US team has 'learned the red lines of both sides'

Kushner: Israeli-Palestinian peace needed for wider Middle East stability

President’s adviser, son-in-law insists Trump hasn’t made up his mind on embassy move, says he’s ‘optimistic’ about a deal, highlights negotiator Greenblatt’s real estate expertise

White House adviser Jared Kushner addresses the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2017. (YouTube screenshot)
White House adviser Jared Kushner addresses the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2017. (YouTube screenshot)

WASHINGTON — In rare public remarks, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said on Sunday that solving the Israeli-Palestinian was crucial to achieving wider Middle East stability.

“I think that if we’re going to try to create more stability in the region as a whole, then you have to solve this issue,” he told a conference here in a public interview with the Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, a longtime Democratic donor and supporter of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 rival.

The 36-year-old Kushner, who has been tasked with leading the administration’s efforts to broker a Middle East peace accord, also said that his boss has not yet made his mind on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.

“The president is going to make his decision,” Kushner told the audience at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum. “He’s still looking at a lot of different facts.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Trump has until Monday to decide whether to sign a waiver delaying the embassy move — technically required by a 1995 American law — for another six months. According to a series of recent reports, he is expected to sign the waiver, but give a speech on Wednesday recognizing Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital.

Such a move would be highly controversial, upsetting not only the Palestinians, but also other Sunni Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

A Palestinian delegation met with Kushner on Friday, warning him that relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem, or formally recognizing the holy city as Israel’s capital, would “kill the negotiations” and mark the end of the peace process.

Kushner declined to unveil any specifics about the administration’s peace plan — The New York Times recently reported that the proposal would be made public in early 2018 — but said he was “optimistic that there is a lot of hope for being able to come to a conclusion.”

He was also silent on the content of the highly sensitive talks he has been leading with both sides.

And he skirted another issue of intense controversy: recent revelations that he urged Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials in December 2016 in an effort to stymie a UN Security Council Resolution critical of West Bank settlements.

His interviewer, Saban, did not press him on that issue; instead, Saban was rather chummy with Kushner, and expressed gratitude for the attempt to block the UN motion, which ultimately passed because the Obama administration declined to exercise its veto.

Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, speaks with Haim Saban at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., December 3, 2017. (Youtube screenshot)

“You’ve been in the news the last few days,” Saban said to Kushner. “You and your team were taking steps to try and get the United Nations Security Council to not go along with what ended up being an abstention by the US,” Saban continued. “As far as I know there’s nothing illegal there, but I think that that this crowd and myself want to thank you for making that effort, so thank you very much.”

Kushner muttered, “Thank you,” as the crowd delivered muted applause.

Speaking to a room of US, Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as members of Congress, veteran diplomats and one Supreme Court justice, Kushner expressed abundant confidence in his team’s ability to make progress on the intractable, generations-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

L-R: Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman meet in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Kushner also acknowledged that that team, made up of himself, a real estate lawyer (top negotiator Jason Greenblatt), a bankruptcy lawyer (US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman) and only one longtime foreign policy specialist (the NSC’s Dina Powell), was “not a conventional team.”

He credited Powell with working out a long-term plan. “Her family is Egyptian, she speaks Arabic, she’s been very instrumental in helping us develop a regional aspirational economic plan for what could happen post-peace,” Kushner said.

“We don’t view a peace agreement just as signing a piece of paper and then hoping everything works out, we’re focused on what happens after,” Kushner added. “How do you create an environment where ten years down the road the people who are the beneficiaries of peace, have jobs and opportunity that they didn’t have before.”

Playing along with a theme introduced by Saban, Kushner joked about the team’s religious and ethnic makeup. “As this process has gone through, my team in particular, being three Orthodox Jews and a Coptic Egyptian, has tried very hard to do a lot of listening,” he said.

Saban, for his part, characterized it lightly as “a bunch of Orthodox Jews who have no ideas about anything.”

Nevertheless, Kushner argued they were “perfectly qualified.” He said, for example, that “there is no greater real estate lawyer than Jason Greenblatt, and there is a real estate aspect related to this.”

One of the delegation’s main objectives, he stressed, was to build trust between the sides, which he emphasized was increasing due the absence of White House leaks on the issuue.

“What we found originally was that there was a lot of hesitancy from both sides to share ideas” he said. “What they found was that nothing would leak out and we could have honest and open dialogues.”

Through those talks, he said, his team has “learned the red lines of both sides” and that they “see a lot of things that could go south quickly.”

One other development Kushner cited as helping to build an environment conducive to peacemaking was a change in the region that related to how Iran was strengthened by the 2015 nuclear deal.

Saying that the White House has made “significant progress” in unifying the region and world against Iran, Kushner said “the regional dynamics play a big role in what we think the opportunities are. [Sunni Arab nations] look at the regional threats and see that Israel, who was originally their foe, is now their natural ally.”

On that basis, he emphasized the administration was seeking to find a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate that would come directly out of the region. “We have tried to find a solution that comes from the region instead of imposing something,” he said.

Repeatedly, Kushner tried to sell his father-in-law’s ability to succeed on the difficult quest to clinch what Trump refers to as “the ultimate deal,” even as the president is mired in controversies at home.

“The president has a very long career of accomplishing things that people said weren’t possible,” he said, citing, as his case in point, Trump winning the election.

Kushner at the end of the exchange tamped down speculation that he was overwhelmed by legal troubles or the vast portfolio of responsibilities he has. In addition to Middle East peace, he also runs the Office for Innovation and is tackling the opioid crisis, and there have been reports that Trump wants him and his daughter, Ivanka, back in New York as early as next month.

“The kids are loving it here,” Kushner said. “The schools are great.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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