NEW YORK (JTA) – Saying a U.S. plan for Middle East peace would be released “soon,” Jared Kushner sharply criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in what appeared to be an intentional gambit to drive a wedge between the Palestinian people and their leadership.
Whether that strategy will bring Abbas back to the table or create momentum for new Palestinian leadership was met with skepticism by many Middle East experts, who doubted the viability of any plan that does not include the Palestinians.
In a rare interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser on the Middle East strongly suggested that Abbas was responsible for the situation in Gaza and the struggles of the Palestinians, adding that the Palestinian leader prioritizes his own political survival over alleviating the difficulties of his people.
Throughout the interview, which was published Sunday in Arabic during his multinational trip to the region, Kushner repeatedly blamed Abbas for the struggles of the Palestinians.
“I don’t think the Palestinian people feel like their lives are getting better, and there is only so long you can blame that on everyone other than Palestinian leadership,” Kushner said.
The real-estate developer turned White House adviser utilized the terms “leaders” or “leadership” a combined 16 times in the interview, zeroing in on what he deemed to be their previous and continued failures.
“Now is a time where both the Israelis and Palestinians must bolster and refocus their leadership, to encourage them to be open towards a solution and to not be afraid of trying,” Kushner said. “There have been countless mistakes and missed opportunities over the years, and you, the Palestinian people, have paid the price.”
Kushner suggested that the United States, Israel and the Palestinian people are united toward peace, while Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are stymieing the process.
“I do question how much President Abbas has the ability to, or is willing to, lean into finishing a deal. He has his talking points, which have not changed in the last 25 years,” Kushner said. “To make a deal, both sides will have to take a leap and meet somewhere between their stated positions. I am not sure President Abbas has the ability to do that.”
After Al-Quds released the interview, Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, accused Kushner and the Trump administration of attempting to topple the Abbas regime.
Members of the Trump administration “are working and trying to work hard in a regime change because Palestinian leadership under the leadership of President Abbas wants genuine, lasting, comprehensive peace based on international law,” Erekat told reporters in Ramallah, in the West Bank.
Abbas was elected only once as president of the Palestinian Authority, in 2005, to a four-year term that has been extended. A March opinion poll, however, found that 68 per cent of Palestinians want him to resign.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JTA that Kushner’s rhetorical alienation of Palestinian leadership reflects the administration’s overall strategy on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The plan appears to be designed to challenge and even diminish the demands of the Palestinians significantly, making it clear that they are not equal partners in this equation,” Schanzer said. “The offer of a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, the reduction in assistance to UNRWA, the reduction in aid to the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have all reinforced this message.”
Abu Dis is a suburb of Jerusalem that lies east of Israel’s security fence. Abbas has responded angrily to rumors that the U.S. peace plan might offer Abu Dis, saying it does not meet Palestinian demands for a capital in eastern Jerusalem. Earlier this year, the U.S. government cut more than half of its planned funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
This overall strategy, Schanzer said, places primacy on securing support from the Saudis and other Sunni states rather than appeasing Palestinian leadership, an alliance discussed at length in a recent article in The New Yorker.
“When the offer comes, and it is significantly less than offers put forth by past administrations, the Palestinian leadership is almost sure to reject it,” Schanzer told JTA. “The key to success will be the extent to the moderate Sunni states rally behind Trump despite Palestinian protests – not whether the Palestinian leadership is satisfied.”
Others in the foreign affairs community, in publications including The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Jewish Insider and The Forward, criticized Kushner’s remarks and the Trump administration’s overall policy.
Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the director of its Middle East Security Program, rejected the one-sided nature of the administration’s strategy.
“I don’t believe Kushner’s interview will hurt the chances of his peace plan because the peace plan doesn’t really have any chance of succeeding,” Goldenberg told JTA. “You can’t be a mediator and propose a serious plan when one of the parties will not even engage with you.”
“There are only two possibilities for the plan. The first is that the proposals are along the traditional lines previously put down by Clinton and Kerry, in which case both sides will reject the plan. The other more likely scenario is that the plan will move closer to the Israeli position, in which case Netanyahu might accept ‘with reservations’ but the Palestinians certainly will not.”
“Either way,” Goldenberg said, “this whole endeavour is almost certain to fail.”
Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, thought it “worthwhile” to speak directly to the Palestinian people, but said it is not a substitute for direct dialogue with their leaders.
“A plan that offers Palestinians a state on the 1967 lines with swaps and a credible capital in East Jerusalem would have a chance to gain significant support, even including accepting concessions on security, refugees and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state,” Shapiro told Jewish Insider. “A plan that envisions a rump Palestinian state in portions of the West Bank, or only islands of autonomy with no characteristics of sovereignty and no serious presence in East Jerusalem, would not.”
Veteran Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross was skeptical of any plan that would depend on the support of the Gulf States at the expense of a Palestinian buy-in.
“Arab leaders need to be able to justify their position by pointing to what the Palestinians would be getting and what is important to Arab audiences,” he told The New York Times.