White House adviser says freedom from Israeli military interference is a ‘high bar’
The Guardian / June 3, 2019
Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s Middle East adviser and son-in-law, has expressed uncertainty over the ability of the Palestinians to govern themselves in a rare television interview broadcast on Sunday night.
Kushner – who is considering delaying the publication of the political portion of his peace plan because of the need for new parliamentary elections in Israel – said it would be “a high bar” when asked if Palestinians could expect freedom from Israeli military and government interference.
Meanwhile, in a leaked off-the-record briefing, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, doused expectations that the plan would lead to an immediate breakthrough, admitting it might be rejected, and adding: “I get why people think this is going to be a deal that only the Israelis could love.”
Kushner, who is due to meet British officials this week as part of Trump’s visit to the UK to discuss the plan, is still intending to publish the economic portion of the proposals covering Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt at a two-day workshop in Bahrain attended by prominent regional businessmen and mainly Arab finance ministers.
Airports, seaports, industrial zones and power stations are all envisaged in a plan that has an emphasis on infrastructure, and is in some ways modelled on the Saudi 2030 plan for modernisation, as well as on countries in south-east Asia that have been transformed.
Kushner hopes the presence in Bahrain of finance ministers, as opposed to foreign ministers, will lead to a more pragmatic reception there.
The political section of the plan may have to be delayed until after the fresh Israeli elections in September, but the decision on its timing will be for Trump to make.
Trump, a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was not happy about the “ridiculous” fresh elections, saying Israel was “all messed up”.
Kushner clearly hopes that the plan – likely to see an injection of as much as $50bn of mainly Gulf state cash into the region – will be seen as transformative enough that it will overpower those voices saying the plan does not meet traditional Arab demands for a two-state solution, a capital in East Jerusalem, a return to 1967 borders and Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
Kushner has been keeping his cards close to his chest, and speaking to Axios on HBO he avoided explicitly saying whether the plan would include a two-state solution with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Jared Kushner on why the Palestinians would accept his Middle East peace plan:
He said of the Palestinians: “I do think they should have self-determination. I’m going to leave the details until we come out with the actual plan.”
Asked whether he believed the Palestinians were capable of governing themselves without Israeli interference, Kushner said: “That’s a very good question. That’s one that we’ll have to see. The hope is that they, over time, will become capable of governing.”
The Palestinians, he said, “need to have a fair judicial system … freedom of press, freedom of expression, tolerance for all religions” before the Palestinian areas can become “investable”.
Asked whether he understood why the Palestinians might not trust him, Kushner said: “I’m not here to be trusted,” adding that he believed the Palestinian people would judge the plan on whether it improved their daily lives.
Palestinian leaders both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have said they will boycott the Bahrain event since they were not consulted.
China and Russia have also turned down invites. They see the whole initiative as a bribe to persuade the Palestinians to abandon their decades-old quest for political rights in return for an uncertain promise of a new economic future that has been made by politicians before.
Kushner is clearly working hard to prepare the political ground for his plan, stressing his flexibility and willingness to listen to constructive criticism, but at the same time emphasising a fresh approach is required if his plan is to avoid the fate of innumerable previous failed plans.
Kushner’s critics claim he is misjudging the degree of popular Arab solidarity on the Palestinian issue by listening excessively to the Gulf monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that combine opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood with an antipathy to Iran, and internal democracy.
Jordan, already suffering an economic crisis, will be critical to the plan’s reception, and seems increasingly alarmed at what it regards as Kushner’s imbalance.
Kushner is convinced that popular opinion is more flexible than that of some Palestinian leaders. He said: “There’s a difference between the technocrats and … the people.” While “the technocrats are focused on very technocratic things”, a reference to traditional demands for political rights, “when I speak to Palestinian people, what they want is they want the opportunity to live a better life. They want the opportunity to pay their mortgage.”
With Saudi Arabian cash a linchpin of his plan, Kushner is sidestepping questions about the US policy towards the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post columnist murdered by a Saudi government hit squad in Turkey. Asked if he joined Khashoggi’s fiancee in calling on the Saudi government to release his body (or identify where they put the body parts) so that his family might bury him, Kushner said: “Look, it’s a horrific thing that happened … Once we have all the facts, then we’ll make a policy determination, but that would be up to the secretary of state to push on our policy.”
Kushner is a close ally of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and sees him as a genuine reformer pushing through women’s rights at a pace that a conservative society can tolerate.
The Axios interview also touched on Kushner’s views on whether Trump is racist.
Kushner denied the president was racist but would not be drawn on his views on Trump’s “birtherism” campaign against Barack Obama, in which Trump and others claimed Obama was born outside the US.
“I wasn’t involved in that,” he said several times, when asked if it was racist. He was similarly reticent when asked about Trump’s campaign pledge to stop Muslims entering the US.
Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor