When it comes to the Arab-Israeli peace process, the Trump administration wants to pretend that the last 70 years never happened. And like most policy pushes that ignore history, the so-called Trump-Kushner plan (named for presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who is drafting it) will be dead on arrival.
Like President Trump’s claims to return the United States to an earlier age, the Trump-Kushner plan pledges to do the same for Israel and Palestine, returning the region to the imperialism of the 1930s and 1940s, with the same anti-Arab prejudices and paternalistic interference of that era. By continuing to leave Palestinians out of the process while promising to look out for their best interests, the plan fuels the same tensions that have provoked unrest in the region for 70 years.
While the official release of the Trump-Kushner proposal continues to be delayed, some of the plan’s details have been made public. Most notable is the absence of any pathway to Palestinian statehood.
That should come as no surprise. The same spirit that animated the administration’s decisions to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem undergirds the new road map. It allows Israel to annex existing settlements in the West Bank and to promote them elsewhere. (One Golan Heights settlement, already announced, will be named “Trump.”) Israeli law would be extended over the settlements and surrounding areas, and Jerusalem would belong exclusively to Israel.
In exchange for Palestinian self-determination, the plan offers money — lots of it. The Trump-Kushner plan would reverse course on the administration’s current policy of cutting aid to Gaza and the West Bank. Instead, it would encourage the Saudis and others to flood Palestinian territories with massive aid packages. Notably, this program isn’t based upon consultations with the Palestinians, who have been frozen out of negotiations.
Similarities abound between this plan and the paternalistic, pro-Israeli thought of American foreign policy elites before and during World War II. Nowhere was this thinking more evident than in the pages of Foreign Affairs, long considered the “bible” of foreign policy wisdom curated by the Council on Foreign Relations.
In its earliest days, the Council on Foreign Relations accepted the League of Nation’s mandate system toward the region as the kindest, gentlest way to modernize “backward” Arab populations under European tutelage. This sense of the need to civilize Arab populations dominated the pages of Foreign Affairs, driving writers to adopt ever shifting stances toward the region, but ones that always remained motivated by this spirit.
In Foreign Affairs’ earliest days in the 1920s, writers found themselves alarmed by a potential “Holy War” against Britain, which controlled the Palestine Mandate, and its Western allies. They compared “Islamic militancy” to fanatical Russian communism, and worried the two ideologies might easily melt into a common movement against the West. “Is it not more likely that Turkey,” asked one Foreign Affairs expert, “already drifting toward Bolshevism, will be swallowed up in the devastating whirlpool which is sweeping Russia back into Asiatic barbarism?”
These fears about Turkey quickly receded, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s successful secularization drive. Foreign Affairs increasingly shifted its attention to Saudi Arabia, seen as the new front line of “pan-Islamic” resistance to European Christian culture. King Ibn Saud was building an “empire” in the Middle East that one writer feared would eventually reveal that Western and Arabic values could not coexist in the region. In 1928, concern about this resistance to the imposition of Western culture led Alois Musil, a Czech expert on the region, to use Foreign Affairs to propose a containment strategy for the House of Saud.
The clash-of-civilizations thesis gave way to hopes for rapid modernization in the 1930s and 1940s. But the paternalistic thinking underlying this narrative remained firm. Writers heaped praise on Ataturk’s Westernizing push in Turkey, believing it had led to the privatization of Islam, while setting a shining example for the region. “The entire east is in process of transition from one cultural stage to another,” enthused Hans Kohn, the Jewish American philosopher and Zionist. He credited Ataturk with leading the way.
In this period, assessments of Middle Eastern leaders in Foreign Affairs shifted rapidly based upon a sense of who offered the best prospects to “civilize” or “modernize” the native populations. So it was that Kohn and other writers almost overnight transformed Ibn Saud from a dangerous holy warrior to a modernizer, the leader who was bringing the “elements of civilization” to an unsettled “nomadic” people. During World War II, historian Joel Carmichael (the son of Louis Lipsky, a founder of the American Zionist movement) encouraged the Council on Foreign Relations community to get to know Saud and embrace his attempts to tame the Arab “wilderness.”
The journal’s search for “civilizing” allies in the Middle East produced a strong Zionist orientation. Kohn and Carmichael were just a few of the Zionists who endorsed Israeli settlement in Palestine. Others, including future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, argued from early on that Jewish pioneers were the West’s best agents to “civilize” the “backward” and “lowly Arab” from within. Self-professed “evangelical” writers also argued that the British mandate in Palestine was God’s design to return the “Holy Land” to his chosen people.
In language pulled straight from the era of high imperialism, writers in Foreign Affairs argued that the Zionists would rule Palestine on a cooperative, spiritually neutral foundation. They would seek “economic fusion” with their Arab neighbors, hiring them as manual laborers rather than colonizing them. The Jewish-led state in Palestine, that Arabs would either have to accept or leave, would be founded upon “complete civil and political equality of rights for all citizens, without distinction of race or religion.”
This vision saw Israel as a beacon for the region and world, demonstrating how Jews, Muslims and Christians could live together harmoniously.
It also proved enormously naive. Instead of serving as a beacon to the world, Israeli paternal supervision unsurprisingly provoked fierce backlash from the Palestinians and their Arab allies. Three-quarters of a century of strife stemmed in large part from the failure to take Palestinian experiences and interests seriously.
Today, the Kushner-Trump plan again envisions a Jewish-led state in which members of all faiths live in harmony. “We want people to be able to have the freedom of opportunity, the freedom of religion, the freedom to worship, regardless of your faith,” Kushner said in a recent interview. “We want all people to have dignity and to respect each other” and “be able to better their lives and not allow their grandfather’s conflict to hijack their children’s future.” He would have everyone forget the ways in which political religions have undergirded the struggles for Palestinian as well as Jewish statehood since World War II.
Kushner’s rejection of the past is part of a larger problem caused by the return to paternalism in the administration’s road map. His plan is rooted in the belief that increased Israeli control over the region, coupled with outside developmental aid, will lead to a new era of Palestinian modernization absent political aspirations. As such, the Trump-Kushner peace plan harks back to the purportedly enlightened imperialism so prevalent in the pages of Foreign Affairs, which sparked such intense backlash. As Kushner prepares to head back to the Middle East to sell the Trump administration’s plan, no wonder that Palestinians are already encouraging everyone to reject it.