Kushner Fails to Impress Palestinians

Jared Kushner was on a Middle East mission last week attempting to do what at least half a dozen U.S. emissaries and special presidential envoys have failed to do for more than two decades: putting the peace process on track toward concluding a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. But there was a marked change in the U.S. tone, as Kushner, accompanied by Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt and Deputy N.S.A. Adviser Dina Powell, met with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt before heading to Israel and the West Bank. Not once did Kushner mention publicly what is considered by Arabs, and indeed the international community, as the cornerstone of a final deal: the two-state solution.

Kushner and Greenblatt had spent weeks in the West Wing meeting interlocutors and debating ways to jumpstart direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). These negotiations had hit a wall in 2014, when the Obama administration gave up on attempts to bring the two sides together. President Mahmoud Abbas had a list of conditions, which Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had flatly rejected. The primary stipulation for Palestinians had always been to stop the unbridled Israeli appetite for Arab land; the same land that both sides should be negotiating its future. For the Palestinians, these illegal settlements are being constructed on land that is part of the future Palestinian state. Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners have divergent views.

Netanyahu has become the first Israeli leader since Oslo to depart from the goal of two states living side-by-side. His position has hardened in recent months, especially following Donald Trump’s presidential victory last year. Following decades of intermittent negotiations, the gap between the two sides on so-called final-status issues has never been greater. But even as pundits on different sides declared that the two-state solution was all but dead, Abbas continues to cling to that goal.

But that could be changing with Trump failing to endorse the two-state solution. Kushner is reported to have told Abbas, whom he met in Ramallah on Thursday evening, that he will not publicly mention the two-state solution, although that remains part of U.S. policy. Informed sources told me that the U.S. team presented Abbas with a list of “talking points” dealing with political issues that included the right of return for Palestinians, amending the lines designating West Bank areas where the P.A. has jurisdiction, and delineating the borders of East Jerusalem. Abbas reportedly responded directly to all ideas insisting that the only solution was the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. While Al-Hayat newspaper reported that Kushner refused to put pressure on Netanyahu to freeze settlement activities at this time, a White House official denied the newspaper’s report.

Kushner asked Abbas to restart direct negotiations, for two years, without specifying any references or a final objective. Abbas said he will study the matter. Kushner promised to come up with fresh ideas in few weeks, according to sources.

According to a well-informed source, Kushner’s main objective is to launch two parallel regional paths; restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and accelerating steps to normalize relations between Israel and Gulf states ostensibly to confront a common enemy: Iran.

The latter approach would be based on the Arab Peace Initiative (A.P.I.) conditions for normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds, but would start from the bottom rather than the top. In the A.P.I., a quid-pro-quo deal is offered where Israel would withdraw from Palestinian and Arab lands, which it occupied in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, and in return Arab and Muslim states would recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations.

It is worth noting that Arab leaders meeting in the Dead Sea in Jordan last March had reiterated their commitment to the A.P.I. without amendments. For Jordan and the Palestinians, any change to the A.P.I. would be counterproductive, and only reward Israel’s occupation while relieving it from Arab and international pressure to withdraw and award independence to the Palestinians.

As things stand right now, Abbas is the one feeling the pressure following Kushner’s visit. The embattled Palestinian leader is facing domestic challenges from his Hamas rivals in Gaza, and from his own Fatah cadre. He is yet to conclude Palestinian reconciliation, which has weakened the P.A. and Abbas’ own leadership. There is also pressure on the ailing Abbas, now 82, to name a successor. There is renewed talk that Abbas, who has pinned high hopes on the Trump administration, is growing increasingly frustrated with the United States and considering taking his case to the U.N. General Assembly in September. Abbas reportedly told close aides that while the Palestinians cannot accept an open-ended occupation, no matter the size of the economic incentives that Israel may be willing to offer, and if the two-state solution is truly dead, then he will tell the world from the U.N. podium that the only option left will be a one-state for Palestinians and Israelis.

But he was advised by Arab leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to give Kushner the benefit of the doubt and wait for the U.S. envoy to present his new ideas before taking his case to the U.N.

Kushner, who enjoys a close personal relationship with Netanyahu, has not dealt a fatal blow to the two-state solution yet, but he has damaged its foundation, while failing to present a view of what a final solution could look like. Abbas may turn his defeat in securing an independent state for his people into a form of a pyrrhic victory for Netanyahu. The ramifications of a single state will be far more costly for Israel than the current alternatives.