How Kushner, without calling to ‘re-draw’ Israeli borders, caused election furor

Trump’s adviser was victim of Arabic TV mistranslation which prompted shockwaves on Israeli right; in fact, Netanyahu has already made clear he’s now opposing Palestinian statehood

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

US President Donald Trump’s Middle East point man Jared Kushner gave an interview to Sky News Arabic on Monday about the administration’s upcoming peace proposal. He didn’t reveal any details, but uttered the word “borders,” which was enough to send shockwaves throughout Israel’s right-wing parties.

New Right leader Naftali Bennett cited the interview Monday to repeat his claim that Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are “coordinating” the release of the peace plan.

“Jared’s words prove what we already know: That the day after the elections, the Americans will push the Netanyahu-Lapid-Gantz government to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on Route 6, to agree to the division of Jerusalem — and Netanyahu will be forced to acquiesce,” Bennett said.

He was referring to a possible (though not particularly likely) future coalition of the prime minister’s Likud party with the new Blue and White alliance headed by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.

The nightmarish scenario called the “establishment of a Palestinian state” could only be prevented by voting for his party, Bennett posited.

“In the upcoming election, the question posed is ‘right or Palestine,’” he added. (It sounds better in Hebrew: yemin o Falestin.)

Likud responded by accusing the New Right of hurting the nationalist camp rather than attacking its “leftist” opponents.

Netanyahu protected “the Land of Israel and the State of Israel against the hostile Obama administration and he will continue to do that with the friendly Trump administration,” the party said in a statement.

Rafi Peretz, the head of the United Right-Wing Parties — yes, the one that, at Netanyahu’s behest, includes the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit — also weighed in.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 13, 2019. (Flash90)

“When Kushner spoke of re-drawing the border, he brought me back to my house in Atzmona [which was located in the Gush Katif settlement bloc, before the 2005 disengagement from Gaza] and the harsh images in which IDF soldiers evicted my family and I from our house,” he tweeted.

Did Kushner announce that his peace plan would entail uprooting settlements? Not at all. In fact, close examination of Kushner’s remarks shows, he didn’t even hint at Israeli territorial withdrawals.

What did Kushner actually say?

The right-wing’s breathless reaction to Kushner’s interview may have had something to do with the fact that many Israeli media outlets (including The Times of Israel) initially reported that Trump’s adviser had spoken of “re-drawing” Israel’s boundaries. He did not. Kushner spoke in English, but Sky News Arabic broadcast the interview overlaid with an Arabic translation, which introduced the “re-drawing” inaccuracy. The original English-language quotes were not immediately available.

According to a full transcript published Tuesday by The National newspaper, what Kushner actually said was this: “The political plan, which is very detailed, is really about establishing borders and resolving final status issues. The goal of resolving these borders is really to eliminate the borders. If you can eliminate borders and have peace and less fear of terror, you could have freer flow of goods, freer flow of people and that would create a lot more opportunities.”

Kushner said that the peace plan wants to help get the Palestinians “what’s been elusive to them for a long time.” But he did not explicitly mention a Palestinian state, nor did he even vaguely endorse a two-state solution.

What exactly he intended by saying “establishing borders” remains as obscure as ever.

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, left, meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on August 24, 2017. (Courtesy, WAFA)

Israeli pundits have been split on whether Kushner’s interview was good news or bad news for Netanyahu. Some argued that the Trump administration ostensibly demanding Israeli concessions works in Netanyahu’s favor, because it affords him the perfect opportunity to portray himself as the only statesman with enough gravitas to withstand pressure from the White House.

Others disagreed, positing that the prime minister does not want the peace process to become a central issue of the election campaign, since he only has vague positions and little hope to offer in that area. Thus Kushner speaking at all, even vaguely and in what was evidently an effort to court Middle East support for the plan, was unhelpful to Netanyahu, in their opinion.

Kushner’s team says that it won’t release the peace plan before the April 9 election, but as of Monday it has became a major issue in the campaign, whether Netanyahu likes it or not.

What’s Netanyahu’s position?

In fact, the upcoming publication of Trump’s “deal of the century” (his aides loathe this term, knowing it would add to the disappointment if it fails) has prompted Netanyahu, at least for now, to end his longstanding ambiguity regarding his views on the two-state solution. Bottom line: He opposes it.

In a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu, previously a steadfast opponent of Palestinian statehood, had for the first time declared his acceptance, in principle, of a demilitarized Palestinian state under certain conditions.

Political campaign posters in Jerusalem ahead of the 2009 elections (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Political campaign posters in Jerusalem ahead of the 2009 elections. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

A few days before the March 2015 Knesset election, he changed his tune, and said no Palestinian state would come into being under his watch. Shortly after the polls closed, with victory secured, he backtracked and recommitted himself in principle to the idea of two states for two peoples.

After Trump was elected president in late 2017, however, he painstakingly avoided explicitly endorsing a two-state solution. When asked, he either replied that he wants the Palestinians to be able to govern themselves without having the power to threaten Israel; or that it depends on what kind of state we’re talking about: Yemen or Costa Rica?

But last Thursday, in a speech denouncing the freshly formed Lapid-Gantz alliance, Netanyahu explicitly condemned efforts to create a Palestinian state as a “terrible solution.” A government headed by Gantz and Lapid would soon promote a Palestinian state “on the outskirts of Tel Aviv,” he warned. “A Palestinian state will endanger our existence.”

Will he have the political capital to make the same sort of pronouncement once the Trump peace place comes out, assuming it endorses such a formula (and assuming he wins the elections)? We shall see.

On Monday, once the mistranslation error had been cleared up, it became clear that Kushner had been carefully non-definitive on the question, merely saying that compromises will be required of both sides. “You have the Israeli position, you have the Palestinian position and the outcome has to be somewhere in the middle,” Kushner said.

But the administration saying anything at all, however vague, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is evidently enough to cause ructions in pre-election Israel.

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