“I think we can say in less than 20 years,” America’s top diplomat said, laughing. “I prefer not to be more precise.”
The remark was intended in jest, but it highlighted an unfortunate fact: The Trump administration’s peace plan has already been a long time coming, and few details have been revealed. Pompeo was smiling, but those hoping the plan may be the solution to one of the Middle East’s most intractable problems fear they may be waiting not for Kushner, but for Godot.
President Trump’s belief that his administration could potentially find a way to solve the conflict — as he put it, with the “deal of the century” — dates back to before he took office. So does his idea that Kushner, who had no government or diplomatic experience, would be the best man for the job.
“Jared’s a very smart guy,” Trump told the New York Times in November 2016. “I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians.”
At a pre-inauguration event in January 2017, Trump told the Times of London that Kushner would lead the process. “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,” he said. Kushner, by then a senior adviser to the president, headed to the Middle East in June. He told a Palestinian newspaper his plan would be released soon: “We are almost done.”
A couple of months later, leaked audio suggested Kushner wasn’t so sure whether he had a plan at all. “There may be no solution,” he told White House interns in August 2017. “But it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on.”
Kushner’s private caution may have been wise. More than a year and a half after those comments, his peace plan still has not been released. This week, McClatchy’s Michael Wilner reported that the plan was “largely complete” but that it would probably not be released until after Israel’s April 9 election.
To say expectations are low would be an understatement. Shalom Lipner, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked in the Israeli prime minister’s office for 26 years, wrote in a recent article for Politico Magazine that Kushner’s efforts reminded him of “Don Quixote dreaming the impossible dream in ‘The Man of La Mancha.’”
Kushner’s struggle to find Middle East peace is far from surprising. Those with far weightier résumés have struggled, too. The peace process was pretty much moribund in the years before Trump took office, following the collapse of a nine-month process led by the Obama administration in 2014.
Though there were hopes in 2016 that another nation might lead renewed talks, no one is stepping up to the plate. “The Palestinians have never been so weak, Israel never so hard line, and the possibilities for peace never so bleak,” Sarah Helm wrote in the Financial Times on Wednesday. “So the Europeans are content to watch Mr. Kushner fail.”
Why assume Kushner will fail? With Middle East peace negotiations long mired in the debates of the Oslo accords of a quarter-century ago, the Trump administration at least hopes to reinvigorate the process. “I think we have some ideas that are new, fresh and different,” Pompeo told the House on Wednesday.
Yes, but different doesn’t necessarily mean better — or good. Kushner, a businessman by trade, initially appeared to hope economic incentives alone could spur the Palestinians to make compromises. Some reports now suggest he’s using his real estate chops to add a land swap to the deal.
Speaking in Warsaw last month, Kushner told Sky News Arabia his plan would focus on border issues. A recent book by journalist Vicky Ward said Kushner had, at one point, proposed a “different” idea: border changes, with Jordan giving land to the Palestinian territories, Jordan getting land from Saudi Arabia and the Saudis getting two Red Sea islands from Egypt.
The idea was widely mocked. Understandably, the administration quickly distanced itself from it, dubbing it “false info.”
What really worries people about Kushner’s peace plan is not the wild rumors about what’s in it — it’s what has happened outside the plan already. Since taking office, Trump has made multiple moves that appear designed to squeeze and punish the Palestinian side.
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) highlighted these actions in a question to Pompeo on Wednesday, citing the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the closure of a Palestinian political office in Washington and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem that served the West Bank; and cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and West Bank assistance funding.
“Can you tell me how this is supposed to work?” Price asked, noting that the Palestinians were refusing to meet with U.S. officials.
Trump’s recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights, a strip of land seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, has also further complicated matters. As Today’s WorldView noted earlier this week, the decision seems to have been timed to boost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Kushner family friend, ahead of the April 9 elections.
The move could have an impact beyond simple electoral politics. Even Kushner’s allies in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have issued condemnations. Moreover, Netanyahu’s justification of Israel’s possession of the land — that annexations in defensive wars were okay — goes against international norms and theoretically could be a justification for Israeli control of much of the West Bank.
That would spell the end of the two-state solution and potentially result in something very much like the “state-minus” plan for Palestinian territories mooted by none other than Netanyahu himself. On Wednesday, Pompeo did not answer when asked whether the United States was still promoting a two-state solution.
Instead, he offered a vague response: “It will be the peoples of those two lands who resolve this.”