White House adviser Jared Kushner’s fledgling skills in diplomacy may now pale in comparison to his unintended sense of comedic timing. President Trump’s son-in-law landed in Israel on Thursday on a mission to gin up support for the administration’s long-mooted (and much-maligned) peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. But his arrival coincided with the collapse of the Israeli parliament amid an unprecedented political crisis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally and family friend of Kushner’s, failed to build a ruling coalition and was compelled to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s parliament and call for fresh elections in September. In April, he eked out what he thought was a narrow victory against centrist challengers. But thwarted by rivals within the Israeli right, Netanyahu has seen his mandate crumble. And his hopes for ramming an immunity law through the Knesset to shield himself from looming corruption cases also took a probably fatal hit.
Netanyahu is still on course to becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister later this summer, but it’s under circumstances he must loathe. For Kushner, who entered the maelstrom alongside U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and senior State Department official Brian Hook, it’s a miserable state of affairs.
“This is a rookie’s mistake,” tweeted Martin Indyk, a former U.S. diplomat and veteran of Middle East peace talks. “Everybody in Israel and the Arab world would understand if they skipped Israel on this trip. No one, especially Netanyahu, has time to talk peace in this chaotic situation.”
As it was, few held much stock in Kushner’s ability to revive a moribund peace process. The cavalcade of actions taken by the Trump administration to front-load concessions to Israel and boost Netanyahu politically already meant their overtures would be met coldly by the Palestinians.
Kushner and Greenblatt are at present trying to drum up support for an “economic workshop” to be held in Bahrain in the last week of June. They hope to raise billions in funds for Palestinian development projects. But the conference has already been spurned by a host of regional actors and world powers, and rejected by leading Palestinian politicians and business executives who want a political solution to the occupation of their lands, not what they perceive as financial handouts to buy their acquiescence.
Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security in Washington, argued that the political tumult in Israel now turns an already-enfeebled venture into a farcical charade. “It was going to be meaningless anyway, but it’s going to be even more meaningless now,” he told Today’s WorldView.
As it was, the Trump administration held back on unfurling its plan because of the sensitivities around the April election in Israel. A new campaign cycle means no Israeli politician — least of all Netanyahu and Kushner’s other interlocutors on the Israeli right — would want to be associated with any kind of compromise with Palestinians. That means the earliest likely moment for the White House to unveil the full scope of its thinking would be in November. But given the exigencies of the 2020 presidential election in the United States, Trump may think it better not to float a potential dud on the world stage.
“I think the Trump peace plan is on ice indefinitely now,” Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, said to my colleague Loveday Morris.
Shapiro added that the June meetings in Bahrain would now become “a ghost economic summit” in support of “a phantom peace plan.” After the Knesset voted to dissolve itself Wednesday night, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat quipped that Kushner and Trump’s much-vaunted “deal of the century” would be, at best, “the deal of the next century.”
Nevertheless, Netanyahu and Kushner attempted to put on a brave face. “Even though we had a little event last night, that’s not going to stop us — we will continue to work together,” the Israeli prime minister said, grinning before cameras.
Netanyahu explicitly invokes his closeness with Trump as one of the reasons Israeli voters should return him to power. In what seemed a bid to cheer up Netanyahu, Kushner delivered a map of Israel and its environs that was autographed by Trump. It showed the Golan Heights as part of Israel; the Trump administration had earlier this year recognized Israeli sovereignty over the disputed territory, much to the chagrin of most of the international community. Trump labeled the move with an arrow and one word: “Nice.”
There’s little nice about what may ensue in the coming months. Thanks to aid from the gulf states and Europe, the Trump administration has so far not faced much blowback from its decision to slash funding to the Palestinians. But that shortfall and a separate impasse over Israeli transfers of Palestinian tax revenue has precipitated a budgetary crisis for the Palestinian Authority that could send it toward collapse in a few months. It’s unclear how far the Trump administration has thought this through: The PA is an institution propped up for decades by the United States as the designated vehicle for a Palestinian state. Its close cooperation with Israeli forces is vital for the latter’s security interests.
Kushner and Trump may have assumed such economic pressure would bend the Palestinian negotiators toward their will, but that clearly hasn’t worked. Meanwhile, the prospect of renewed violence and tensions is only going to grow in the absence of an Israeli government that’s willing to soften its posture.
“You can really see some very destabilizing things happening in the West Bank and Gaza,” said Goldenberg.
And the new election in September may not offer much of a reprieve. “The next Netanyahu government — and he’s still the favorite to win again — may view the inevitable Palestinian rejection of the Trump peace plan as a green light to begin annexing settlements in the West Bank,” wrote Israeli journalist Neri Zilber. “Arab and European states may grow tired of acting as the cash machine for a two-state solution that both Washington and Jerusalem no longer believe in.”
“Netanyahu’s party had secured a one-seat advantage in the April parliamentary elections and was the only party with a realistic path to forming a governing majority. That path was not as clear as Netanyahu had hoped, however, as he failed to reconcile the differences between ultra-Orthodox religious parties and his staunchly secular former defense minister Avigdor Liberman.
“Addressing the country early Thursday, Netanyahu delivered remarks that sharply contrasted with his beaming speech at his campaign headquarters on election night. His failure to form a coalition with his traditional partners dents his reputation as a veteran political operator.
“But there is also much more at stake. His party had been in the process of advancing legislation that would shield members of parliament, including Netanyahu, from prosecution. In October, Netanyahu’s lawyers are scheduled to present his defense in a pre-indictment hearing on criminal charges including bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
“Netanyahu squarely blamed Liberman for Israel’s move to a costly second round of elections, describing him as ‘part of the left.’ Liberman refused to join Netanyahu’s government without a promise on the passage of a bill to draft ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis into the military. But Netanyahu also had to balance the demands of ultra-Orthodox parties in his potential coalition.
“Liberman shot back at Netanyahu, accusing him of being more left-wing. He said the ‘cult of personality’ around Netanyahu has replaced ‘substantive debate.’”