JERUSALEM — President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, arrived here Wednesday afternoon with an audacious mission: to see if it is possible to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Few voices in Jerusalem or Ramallah sounded very hopeful as the untested Kushner came for preliminary talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
This is the right place for skeptics. But they are hedging their bets. That’s mostly because Trump is so out-of-the-ordinary, so grandiose and mercurial, that the players here wonder whether he just might make progress — or, alternatively, make things worse by raising expectations, then abandoning the project in a tweetstorm of frustration and finger-pointing.
Past efforts to broker peace are strewn with failure, overseen by veteran American diplomats with years of experience in the region, who were all sent packing.
Perhaps as a sign of the stakes, Kushner’s first meeting after arriving was to offer condolences to the family of an Israeli border police officer, Staff Sgt. Maj. Hadas Malka, 23, who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday.
After a session with Netanyahu, the White House described the meeting as “productive.” Israel’s Channel 2 reported that it was open-ended and very preliminary, with the Americans offering no proposals or timetables.
No time is the right time for negotiations in a region in turmoil. But now is an especially challenging moment for Trump’s inexperienced 36-year-old envoy to give it a try.
The Palestinian leadership is weak and fractured. And Israel’s coalition government is among the most right-wing in its history, whose members not only oppose a Palestinian state but also want to annex wide swaths of the West Bank for Jewish settlers.
Yet Trump surprised Arabs and Jews with his improbable insistence that “the deal of the century” can be struck.
The president won plaudits from all sides during his whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank last month.
“President Trump is at his point of maximum leverage,” Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in an interview. “He has gained respect in the region. He is seen as serious. Add to that, his known streak for being unpredictable. This might make it very difficult to say no to him or to a member of his family.”
Shapiro cautioned: “This creates an opening. Not more than an opening. One shouldn’t be irrationally exuberant. But the opening is real.”
As point man, Kushner’s inexperience in the Middle East is duly noted but may not be fatal. He is joined on his mission by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, who was formerly Trump’s real estate lawyer.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have two people with no experience. Others who have had a lot of experience haven’t done so well either. They all failed,” said Nathan Thrall, author of the new book “The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine.”
Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the Crisis Group, warned that the advantage of fresh eyes has its limits.
“Both the Israelis and Palestinians are pros at wearing down envoys with endless details,” he said. “They’ve done it to the most experienced negotiators.”
Thrall and others said they thought the new effort posed more risks for Netanyahu than Abbas.
When Trump was elected, Netanyahu and his right flank, especially in the settler movement, were overjoyed.
Relations with the Obama White House had sunk to new lows. They were expecting more of the same from Hillary Clinton. But Trump spoke a language Israelis loved, gushing with praise for the Jewish state and playing down long-held U.S. positions that branded settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as “illegitimate” and “obstacles to peace.”
Little by little, Trump has sown doubt on the Israeli right. He surprised his new Israeli fans by warning Netanyahu to slow down on new settlement construction — with unproven results.
Construction began this week on a new settlement deep in the West Bank, on land the Palestinians want for a contiguous state, for Jewish settlers evicted from their homes after it was shown that they built on private Palestinian property.
“After 20 years I have the privilege of being the first prime minister to build a new settlement in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu wrote Tuesday on Facebook, using the biblical terms for the West Bank. “There never was nor will there be a better government for settlement than our government,” he boasted.
Palestinians have remained publicly supportive of Trump’s efforts, even though they say they realize Greenblatt and Kushner are unlikely allies. Both men are Orthodox Jews from New York and committed Zionists with histories of supporting Israel.
Kushner and Greenblatt have asked both sides to tell them what they want and where they want to go. The Palestinians say they are ready to present their vision in detail. Standing beside Trump during their meeting in Bethlehem last month, Abbas was specific: He wants a sovereign state created along pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Aides to Abbas said that during his meeting with Trump, the two leaders even examined maps.
“But we are not sure that Netanyahu can or will give the Trump team a bottom line. Can Netanyahu utter the words ‘two states?’ That is the question,” said a Palestinian official preparing for Kushner’s trip, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the news media.
The White House issued a statement before the trip asserting that Trump “strongly believes that peace is possible” and was sending “his most trusted advisers” to spearhead the effort.
The White House cautioned that forging a historic peace agreement will take time.
Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said that Trump’s approach of bringing Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan into the mix offered renewed incentives.
Meridor said that he was hopeful that the Palestinians would engage with seriousness and that it was in Israel’s best interests to seek a deal.
Most Israelis, including Meridor, assume that if Netanyahu begins to engage deeply in talks and makes confidence-building gestures, his governing coalition will break apart and new partners, most likely from the Labor Party, will have to be brought into the government.
As for the White House, “I think the desire is positive. I hope they are coming with elements of seriousness. They will need hope, patience and perseverance,” Meridor said. “It will take a lot of time and a willingness to invest plenty, even when the result could be less than what one might expect.”