Opportunity of the century or debacle of the decade? Jared Kushner's Bahrain 'workshop' falls flat

Donald Trump's son-in-law has spent two years reportedly working on the ultimate deal to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

June 26, 2019 13:09

Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, has spent the last two years reportedly working on the ultimate deal to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

This week, he announced the economic aspects of his plan at a “workshop” in Bahrain, centring on around $50 billion to be pumped into the region, the majority of it to the Palestinians, in an attempt to provide a massive jump-start to their economy.

His approach appears simple. Decades of failed negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have shown that any possible deal will hinge on a relatively small number of key political issues – such as West Bank settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return. Begin with these things, however, and the chances of an immediate breakdown in negotiations are all but inevitable.

So instead Mr Kushner has started with the good news, talking of a potential $50 billion investment in the region and painting a picture of a shiny, prosperous future for Palestinians. His plan appears to be to get them to sign up to that first and then discuss the real make-or-break issues later.

The problem with that, of course, is that the Trump administration is not considered by the Palestinians to be any sort of fair broker.

Donald Trump has moved the United States embassy to Jerusalem, officially recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and cut US funding for Unwra, the Palestinian Refugee agency.

His “peace plan” has been created by Mr Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman – three people viewed as being far more sympathetic to the Israeli position than the Palestinian one.

Palestinian leaders have already rejected the plan and boycotted the Bahraini event. Given the absence of the Palestinians, official Israeli envoys are not there either.

Mr Kushner and his team have reportedly attempted to bypass Palestinian leaders and reach out to “everyday” Palestinians. “Everyday” appears to mean “the few Palestinians who would agree to talk to them”. And even some of the latter have described how their suggestions on ways to move forward with a peace plan were met with smiles but little else.

The Palestinian leadership has previously rejected far more generous terms than those likely to be offered under a Trump deal. This time, however, they are faced with a White House which looks likely to actively blame them for any failure. Mr Greenblatt has already told an Israeli TV channel that if the deal does not succeed, “I will know who was to blame.” He is unlikely to have meant the Israelis.

But the problems for Mr Kushner go beyond the Israelis and Palestinians. Any peace plan needs broad support from across the Arab world. To be fair, Mr Kushner is aware of this, which is one of the reasons why his proposed economic package includes significant sums for Arab countries in the region.

But when your allies in the region are sending junior ministers to your event, rather than their heavy-hitters, it’s a fair indication that they’re humouring you. Egypt and Jordan have done just that.

The US-Saudi relationship is particularly strong at the moment, but Jared Kushner’s almost casual announcement that any peace plan will not be based on the Arab Peace Initiative – introduced by the Saudis in 2002 – may well lead to grimaces in Riyadh.

Even the economic portion of his plan is big on dreams but small on details. It is unclear where this $50 billion Mr Kushner is suggesting is meant to come from, but it is unlikely to be from the United States. To paraphrase Mr Trump, it looks as if America is trying to build a deal, but the Middle East is going to have to pay for it. 

Throughout his whole career, Mr Trump has expressed vague indicators of what he wants and left subordinates to carry out the details. If the attempts by these underlings succeed, Mr Trump can swoop in to take the credit. If they fail, then there is a convenient person to take the blame.

It is understandable why Mr Kushner has delayed publishing the political aspects of his plan – its rejection is all but inevitable, and he will not be looking forward to being blamed by Mr Trump for that failure. But the longer he delays releasing the full plan, the more it works in the Palestinians' favour.

Mr Trump is by no means guaranteed re-election. If Mr Kushner delays much longer, the Trump administration will have just a few months before having to pivot to domestic politics, at which point the Palestinians can, with the rest of the world, wait to see whether Mr Trump will be replaced. If he is, the deal will evaporate like smoke on water, and Mr Kushner can quit diplomacy and return to real estate.

June 26, 2019 13:09

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