacy of the president’s son-in-law may have helped move things forward for the first time in many years

February 28, 2019

11:09 AM

28 February 2019

11:09 AM

Imagine a long list of leaders that liberal pundits love to hate. It starts with Donald Trump, followed by Vladimir Putin and a series of nationalist and populist politicians, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (‘Bibi’) Netanyahu stuck in between Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the Polish and Czech leaders.

One of the reasons for the deep animosity towards the Israeli Likud Party chief, especially among many liberal American Jews and European lefties, has been the perceived love affair between the Donald and Bibi and the belief that if these two BFFs would only disappear from the political universe, we will finally have peace in our time in the Holy Land.

In this make-believe world, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, was on the verge of reaching a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians during the US-sponsored negotiations in 2013 and 2014 and only insistence by Netanyahu to expand the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank sabotaged the peace process.

According to these same critics of the American and Israeli leaders, Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and to relocate the American embassy there from Tel Aviv, in conjunction with other US moves like the cuts in financial contributions to United Nations agencies assisting Palestinian refugees, have all but ended Washington’s role as a honest broker negotiating the end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.

In reality, Obama’s chief diplomat was never close to a deal between Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the aging leader of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials never trusted the smooth-talking Kerry, not to mention his boss.

Obama did not seem to think twice before agreeing in 2011 to throw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a long-time American ally, to the wolves, and to recognize an Egyptian government led by the ferociously anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood a year later, while trying to initiate a US diplomatic détente with the ayatollahs in Tehran who were threatening to eliminate the Jewish state behind the scenes.

It would be however unfair to blame Kerry’s mediocre diplomatic skills for the collapse of the talks between Israel and the PA. In fact, very much like a second marriage, the notion of trying to revive the peace process in 2012 — against the backdrop of all that had happened in the Middle East and the world since the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 — amounted to the triumph of hope over experience.

After all, the 2000 talks were taking place during the peak of America’s Unipolar Moment and hegemonic position in the Middle East and at a time when the two leading negotiators, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, both benefited from solid support from their respective national constituencies.

In the post 9/11 era and following the disastrous Iraq War, a weak American president pondering disengagement from the Middle East was not in a position to make peace between Israeli and Palestinians leaders who were lacking strong political base of support among their respective publics while radical nationalists and religious extremists were gaining more influence on both sides.

Abbas was only in control of the West Bank while the Gaza Strip was ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement that did not recognize Israel and refused to negotiate with it. The Israeli government, at the same time, included right-wing and religious parties that were intent on wrecking the peace talks and preventing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

That the talks had led nowhere was not surprising: but the problem of the Jewish settlements was not the major obstacle to success. Instead, Palestinians insisted on the ‘right of return’ of refugees to the areas inside Israel they fled from in the 1948 Middle East War — a demand the Israelis would have never accepted. And the Israelis refused to give up its control over the holy sites in Jerusalem — the Palestinians and the entire Arab world would have never agreed to that. The debacle explained more than anything else why peace in the Holy Land remains so difficult to achieve. But it is not a mission impossible.

The starting point to any viable peace process is to have negotiating partners in place that can deliver. For that to happen, it is necessary that the Israeli and Palestinian teams be headed by leaders who would be sign a deal that their people would accept. And that they would not be ousted from office on the day after.

From that perspective, and contrary to the narrative embraced by the mainstream media — always in search for a sarcastic quote from a Never Trumper or a member of Obama’s NSC —  it seems that at least in the case of Israel, the Trump-Netanyahu lovefest and the personal Middle East diplomacy of Jared Kushner may have helped move things forward for the first time in many years.

Trump’s son-in-law has been constantly mocked by the so-called ‘foreign policy professionals’ — along the lines of ‘Hey, I have PhD in international relations so don’t make me laugh out loud: what does a real estate dealer really know about the Middle East?’ — who had populated the administrations of President Obama and George W. Bush and who were responsible for turning the Middle East into One Big Mess.

Let us point here to the obvious: for several decades Middle East peace processors like Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Aaron David Miller, George Mitchell and other intelligent men and women driven by good intentions have failed to advance a deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

Worse than that: their diplomacy helped to raise expectations to the stratosphere, and when those were not fulfilled, what followed was violence in the form of this or that Palestinian Intifada and the ensuing repressive Israeli countermeasures.

