WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s diplomatic team tasked with brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accords now faces another hiccup: It is led by someone without a top-secret security clearance.
That is an unprecedented situation, former US Middle East peace negotiators told The Times of Israel this week. But does it doom Jared Kushner’s attempts to succeed where past administrations have failed? Not necessarily, these same former diplomats say. It will hurt his ability to conduct negotiations, but that in and of itself won’t shatter his efforts.
“The fact that he has no clearance above secret will make absolutely no difference in terms of the results, because the problem in this case is not Jared Kushner’s access or lack of access to classified information,” said Aaron David Miller, who worked on the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio for the State Department under multiple administrations.
“When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it is the inability of two guys to make the kinds of choices and decisions that would allow a third party, namely Mr. Kushner, to push them and support them as they move toward a negotiated agreement,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But it’s still not good for Kushner — President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law — and will likely hurt him on two levels: of perception and substance.
“There’s a prestige element here. The people with whom he deals now understand that, whatever the reality, the impression and the image is that he’s been reduced a notch,” Miller said. “A lot of this is hype and image and smoke, but the notion that people have access to information and that [information] is power is a universal concept in negotiations.”
As far as the substance goes, Kushner will no longer be able to see certain intelligence reports, including intercepts of conversations between Arab and Palestinian leaders, which can be useful for a US official who wants to know what other parties are thinking.
“The people with whom he deals, particularly on the Arab and Palestinian side, now understand that he will not be reading conversations or intel about them, because he’s now denied access to NSA intercepts, which can, in a negotiation, be important,” Miller continued. “Not determinative, but important.”
Some former US negotiators, however, insist the intelligence reports are less important than the human-to-human side of negotiations, in which Kushner can still, theoretically, engage. His biggest obstacle there is that, since President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December and set in motion plans to move the US embassy there, the Palestinian leadership has refused to meet with members of the Trump administration, arguing they gave up their capacity to act as an honest broker.
“Honestly, over the years in all the negotiations I did, I found that the intelligence is not as important as the direct meetings. The intelligence was not a big factor when it came to doing the negotiations themselves,” Dennis Ross, who worked on the peace process under both Republican and Democratic administrations, told CNN. “It’s not to say it wouldn’t help him.”
On Tuesday, Politico first reported that Kushner’s top-secret security clearance was taken away after months of delays in completing his background check.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly sent a memo last Friday that set a February 23 deadline for halting access to top secret information for those whose applications have been pending since June 1 or before that date.
Kushner now has access only up to the level of “secret.”
There is at least one veteran US diplomat who doesn’t think his diminished status will hurt him at all: Elliott Abrams, who held multiple high-level positions in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
“With a secret clearance, you have access to 100 percent of diplomatic reporting,” Abrams told The Times of Israel. “That’s all he needs to be able to lead the American effort on the peace process.”