The Trump White House leaks like old rowboat, but it’s been uncharacteristically secretive about one thing: the Middle East peace process. For months, Trump administration officials have been meeting quietly with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to back up the president’s assertion that solving this decades-old problem is “not as difficult as people have thought.” But we have little sense of their strategy for making what Trump has called “the ultimate deal.”
Jared Kushner, the president’s 36-year-old son in law, is in charge of the process, and he’s said almost nothing about his plans in public. So it was fascinating to hear the leaked recording of Kushner’s briefing to congressional interns, in which he revealed much about his thinking on how to achieve a breakthrough.
I’ve met Kushner only once, at a social occasion at the Israeli ambassador’s residence. Only half-jokingly, I mused that I wished my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as his had in him, because Trump had given his son-in-law a mission impossible, or at least implausible – a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Having spent much of my adult life chasing this holy grail, should he succeed I’d be the first to raise a glass. But that prospect seems dubious at best. Looking at some of the takeaways from the leaked transcript with the interns, Kushner’s thinking isn’t going to make his job any easier. And here’s why.
History and the past matter
Faulkner had it right in Requiem for a Nun when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But Kushner’s got it wrong when it comes to the Middle East. While he says he always tries to “study the historical context” of a problem, he then proceeds to dismiss it. “You know, everyone finds an issue, that, ‘You have to understand what they did then,’ and ‘You have to understand that they did this,’” he says. “But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books.”
I know how frustrating the past can be in Mideast peace talks: It’s where the parties retreat, far too often blinded by their own claims and grievances, which seem to hold the future hostage. But for a would-be peacemaker, if you ignore history it will bury you. Israeli and Palestinian officials can overwhelm you with intricate stories about which patch of land belonged to whom when and who double-crossed whom in previous negotiating rounds. You don’t need to be a historian to be a successful negotiator, but knowing which gripes matter and which ones don’t is crucial.
I was a State Department peace negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the latter of whom desperately tried to make a deal during his waning days in office. Before going to the second Camp David summit in July 2000, we paid scant attention to the lessons of the first summit—hosted by President Jimmy Carter, which succeeded in laying the basis for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Under Carter, we had strong leaders of states, a doable deal and a U.S. president who was tough and controlling. We should have known at second Camp David that none of those circumstances applied, and failure was almost guaranteed.
I was stunned, too, by Kushner’s quip that “not a whole lot has been accomplished over the last 40 or 50 years we’ve been doing this.” Remember the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties? Those weren’t chopped liver. And even if he was narrowly referring only to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Kushner’s still not correct—U.S. diplomacy has prevented a lot of damaging outcomes over the years, and helped narrow the gaps between the parties. But it’s important, too, to learn from our failures, such as the Oslo Accords. Kushner does say he “tried to look at why people haven’t been successful in the negotiations” and “spoke to a lot of people who have have been part of them.” But the conclusion he draws—“this is a very emotionally charged situation” – isn’t much of a guide to what to do now.
Captain Obvious: This isn’t your grandfather’s peace process
Kushner is also off the mark when he says “the variables haven’t been changed much” over all those years where nothing was supposedly getting done. Wrong again: The situation today is not even remotely similar to past periods when Arabs, Israelis and Americans succeeded and failed. The region is experiencing a degree of turmoil unprecedented in any other period of peacemaking (ever heard of a little place called Syria?). Arab countries—and here’s a positive variable—are more willing to consider supporting a serious process, as Kushner surely knows first-hand. But the two leaders—Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu—are more constrained than their predecessors and are unwilling and unable to make the decisions on the big issues—Jerusalem, refugees and borders. Kushner’s casual assertion that you have to pick and choose where you draw your conclusions, presumably what kind of approach you will take—seems preternaturally naïve. A conflict-ending accord requires a comprehensive approach. This isn’t a menu from one of those old Chinese restaurants where you can pick one from Column A and one from Column B.
Don’t be Israel’s lawyer
Clearly, Kushner has a fondness for Israel and Netanyahu, through longstanding family connections and early childhood memories, that outweighs his regard and affection for the Palestinians. He sympathizes with the Israeli prime minister, and describes how he took Israel’s interests into account first in the recent controversy over metal detectors at the Temple Mount. That instinct isn’t fatal to his efforts—building trust with Israel is critical to success. But we have often overdone it.
In 1989, I resurrected a term from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs—that the U.S. couldn’t afford to be “Israel’s lawyer.” My then-boss, Secretary of State James Baker, loved it; I took my fair share of grief from American Jews and Israelis for saying it publicly. But the fact is we do have to see this conflict from both sides, regardless of our special bonds with the Israelis. Unless we’re prepared to exercise independence when it comes to mediation, we won’t succeed. The only three Americans to ever succeed in Arab-Israeli peacemaking—Kissinger, Carter and Baker—all operated off a pro-Israeli script. But they also were prepared to push the Israelis along with the Arabs. You can’t do Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking without applying ample amounts honey and vinegar. Nobody going to plant a tree in Israel in honor of Jared Kushner should he succeed – at least not immediately. If he’s not prepared to push both sides hard, he might as well close up for the season.
Maybe it just can’t work
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Kushner’s talk occurs at the end, when he concedes the obvious—that this might not work. “So, what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know,” he says. “I’m sure everyone that’s tried this has been unique in some ways, but again we’re trying to follow very logically. We’re thinking about what the right end state is. And we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution, but it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on. So we’re going to focus on it and try to come to the right conclusion in the near future.”
This is exactly right. In the end, reality must be the point of departure. For too many years—and I’ll speak personally here—my own view was based on the illusion that there was a deal, that the parties could make it and that the U.S. could help them deliver it. I haven’t given up hope entirely; but I have abandoned my illusions. The fact is, you need real leadership and commitment by the two sides. Then and only then can America be a key force in peacemaking. My sense is that Kushner realizes that the peace process isn’t ready for prime time, and isn’t quite sure what do about it. (Neither am I.) There’s no mention in the transcript of a two state solution – an end state his father-in-law hasn’t endorsed.
Still, barring some unexpected move by one of the parties, he will—like his predecessors— remain trapped in a peace-process Bermuda triangle, wandering around between a two-state solution that’s too hard to be implement and one that’s still too important to abandon. I wish him luck.