'I believe Abbas wants peace, has devoted his life to peace'

Kushner: Palestinians welcome to propose alternative to borders set out in plan

In apparent contradiction, White House adviser also says US moving to recognize annexation of settlements within months, but adds plan aims to ultimately stop settlement expansion

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said on Saturday that the borders envisioned by the Trump peace plan for Israel and the future state of Palestine are not set in stone and that the Palestinian Authority is welcome to provide input that Washington will take into consideration.

“If there are things they want to change, if they don’t like where we drew the lines, they should come and tell us,” Kushner told Egyptian journalist Amr Adeeb during an interview on the El-Hekaya news show.

But in an apparent contradiction, the senior White House adviser also made clear that the US was moving forward with plans to recognize an Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements, which would limit the amount of land that will be up for negotiation. Moreover, he declared that if the PA did not agree to work with the Trump administration’s peace proposal, Israeli settlements would continue to expand, thereby making it impossible to establish a Palestinian state.

“What’s been happening for many years is that Israel has been expanding as they’ve been negotiating and negotiating, and there has not been a resolution to the conflict,” he said.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

Kushner, one of the main architects of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, said the US was working on reaching an agreement with Israel to recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, thereby allowing for Jerusalem to move forward with annexing these areas.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared after the plan’s release Tuesday that he intended to seek his government’s approval for annexing the Jordan Valley along with all Israeli settlements as soon as this week, Kushner pushed back the next day, saying that he wanted Israel to coordinate the measure with the US and that it should not go ahead before Israel has a fully functioning government after its March 2 elections.

Kushner told El-Hekaya on Saturday that the agreement on US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank “will take a couple of months,” during which the sides will survey “every inch” of the West Bank.

“This is land that they [the Israelis] are never going to leave anyway, because they have their people there,” Kushner said.

Ultimately, he indicated, however, the US goal was to achieve a deal in which Israel did not expand settlements further: US recognition, he said, would be “in exchange for them [Israelis] stopping growing [the settlements].”

“Because I’ll tell you that… if we didn’t do this, Israel will continue to grow at this pace and there will never be an opportunity to create a Palestinian state,” he asserted.

For their part, settler leaders have vowed since the plan’s unveiling that they will continue expanding Israeli communities in the West Bank in order to render a Palestinian state impossible.

A Jewish settler argues with a female soldier during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip on August 17, 2005. (Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)

With the plan providing for all settlements to remain in place, including 15 that would become “enclaves” inside a future Palestinian state, Kushner spoke out against the viability of the notion of Israel evacuating settlements in exchange for peace. He pointed to the Jewish state’s evacuation of some 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip when it left Gaza unilaterally in 2005, a move he said “almost created a civil war.”

“There are over 500,000 [Israeli] people now who are in the West Bank, so what we’re trying to do is figure out how can you stop the growth of Israel there in a way where you can give Israel the land that they’re never going to leave anyway,” he said.

Kushner claimed the Trump plan was the first time Israel had agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the first time it had agreed to a map conceptualizing the land it was willing to allocate for that state, and the first time it has agreed to allowing the Palestinian state to have its capital in East Jerusalem.

It was not clear what Kushner was referring to since Israeli leaders, including former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, all held extensive negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the basis of those principles.

Then-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (right) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in Jerusalem, on November 17, 2008. (Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)

Commenting on Netanyahu’s declared acceptance of the plan, Kushner called it “a major historic step that only President Trump could have been able to accomplish because of his close relationship with Israel.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected Washington’s plan outright, calling it the “slap of the century” and vowing it to consign it to “the dustbins of the history.”

In a Saturday address during an emergency Arab League meeting in Cairo, Abbas said he was cutting all ties, including security coordination, with both Israel and the US — a threat he has made numerous times in the past without following through. The Arab League rejected the US plan in a unanimous statement.

Ramallah severed almost all of its ties with Washington after the latter recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. The US subsequently shuttered the PLO representative office in Washington and slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians and the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees.

