Kushner's Middle East mission impossible

The first time I met Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump pushing for GOP donor's company to get border wall contract: report Trump family members will join state visit to UK Top Palestinian negotiator: Trump wants our surrender MORE, I told him that I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as his had in him because he had given him a mission impossible. He laughed and acknowledged that it was hard, but his father in-law saw Israeli-Palestinian peace as a critical issue, and now was the time to tackle it.

In subsequent meetings I made clear that if he succeeded and came out with a plan that was deemed fair and serious, I’d be the first to break open the champagne. 

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But that’s a big "if." As we await the much-delayed but now almost certain-to-be-launched June peace plan, it’s worth trying to separate fact from fantasy and lay out some harsh realities about the Trump administration’s still-opaque approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that is almost certain to doom its success.

But this may not matter. The administration’s more important goal is to reframe U.S. policy and permanently kill an already fraught two-state solution.

Ignoring the past 

In an interview Thursday night discussing his peace plan, Jared Kushner volunteered that given the differences between Israel and Palestine on the issue of statehood, “let’s just not say it." It's the clearest indication yet that a Palestinian state won’t be formally addressed in his forthcoming plan.

That was a consistent theme in our conversations about a two-state solution: “If that would’ve worked, we would’ve have made peace a long time ago," he told me. 

The two-state solution was in deep trouble long before Trump came along. But if Kushner wants to end the conflict, he cannot simply will the past away. He has to find an alternative approach to overcome two mission impossibles:

  1. Convince Palestinians and Arab states to participate in a process that departs fundamentally from their longstanding and deeply entrenched narrative of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
  2. End the Israeli occupation in a way that separates Palestinians from Israelis and gives the former control over the vast majority of the West Bank where 2.6 million Palestinians reside.

The two-state solution may be near death; but killing it — as the Trump administration wants to do — without a credible alternative — and one does not come to mind — won’t end the conflict.

Misreading the present 

To the administration’s credit, it has helped to cultivate two new realities that if managed adroitly in the hands of a skillful mediator, might have been used to advance a serious peace process:

  • It has sought to build on the emerging anti-Iranian alignment between the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Israel and to enlist the Arab states in the peace process; and
  • it has gained Israel’s confidence.

But on the first point, it has overestimated how willing the Saudis would be to pressure Palestinians and reach out to Israel without serious concessions to the Palestinians from both Israel and the U.S. Saudi King Salman has been consistent in supporting Palestinian statehood with a capital in Jerusalem as the "sine qua non" for Arab state support.

On the second point, it has so overplayed its hand by showering the Israelis with goodies — recognizing Jerusalem as its capital, opening the U.S. Embassy there and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Golan — that it’s compromised its role as an effective peace broker.

Gaining Israel’s confidence in this way would be a smart tactical move if the Kushner plan should ask Israel to make some very hard decisions. Then nobody could say that the Trump administration didn’t have Israel’s back and hadn’t gone to great lengths to protect it even as it asks for major concessions. But that remains to be seen. 

Stacking the deck 

Gaining the confidence of one party in a negotiation is fine as long as an effort is made to maintain the confidence of the other. Instead, the Trump administration has willfully pursued a policy of alienating Palestinians and marginalizing their role.

The administration has:

  • eliminated the Jerusalem consulate as the Palestine Authority's (PA’s) main interlocutor;
  • cut U.S. assistance to the PA;
  • closed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington;
  • withdrew the U.S. support for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency — the principal source of funding for Palestinian refugees; and
  • trivialized the Palestinian stake in Jerusalem while they delegitimized their claim to statehood.

The motivation for these actions seemed to be to administer reality therapy to the Palestinians and to remind them as the weakest party that they have a great deal to lose by not cooperating with Washington. But it’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail. 

There is no ultimate deal 

The sad and painful reality is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was on life support well before the Trump administration got to it. And despite the president’s aspirational goal of an ultimate deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is not a shred of empirical evidence to suggest it’s possible.

Neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE nor Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas is willing or able to make decisions on the core issues — borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees — necessary to even get close enough so that a skillful mediator can bridge the gaps.

The mistrust and suspicion between Israel and the PA, splits between Hamas and Fatah, the certainty of a new right-wing Israeli government and the bias of the Trump administration all but guarantee deadlock or worse.

The real agenda

So, if getting to negotiations, let alone a deal is unlikely, why push for a comprehensive peace plan? Instead, the real objective on the part of the Kushner team is to find a new approach that fundamentally transforms the traditional concept of two states and makes it almost impossible for a successor to return to something like it, especially if the Trump administration lasts until 2024.

The administration has devalued the idea of two states, tilted heavily toward the Israelis on Jerusalem and acquiesced to a significant increase in settlement activity under Netanyahu.

When asked in a congressional hearing for his reaction to Netanyahu’s promise to annex parts of West Bank and settlements, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said nothing. Should this occur, the Trump administration’s legacy may not be that it killed the two-state solution; but it most certainly helped bury it.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former State Department Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He’s the author most recently of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (And Doesn’t Want) Another Great President."