Immediately following the rollout of U.S. President Donald Trump’s much anticipated Peace to Prosperity plan, Jared Kushner observed to Christiane Amanpour that some of criticism of his efforts came from former mediators who had tried and failed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Having worked on this interminable problem for the better part of two decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations and having relentlessly hammered what I considered to be a not-ready-for-prime-time peace plan, there’s little doubt that I was one of the folks he had in mind. Still, to Kushner’s credit, since assuming his role as his father-in-law’s peace envoy he had kindly and respectfully solicited my advice, among others.
What follows are the four most important lessons I conveyed. That he didn’t take my advice is hardly surprising. After all, I was a failed peacemaker, and he made it pretty clear in our first encounter that he was determined to do things quite differently. Fair enough. We had our chance under previous Republican and Democratic presidents. And now it was his turn.
But I guess my main message didn’t get through. My observations were shaped by failure and offered in an effort to prevent its reoccurrence. I’m not an admirer of this president. But I told Kushner that if he succeeded, I’d be one of the first to break open a bottle of champagne; and if he failed to present something credible, he could count on me to say so.
Here’s what I told him.
1. Mission Impossible
The first time I met Kushner, I half-jokingly quipped that I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as his had in him, because he’d been given an impossible job. Given the gaps between the two sides on all the core issues, especially Jerusalem and its borders, the depth of mistrust between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the divisive politics on both sides, the odds of a big plan succeeding were slim to none.
He said his father-in-law wanted a big peace plan. I said fine. But be very careful. If he disrespected the issues and blatantly favored one side over the other, he could end up making the situation much worse.
2. Don’t Ignore the Past
I quoted Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And I made it clear that applied in spades to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If there was an issue where the past was prologue, this was it. Instead of arbitrarily discarding what came before, especially in terms of where both sides were, I advised him to study it for ways to shape a different kind of future, while heeding its lessons. He didn’t necessarily have to be trapped by the past; but he couldn’t ignore it. I told him that if you don’t know where you’ve been, chances of knowing where you can go are pretty slim. The past doesn’t have to be a prison. But you can’t start de novo, or somehow pretend it didn’t exist. He seemed to me intent on doing precisely that and doing it his own way—like a kind of Frank Sinatra of the peace process.
3. Don’t Be Israel’s Lawyer
I told him I had retrieved that phrase from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs for former secretary of state James Baker, who loved it and lived by those words when he attended the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. That didn’t mean the United States wasn’t Israel’s closest ally; indeed, Baker established a very good relationship with then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, despite the tensions.
I made clear that Kushner’s client isn’t Israel, or the Palestinians, but an agreement. You need to advocate for both sides, otherwise you can’t possibly succeed. Kushner said he was going to make it impossible for Netanyahu to say no to Trump, by making it unmistakably clear that the United States had Israel’s back. That’s fine, I replied. But if it’s all honey for Israel and only vinegar for the Palestinians, there was zero chance this would work.
4. What is success?
Finally, Jared Kushner asked me how I would judge success. I said to him that I would be impressed if, the day after the plan was announced, Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Europeans—indeed the whole international community—basically said: “You know, there are things in here we don’t like. But we must give the Trump administration credit, because they really struggled fairly and honestly with the issues and have produced a framework for negotiations that could result in an agreement.” If that was the reaction, he would have scored a huge victory. However, the last thing the United States needed was another failed peace plan.
Sadly, that’s almost certainly what we have now. It will be worse than failure, if the United States gives a green light to the Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley or the vast majority of the West Bank settlements. But even if the current Netanyahu government doesn’t act that way, the terms of this deal are so preternaturally weighted toward Israeli needs and requirements, and against Palestinian interests on statehood and Jerusalem, that the plan simply doesn’t constitute a basis for serious negotiations, let alone an agreement.
But then again, it’s quite possible—perhaps even likely—that at some point, having been given responsibility for fixing a problem that he knew he couldn’t solve, the Kushner calculus shifted to other metrics for success.
First, bucking up Netanyahu’s political durability so that he might still be around in November 2020 to be used as a prop in Trump’s reelection campaign, and of course to shore up Trump’s evangelical and conservative base.
Second, putting out a vision, rather than an operational plan, that reframes U.S. policy toward a two-state solution that tracks and hews very closely to the strong pro-Israeli views and emotions of the plan’s architects. The Trump administration can’t be blamed for failing to help produce a two-state solution; right now, no administration could. But Trump’s actions may very well help bury the possibility of one on his watch.