Peace Deals Prove Kushner and the Amateurs Are Better at Diplomacy Than the 'Experts' | Opinion

The ceremony that was held this week to seal the normalization deals between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain marked one of the Trump administration's signature achievements. While President Donald Trump will, as is his wont, took the lion's share of the credit, standing at his side was the man who also deserves much of the praise for this triumph.

Senior Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner may still be viewed with contempt by the national press corps and the foreign policy establishment. But if they are being honest, they'll have to admit that the agreements have earned Kushner a place in American diplomatic history for helping end Arab support for the Palestinians' war on the Jewish state.

Giving Kushner the credit he deserves would be a bitter pill for his many critics to swallow. During the stormy first months of 2017, few Trump appointments were greeted with as much scorn as the decision to appoint Kushner to lead efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

Kushner's primary qualification for the job seemed to be the same as the reason he was named senior adviser to the president. As the husband of the president's daughter Ivanka—who received the same title in her capacity as one her father's closest counselors—Kushner was given a number of responsibilities in the chaotic first months of the new administration.

But giving the Middle East portfolio to a wealthy former real estate magnate and part-time publisher—whose only experience with Middle East politics derived from his education in Jewish day schools and tourism in Israel—struck the foreign policy establishment as both comical and an outrage.

Some of the most experienced and respected American diplomats of the last half-century had been given the same portfolio and had failed. Trump's boasts about brokering the "ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians were considered ridiculous. Giving the job to Kushner was considered further proof of Trump's foolishness.

The derision wasn't limited to Kushner. The rest of Trump's Middle East team was as bereft of diplomatic experience as he was. The head of the negotiating team was Jason Greenblatt, previous chief legal officer of the Trump organization. Another was Avi Berkowitz, an attorney who had worked for Kushner in private life and then followed him to the White House as his assistant on both domestic affairs and Middle East negotiations. Rounding out the quartet that would ultimately have exclusive access to Kushner's plans was David Friedman—a New York lawyer who handled bankruptcy cases for the president and raised money for the Israeli settlement movement—who was appointed ambassador to Israel.

All are Jewish. While some of those who had worked on the peace process in the past were also Jewish, none of them had been outspoken supporters of Israel, as Kushner and his team were.

Members of Trump's initial cabinet had no use for Kushner. According to Bob Woodward's new book Rage, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis believed their role was to "guide" the inexperienced Trump, acting as the "adults" in the room who would prevent the amateurs from messing things up. Tillerson, according to Woodward, resented Kushner's rapport with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—whom the adviser had first met as a schoolboy. Tillerson said he found the chumminess between Kushner and the prime minister "nauseating to watch" and "stomach churning."

Tillerson's reaction fit in with the views of the foreign policy establishment. Previous American efforts to foster peace in the region were predicated on two assumptions. One was that no progress toward better relations between Israel and the Arab world could be made until a peace deal with the Palestinians was reached. The other was that the way to achieve that goal was for the United States to put pressure on Israel in order to satisfy the Palestinians' ambitions for an independent state.

Kushner and his team realized this approach had led to repeated failure. They rejected it and revolutionized U.S. policy. The UAE and Bahrain agreements are the result.

Kushner
US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner in front of an El Al airplane at the Abu Dhabi airport, following the the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE Getty

Kushner didn't magically bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But unlike their predecessors—who continued, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, to believe the right amount of pressure on Israel would bring the Palestinian Authority to the table—Trump's team took a realistic approach to the conflict.

It started with Kushner's successful effort to educate Trump about the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. As Woodward reports, Tillerson was outraged when Kushner made clear to the president that Abbas's pose as a kindly grandfather was fraudulent. The PA had not only repeatedly rejected peace offers but was subsidizing terrorism by paying out pensions and salaries to convicted terrorists and their families. For too long, American governments had turned a blind eye. Trump sought to hold the PA leader accountable for his behavior.

Kushner also supported Trump's desire to make good on previous presidential promises to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While the experts had predicted the Arab world would be set aflame by such a move, Kushner rightly discerned that the decision would be met with only pro forma Arab opposition and send a message to the Palestinians that the United States would no longer indulge their fantasies about shifting the Israelis out of their capital.

At the heart of the Kushner team's calculations was an insight that the group had gained from the field in which its members had actual experience: real estate. As Adam Entous noted in a June 2018 article in The New Yorker, Kushner understood what the Palestinians and their foreign enablers did not: Time was not on their side.

As Entous noted, the Palestinians didn't want to deal with "real estate agents" rather than diplomats who believed Abbas had all the leverage. The Trump team understood that Obama's appeasement of Iran and the Arab nations' disgust with decades of Palestinian intransigence meant Abbas's position was essentially bankrupt. In the eyes of the "real estate agents," the Palestinians were the equivalent of a landlord stuck with an overpriced, run-down property that nobody wanted. The only option available to them was a bankruptcy sale that would mean the terms of any peace deal would be less generous than the ones they had been offered by past American and Israeli governments.

Kushner's "Peace to Prosperity" scheme, unveiled earlier this year, still offered the Palestinians an independent state and the aid they need to prosper. But faced with the same Palestinian rejectionism that had stymied previous negotiators, Kushner focused on accomplishing the possible rather than the impossible.

During the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were fearful about the way Obama's nuclear deal had enriched, empowered and encouraged Iran to aggressively pursue regional hegemony. Unlike Obama, who ignored those concerns, Kushner listened. Trump withdrew from the deal and implemented sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate an end to its nuclear program and to its support for terrorism.

The Arab states had already established close under-the-table ties with Israel, which they now view as a strategic ally against Iran. But by establishing a rapport with America's allies in the Gulf, including controversial Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who could have thwarted moves by his neighbors but did not, Kushner helped persuade them to take the next step and work toward full diplomatic and economic relations.

The Palestinians are complaining, but their former Arab patrons don't care. Rather than take up Kushner's offer and try to improve on it in negotiations, the Palestinians proved themselves unable to give up their war on Zionism. Kushner understood this and didn't allow it to prevent deals that were waiting to be made.

Kushner shouldn't hold his breath waiting for apologies from those who mocked his appointment or his policies over the last three and a half years. Anger at Trump and his family runs so deep in the mainstream media and among foreign policy professionals that not even these historic agreements are enough for them to give Kushner and his colleagues the credit they are due.

But whether the critics admit it or not, Kushner's quartet of amateurs has done more to advance the cause of peace than all the professionals and experts did in the previous quarter century.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Peace Deals Prove Kushner and the Amateurs Are Better at Diplomacy Than the 'Experts' | Opinion | Opinion