Now consider the level of intellectual haughtiness employed by your average former State Department official under Obama or Bush II, ridiculing the Trump-Kushner Middle East strategy (or, you know, ‘strategy’) and guess what? President Trump has yet to launch a new military adventure followed by regime changing and nation building in the Middle East, the kind that were favored by his predecessors.

And not less significant: with the exception of the occasional violent encounters between Israelis and Palestinians on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel — sad, but no different from the many tribal disputes taking place around the world — the Israeli-Palestinian front has remained mostly calm in the last two years.

Remember all the warnings about the new Palestinian Intifada that was supposed to break out after Trump decided to relocate the American Embassy? Like the nuclear attack on North Korea or the trade wars that would lead to the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, that did not happen.

In fact, unwilling to antagonize his friend at the White House, Netanyahu has resisted pressure from the right-wing elements in his cabinet who wanted him to retaliate against provocations by Hamas, kill thousands of Palestinians, and re-occupy the Gaza Strip. He has also been adopting a cautious approach in responding to Iranian military actions in Syria and coordinating his moves with both Washington and Moscow so as to avoid an escalation into a regional war.

And unlike the skeptics in Washington, Bibi is taking Trump’s pledge to move forward with his ‘deal of the century’ involving the Israelis and the Palestinians very seriously.

The pundits in the MSM have been spinning the recent political news from Israel — the coming election that may increase the power of Likud’s rival in the Knesset (parliament) — as a devastating blow to Netanyahu, fantasizing that a Israeli peacenik will replace Bibi and would patiently wait for a Democrat to occupy the White House.

Yet the new political alliance, Kahol Lavan (Blue-White) is led by retired General Benny Gantz and two other Israeli chiefs of staff, who are as hawkish as Netanyahu when it comes to national security and foreign policy and whose party has been siphoning mostly votes from the more dovish Labor Party and its satellites.

Gantz and his partners are hoping to hit Bibi where it really hurts, over accusations that he taken bribes and committed fraud, with reports swelling that the police may yet bring criminal charges against him. The bottom line is that Netanyahu has been prime minister on and off since 1993, and many Israelis are getting tired of him and his avaricious wife, Sara.

But the majority of Israeli Jewish voters also share his tough stands on foreign policy and like him, consider Trump to be a great friend of the Jewish state.

Recent polls suggest that the Likud and Kahol Lavan are running almost neck-and-neck, with each grabbing around 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, an outcome that may actually not change so much the parliamentary balance of power: the right-wing and religious parties would be ready to form a coalition with Likud — but not with Kahol-Lavan — and provide Netanyahu with a majority of 61 seats that he needs to form the next coalition.

But Netanyahu recognizes that a coalition dependent for its survival one seat would lead the religious fanatics and radical Zionists to breathe down his neck and torpedo any concession that Bibi would be ready to make when Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is made public after the Israeli election in April.

So expect at least one piece of good news coming after the election for Kushner the peace processor: a grand national unity Likud-Kahol Lavan Israeli coalition, a stable government that enjoys wide public support and headed by tough but pragmatic military hawks who would be able to deliver, including by agreeing to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state — if Israel’s security concerns are met.

Kushner’s next task is to ensure that a similar process takes place on the Palestinian side, that a unified leadership representing the residents of both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would emerge and would be ready to negotiate with the Israelis under the auspices of an American president they currently do not trust.

It seems that Kushner is counting on two developments to help him achieve that goal. First, he is hoping that Saudi Arabia — there is a certain prince there that owes big time to the Trump dynasty — and the other Arab Gulf States, employing their financial power, together with Egypt and Jordan, two states that have made peace with Israel, would exert pressure on both Abbas and the Hamas leaders to band together and present a united but let’s-do-business approach in response to the American diplomacy.

Secondly, Kushner, not unlike his Israeli buddy Bibi, expects that sooner or later the Donald will demand that the Israelis start showing him some gratitude for recognizing Jerusalem as their capital in the form of some painful concessions to the Palestinians, agreeing, for example, to bring to an end the building a new Jewish settlements and accept the inevitable in exchange for peace and security — return to the 1967 borders — more or less — and an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Could such a deal be negotiated without a resolution of those two core issues — the Palestinian Right of Return and the control over Jerusalem’s holy sites? Trump and Kushner may then find out the limits that operate on ‘transactional diplomacy’ and that negotiating real estate deals in Manhattan is not ‘like’ trying to bring peace to the Holy Land between two peoples with a lot of historical ‘issues’ that would probably not be pacified even if you promise to build a lot of Trump Towers in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.


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