Kushner’s New Priorities: Middle East Peace Out, Border Wall In

WASHINGTON — Five months ago, the Trump administration concluded an international conference centered around its plan for Middle East peace. The workshop, which was hosted in Bahrain, brought together representatives from several Arab countries as well as private business executives from Israel. It was seen as the first step in a process to advance the White House’s peace plan.

In the months that followed, though, no progress has been made — mainly because of the domestic political situation in Israel. As the country stumbles toward a possible third election in the space of 12 months, the fate of the U.S. peace plan is unclear. It's impossible to predict what, if anything, will emerge from it in the next few months.

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50Haaretz

The Bahrain conference took place on June 25-26 and focused exclusively on economic aspects, putting aside diplomatic, political and security-related questions. Days before the conference kicked off, the White House team working on the plan released a lengthy document presenting potential economic projects and investments in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The decision to publish only the economic chapter and leave aside the diplomatic one was itself a product of the political troubles in Israel. Two and a half months before the Bahrain gathering, it seemed as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had won the April 9 election. A day after Netanyahu celebrated his apparent victory, President Donald Trump told reporters in Washington that the administration’s peace plan would be presented in the near future — presumably once Netanyahu had finished assembling his coalition government.

From there, though, things got complicated. Netanyahu failed to form a coalition because of disagreements between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Avigdor Lieberman's secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Inside the Trump administration, deliberations took place while the political drama was unfolding in Israel. Some close to the peace team advised its members to put forward the plan in the midst of the coalition talks, in order to give Netanyahu and Benny Gantz (leader of the centrist Kahol Lavan party) a helpful "push" toward the formation of a national unity government.

Others told the team, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, that releasing the plan during coalition negotiations would be a mistake. They warned Kushner and Jason Greenblatt — at the time Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East — that publishing the plan then would seem like a direct intervention in Israel’s coalition negotiations by the U.S. administration.

Senior adviser Jared Kushner attending a news conference with President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, November 13, 2019.Patrick Semansky/AP

The Trump team had already faced frequent accusations of direct interference in the election by the Israeli and U.S. media, as well as political opponents in Washington. In the weeks before Israelis went to the polls, Trump had recognized Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights at a joint ceremony with Netanyahu in the White House; praised Netanyahu in public appearances; shared Netanyahu’s election propaganda on his social media accounts; and sent his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for a first-of-its-kind visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The administration denied any of this was related to the election.