Despite tensions and a total break in ties, US President Donald Trump remains “very fond” of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, senior White House official Jared Kushner said Wednesday.
But Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser to him, also lambasted the Palestinian leadership for refusing to engage with the administration on its forthcoming peace proposal, including at a recent economic conference in Bahrain, and said the administration could announce the next steps of its peace push in the coming days.
Speaking to reporters in a rare on-record telephone briefing, Kushner also indicated that his Middle East peace plan will seek to better integrate Palestinian refugees inside Arab countries rather than endorsing or advancing the Palestinian demand, rejected by Israel, for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians to today’s Israel.
Discussing the status of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out of Israel when the Jewish state was established in 1948, as well as their descendants, Kushner noted that a similar number of Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries.
“Look, you have a situation when this whole thing started where you had 800,000 Jewish refugees that came out of all the different Middle Eastern countries and you had 800,000, roughly, Palestinian refugees,” he said. “And what’s happened to the Israeli, to the Jewish, refugees, is they have been absorbed by different places, whereas the Arab world has not absorbed a lot of these refugees over time.”
“This situation exists because it exists. And when we put out a political solution, we’re going to try to put forward the best proposed solutions that we think are pragmatic, achievable and viable in this day and age,” he said.
Asked about Lebanon — where Palestinian refugees are mostly denied citizenship and many live in squalid camps — Kushner went on: “The refugees, the Palestinian refugees who are in Lebanon, who are denied a lot of rights and who, you know, don’t have the best conditions right now, would also like to see a situation where there is a pathway for them to have more rights and to live a better life.”
He said he believed “the people of Lebanon would love to see a resolution to this issue, one that is fair.”
Israel adamantly opposes the so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, saying it amounts to a demand to overwhelm Israel as a Jewish state by demographic means. The Trump administration has slashed funding to the UN’s Palestinian refugee welfare agency, UNRWA, which Israel accuses of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem by extending refugee status to the descendants of the original refugees. Thus, while there are only a few tens of thousands of refugees, the Palestinians put their refugee number at over five million.
‘In his heart,’ Abbas wants peace
Kushner said he believes PA leader Abbas genuinely seeks peace with Israel, but implicitly criticized outspoken senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for saying “crazy things” in the context of the US efforts to jump-start the peace process.
“I have a lot of respect for President Abbas. I think that he devoted his life to trying to make peace,” Kushner said. “I do believe in his heart he wants to make peace, and my hope is that we’re going to be able to give him that opportunity to try and achieve that.”
The Trump administration is keen to avoid “the same mistakes” of previous peace initiatives, but has embarked on “different approach,” Kushner said. “We’re not getting into the same old tired discussions that, frankly, lead to nowhere.”
The White House last week unveiled the economic part of its two-pronged peace proposal, which promises some $50 billion in investments for the Palestinians and the wider Middle East in case a final-status peace deal can be reached. The second part, which will deal with the conflict’s political aspects, will be released at a later stage, Kushner said.
“We haven’t allowed the process to be hijacked by people who have not been successful with it. President Abbas has certain people around him who are very uncomfortable with the way that we’ve approached this, and their natural instinct is to act and to say crazy things,” Kushner said, clearly referring to, but not explicitly naming, Saeb Erekat, who has been the PA’s most visible critic of the US’s peace initiative.
In particular, Erekat has publicly sparred with US peace envoy Jason Greenblatt on Twitter.
“Quite frankly, we don’t find that to be terribly constructive,” Kushner went on.
“Our door is always open to the Palestinian people, to the Palestinian leadership. President Trump is very fond of President Abbas, he likes him very much personally,” he said. “And at the right time, if they’re willing to engage, I believe that they’ll find that they’ll have an opportunity. Whether they’ll be willing to take that opportunity will be up to them.”
Earlier during the half-hour conference call, Kushner had criticized the Palestinian leadership for boycotting last week’s workshop in Bahrain, during which the administration presented the economic part of its peace plan to some 300 delegates from across the world, including Arab ministers and Israeli business people.
“Obviously, they made a strategic mistake by not engaging on this. I think that they looked very foolish by trying to fight against this,” he said.
The conference in Bahrain focused on the economic portion of the American administration’s peace plan, which proposes billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure projects in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighboring Arab countries.
The Palestinian leadership has asserted that the confab’s economic focus sought to undermine its aspirations for statehood by not putting a political solution first. It also has accused the US of attempting to use the gathering to normalize Israel’s status in the Arab world.
“Quite frankly, the Palestinian leadership — I’m not quite sure what they’re selling to the people, but their argument against it has not been one we found to be substantive or even comprehensible. So it’s been more hysterical and erratic and not terribly constructive,” Kushner said.
A poll published Wednesday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found 90 percent of Palestinians said they do not trust the Trump administration when it states that the goal of the confab in Bahrain was to improve Palestinian economic conditions.
Asked to choose between independence and economic prosperity, 83% of Palestinians opted for the former and a mere 15% selected the latter, the poll also found.
However, Kushner said a document detailing the economic part of the peace deal has been downloaded more than a million times. He added that he was surprised and encouraged by that number. The plan was originally published only in English, but this week the administration put out an Arabic version as well.
Kushner stressed that the economic vision laid forth in Bahrain could only work once a comprehensive peace agreement is in place. The political part of the peace plan is not expected to the released before a new Israeli government is in place, likely in November.
But Kushner indicated that he may have news regarding the so-called deal of the century much earlier than that.
“We will be announcing probably next week what our next steps are going to be, and then we will keep pushing forward,” he said, without providing any details.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.