US President Donald Trump (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, January 27, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Defending the policy,  Kushner told El-Hekaya, “if you’re going to criticize America, we’re not going to give you aid anymore. American aid doesn’t come to countries that criticize.”

“If they want the position that they’ve been holding out for for the past 25 years that they haven’t gotten, they’re not gonna get that,” he added of the Palestinians.

While Kushner criticized the Palestinian leadership’s track record on peace negotiations, he clarified, “I do believe that President Abbas wants peace, I believe he’s devoted his life to peace; whether he and his team are capable of doing it is going to be up to them.”

“If we don’t get through this, the Middle East will never be able to heal,” Kushner said.

He added that there were many Arab and Muslim countries that would like to normalize ties with Israel and that could be satisfied by Netanyahu’s agreement that Jordan maintain its role as custodian at the Temple Mount compound, aka Haram al-Sharif, as the Trump plan insists.

US presidential adviser Jared Kushner (left) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on June 21, 2017 (PA press office)

However, the plan also envisions worshipers from all faiths being allowed to pray at the holy site in what would be a violation of the status quo, which doesn’t allow Jews to pray there. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman later said the US would not seek to impose any changes without the agreement of all sides.

Asked to comment on the feasibility of the land swaps envisioned by the plan, which would see land in the Negev bordering the Gaza Strip become part of a Palestinian state, Kushner said, “We have one of the biggest developers in the Middle East who will hopefully announce soon that he’s going to come on board to help us do a master plan for the new additions in Gaza.”

He did not name the developer, but said the individual would help establish a high-tech manufacturing industrial zone and a residential agricultural zone for Palestinians in two pockets of Israeli land bordering Egypt.

Kushner dismissed speculation that the land is not habitable, saying: “Developing in 2020 is much different that developing 10 years ago or 20 years ago.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing maps of (L to R) historical Palestine, the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the Palestinian territories and Israel, and a current map of the Palestinian territories without Israeli-annexed areas and settlements, as he attends an Arab League emergency meeting discussing the US-brokered proposal for a settlement of the Middle East conflict at the league headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on February 1, 2020 (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

The White House adviser said the plan — which envisages an eventual demilitarized Palestinian state under overall Israeli security control — would grant Palestinians twice as much land as they currently have available to them. The PA has security and civilian control over Area A, which makes up some 18% of the West Bank, and civilian control over Area B, which makes up roughly 22% of the West Bank. Israel controls the remaining 60% known as Area C, based on the 1994 Oslo Accords.

Kushner told El-Hekaya that the “bridges and tunnels” that the deal envisions would allow the Palestinians to have a fully contiguous state in which its residents would be able to travel from north to south without having to go through a single checkpoint.

The Palestinians have long asserted that the pre-1967 borders should be the basis from which to begin negotiations for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. The US plan is in agreement with the latter principle, but places the capital in the rundown village of Abu Dis on the other side of the West Bank security barrier, some distance from the Old City and other integral Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

“To move forward, both sides have to make concessions, and both sides have shown no flexibility over the last 10-15 years,” Kushner said.

On Sunday Kushner told CNN that if Palestinians were unable to meet the conditions of the new plan, Israel should not take “the risk to recognize them as a state.”

Kushner was challenged by CNN host Fareed Zakaria to explain why demands made of the Palestinians before they are given a state — a free press, free elections, religious freedom, an independent judiciary and a reliable financial system — did not amount to “a killer amendment.”

“There is no Arab country that would meet these criteria, certainly not Saudi Arabia, Egypt” or other countries Kushner has worked with closely, Zakaria said.

Kushner replied that the Palestinian territories amount to “a police state… not exactly a thriving democracy… For the Palestinians, if they want their people to live better lives, we now have a framework to do it.

“If they don’t think they can uphold these standards, then I don’t think we can get Israel to take the risk to recognize them as a state.”

He added: “The only thing more dangerous than what we have now is a failed state.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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