And Jared Kushner won’t be able to do much to help.
By Jared Keller
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen departing a meeting with Donald Trump on September 25th, 2016. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
On the eve of his inauguration, while attending a dinner for campaign VIPs at Union State in Washington, D.C., Donald Trump singled out Jared Kushner as a “special person” who’s capable of bringing peace to the Middle East.
“If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,” Trump said of his 36-year-old son-in-law, who will serve as a special adviser to the president over the next four years. “All my life I’ve been hearing that’s the toughest deal in the world to make. And I’ve seen it. But I have a feeling Jared’s going to do a great job.”
If Kushner’s indeed going to do a great job, Trump isn’t making it easy for him. On Sunday, the White House said it was in the “beginning stages” of talks to relocate the American embassy in Israel from its current home in Tel Aviv to the much more hotly contested Jerusalem. The announcement came just a few hours before Trump was scheduled to hold his first official conversation with embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To be clear, the embassy move isn’t some small diplomatic snafu by the fresh-faced Trump staffers at the Department of State. As Reuters noted Sunday, the international community regards Jerusalem’s diplomatic status as “a matter for peace negotiations,” with Palestinian leaders vowing that “an embassy move would kill any prospect for peace.” The White House announcement signals that Trump plans to make good on his promise to AIPAC (one renewed through the Israeli media the Thursday before inauguration) to move the embassy “to the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
This flies in the face of Jerusalem’s status on the political stage. Newsweeknotes that the international community sees the city’s political status as Israel’s official seat of government “as a matter for peace negotiations.” The idea of a shared Jerusalem between the Israeli and Palestinian governments has been an inextricable, near non-negotiable foundation of peace talks for decades. Even now-former President Barack Obama, in his final press conference on Wednesday, cautioned his successor that “sudden unilateral moves” by the White House in the Middle East could be “explosive.”
Yet Trump is already stoking the embers of conflict among the region’s bitter foes. Earlier this month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote Trump to warn him that an embassy move would yield a “disastrous impact on the peace process, on the two-state solution and on the stability and security of the entire region,” Al Jazeera reported. (Abbas reportedly attempted to enlist Russian President Vladimir Putin in staving off the embassy move in the week before inauguration, which is problematic for its own set of reasons.) Palestinians began protesting in the West Bank on Thursday.
After years of rocky relations with Obama, Netanyahu stands to benefit the most from Trump’s embassy move. Indeed, the embassy announcement came as senior Israeli officials rolled back restrictions on the construction of hundreds of new (and highly controversial) Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, a core pillar of the Orthodox Jewish Home party and a vehicle for Netanyahu to consolidate his political standing amid a stream of scandals.
But even Netanyahu doesn’t seem completely enthused by Trump’s expeditious fulfillment of his embassy promise. Netanyahu is moving more cautiously here, receiving briefings by Israeli security agencies on potential violent clashes should the embassy’s relocation become official. Despite the potential political gains Trump presents for Israel’s far-right, officials close to Netanyahu told Reuters that even the beleaguered prime minister doesn’t want to put Israel in the international spotlight so early in Trump’s unpredictable presidency.
“He does not want to shake the entire world and put Israel at the center of contention, isolation and criticism,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud minister and Netanyahu confidant. “I hope the government will not let itself be dragged after Jewish Home’s agenda.”
This isn’t totally unexpected: Foreign policy analysts tend to agree that the Trump administration could be a hindrance to Netanyahu, despite its tantalizing appeal as a respite from years of disrespect at the hands of Obama’s Department of State. Here’s Gregg Carlstrom’s astute analysis in Politico from December:
The embrace of Trump and the belligerence toward the rest of the world that Netanyahu is using to woo right-wing voters carries a profound risk. Israel is betting all its chips on an unpopular, untested president with no knowledge of the region and a history of breaking his campaign promises. If he does renege, Israel will find itself even more isolated.
And if he keeps his word — if Trump governs the way he campaigned — then he will promote policies that are deeply unpopular with many Americans, including American Jews. Implausible as it sounds, it may be Trump and Netanyahu, two men who profess to be Israel’s strongest defenders, who definitively shatter the “unbreakable alliance” and rupture the decades-old bipartisan consensus on Israel.
But it’s worth noting that the embassy talk, taken alongside the almost-simultaneous settlement push, isn’t just Trump fulfilling a campaign promise to American Jews, but a dismantling of the Obama administration’s efforts toward a stable peace process in the Middle East. The Obama administration spent its final weeks in office rebuking settlements as a fundamental threat to regional stability, from outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry’s characterization of the West Bank status quo as “one state and perpetual occupation,” to the United States’ abstention from a United Nations resolution banning future settlements.
The moderating presence of Kushner at the White House Israel-Palestine table is a cold comfort. The embassy mess could become another diplomatic saga that falls to the commander-in-chief’s advisers to mop up — a welcome alternative to another round of shellings and bombings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the Guardian reports that, despite Kushner’s personal ties to the State of Israel (as an Orthodox Jew and grandson of Holocaust survivors), he remains a “diplomatic neophyte” who doesn’t actually “know the region, know the people, [and] know the players.”
Even if Kushner could smooth things over and back his boss out of the embassy mess, why would he? The Guardian observes that Kushner’s only major contribution to the Trump administration’s Middle East policy was Trump’s speech in March to AIPAC — the same speech that contained the embassy promise. Taken with the naming of pro-settlement lawyer Dan Friedman as his chief diplomat to Israel, it appears that, even under the moderating influence of Kushner, Trump has no interest in threading the needle in the most volatile region on the planet.
After weeks of geopolitical anxiety, Trump finally spoke with Netanyahu in his official capacity as president for the first time on Sunday, just hours after the embassy and settlement news broke. According to a White House readout of the call, Trump “emphasized that peace between Israel and Palestine can only be negotiated directly between the two parties, and that the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress toward that goal.” Sadly, all signs suggest that goal is still far from being met.