Mnuchin, Kushner to visit Israel during Middle East trip
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Mnuchin, Kushner to visit Israel during Middle East trip

Top Trump administration officials expected to use tour of countries in the region and India to increase pressure on Iran

In this photo from July 19, 2017, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (R) whispers to US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin during a US and China comprehensive Economic Dialogue at the Treasury Department Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
In this photo from July 19, 2017, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (R) whispers to US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin during a US and China comprehensive Economic Dialogue at the Treasury Department Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will lead a US delegation next week on a five-country tour of the Middle East and India, including visiting Israel and attending a Saudi investment conference he boycotted last year over the gruesome murder of a journalist, officials said Friday.

American officials will use the trip to increase pressure on Iran and strengthen economic ties with allies, the Treasury Department said in a statement, which confirmed prior AFP reporting that Mnuchin would attend the Saudi conference.

Mnuchin will be accompanied by top Treasury officials and Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, in a trip that also will include stops in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

While in Israel, Kushner is expected to hold his first official meeting with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz.

Gantz was tasked this past week with forming a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so, but his chances of assembling a coalition appeared even slimmer than the incumbent premier’s.

Kushner is also expected to meet with Netanyahu.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 31, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

According to Israel’s Channel 13 news, Kushner’s visit will likely be aimed at taking the political temperature in Israel and assessing the chances of a government being formed, with the Trump administration having said it won’t release its peace plan until there’s a new coalition in Israel.

The peace proposal was expected to be released following September elections in Israel but with the country’s political system deadlocked following the vote, and with no clear prospect for a new government to be formed in the near future, it remains unclear when the plan will be unveiled.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said last week the US will release its plan soon after a new government is formed and expects a prompt response from the next Israeli government.

Palestinians have rejected US peacemaking efforts, saying the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its withdrawal of aid from the Palestinian Authority have ruled it out as a mediator in the conflict.

In Saudi Arabia, Mnuchin will attend the so-called Future Investment Initiative, which prominent figures and officials from the around the world dropped out of last year amid international outrage over the murder of US-based dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, on October 8, 2018, demanding justice for missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Jim Watson/AFP)

Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, was strangled and dismembered at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

The global fallout over the killing rendered Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the Arab world’s most powerful throne a pariah, testing old alliances with Western powers.

The CIA has reportedly concluded that the prince, who controls all major levers of power in the Saudi government, likely ordered the killing.

“We look forward to engaging with our partners across the Middle East and in India to confront Iran’s malign and destabilizing influence,” Mnuchin said in the statement.

He also said US officials would work on collaboration in countering terrorism financing networks and improving economic conditions.

Mnuchin and Kushner will be joined by Brent McIntosh, Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, and Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes.

Also expected to be joining Kushner are new US peace envoy Avi Berkowitz and special envoy for Iran Brian Hook.

Berkowitz is taking over from outgoing envoy Jason Greenblatt, who announced his departure in September.

Outgoing US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt is seen with successor Avi Berkowitz in an April photo (Twitter)

In India, Mnuchin will attend a bilateral economic meeting amid sometimes tense relations.

Trump has lashed out at India, accusing the giant Asian economy of unfairly blocking American products. Washington stripped India of benefits which allowed some duty-free access to the US market, and India hit back with tariffs on some US agricultural exports.

US officials also have lobbied strongly to persuade Delhi not to give a slice of India’s coming 5G communications network to Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, a company Washington accuses of violating US sanctions on Iran and also deems a tool of electronic espionage by Beijing.

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