Kushner, Israel Policy May be Shaped by the Personal
Jared Kushner was 17 years old, he stood where a million Jews had been murdered
and listened to Israel’s
prime minister stress the country’s importance.
Holocaust could have been prevented. We know it could not have taken place had
the Jewish state been established a few years earlier,” the prime minister, Benjamin
Netanyahu, said in 1998, standing amid the ruins of an Auschwitz-Birkenau
crematory. He had just led Mr. Kushner and thousands of other teenagers waving
Israeli flags in a procession through the camp’s gates and past the barracks.
As part of the commemoration,
the group would soon leave Poland and fly to Israel, to complete the journey
from slaughter to Zionist rebirth.
then, Mr. Kushner was a high school basketball player, a Billy Joel fan, a quiz
team manager and no one’s guess to become a negotiating partner with Mr.
Netanyahu. But unlike other students on the trip, he knew the prime minister,
who was friendly with his father, a real estate developer and donor to Israeli
causes. Mr. Netanyahu had even stayed at the Kushners’ home in New Jersey,
sleeping in Jared’s bedroom. (The teenager moved to the basement that night.)
Wednesday, when the Israeli prime minister visits the White House, Mr. Netanyahu
and Mr. Kushner will reunite on far different terms from before — and yet
their meeting will be imbued with some of the shared ideas of those old
encounters. Mr. Netanyahu is on his second stint as prime minister; Mr. Kushner,
now 36, is President Trump’s son-in-law and a leading adviser on Middle
Eastern affairs with a daunting assignment. Mr. Trump has said that Mr. Kushner
will try to “do peace,” which the president has called “the ultimate
Kushner, on something of a crash course in diplomacy, has been speaking with
Arab leaders in recent weeks. But he is a mystery to most Middle Eastern
officials. He has no experience in government or international affairs. His
up-close exposure to the Arab world amounts to little more than trips to a
handful of Persian Gulf countries and a star-studded jaunt to Jordan.
Mr. Kushner has visited Israel since childhood, and more recently to do
business, he is little known there. He holds strong views about the state of
Israel, but he has not been outspoken about them, save for editorials in The New
York Observer, the newspaper he owned. His thinking on matters like settlements
is not well understood.
wasn’t a political discussion for him; it was his family, his life, his
people,” said Hirschy Zarchi, rabbi at the Chabad House at Harvard, where Mr.
Kushner was an undergraduate.
than diplomatic experience, Mr. Kushner has ties to Israel that are personal and
religious. His visit to Auschwitz was stark, but its themes were not new to him.
His grandmother survived the Holocaust by crawling through a homemade tunnel in
Poland. His grandfather escaped the massacres by hiding
in a hole for years. An Orthodox Jew, Mr. Kushner was instructed to
protect Israel, remember the genocide and assure the survival of the Jewish
people, those close to him say.
was educated at Jewish schools where second graders were expected to draw maps
of Israel from memory and the West Bank was often referred to by its biblical
names, Judea and Samaria, a practice that emphasizes Jewish claims to the land.
His family used its real estate fortune to donate millions of dollars to
American Jewish and Israeli hospitals, schools and other institutions, including
a few in settlements, according to public records. In his classes, Palestinians
were regarded at a distance, in part as security threats who committed acts of
terrorism — including one that killed a sister of a classmate of Mr.
Mr. Trump ran for president, his son-in-law’s stances on Israel helped shape
the campaign. Mr. Kushner helped script a speech to the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee and consulted with Netanyahu officials behind the scenes. When
he brought the candidate and the prime minister together for a meeting, his
father, Charles Kushner, was invited to join them.
in part to the younger Mr. Kushner, Mr. Netanyahu will arrive at a White House
that has already adopted many of the prime minister’s perspectives on the
region. Now Mr. Kushner is helping Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu craft a
strategy to recruit Sunni Muslim countries that oppose Iran to help
foster an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The approach is a long shot:
Negotiations are dead. The Israeli right is pushing for more settlement in the
West Bank as talk among Palestinians turns to a single state in which they have
Barghouti, a Palestinian leader who was involved in peace talks both with
Israelis and internally, said Palestinians were skeptical of Mr. Kushner, and
Mr. Trump’s team generally, seeing them as close only to the Israeli side. As
part of its philanthropy, Mr. Kushner’s family has made donations to the Beit
El settlement, which Mr. Barghouti finds particularly worrisome.
need somebody who is really impartial,” Mr. Bargouti said, pointing out that
it is unclear whether Mr. Kushner has ever visited a Palestinian area (the White
House would not say). “There is no indication he is interested in hearing from
the other side.”
a White House spokeswoman, Mr. Kushner declined to respond or be interviewed.
But others said his life had given him cause to believe in the improbable. His
grandparents survived against all odds, then came to America and made the kind
of money of which most people can only dream. Mr. Kushner plunged into his
father-in-law’s presidential campaign with no experience and helped him win.
is a region that has resisted solutions from people with vast résumés,” said
Ken Kurson, editor of The New York Observer, suggesting that his former boss may
do better. “For 60-plus years we’ve been sending the best diplomats in the
world, and it’s yielded zero results.”
Kushner’s religious upbringing may have been intense, but his high school
yearbook message was laid-back, with an ode to his broken-in sneakers. He was a
“6 ft. 2 inch basketball and hockey player who just loves to be
comfortable,” the message said, noting that he also liked to deliver frozen
yogurt and Slurpees to his siblings.
was little mention of Jewish identity beyond his Hebrew name, Yoel Chaim. But
that was Mr. Kushner, classmates said in recent interviews: easygoing and
polite, a decent student but not a standout, not particularly engaged in
religious questions or the urgent political matters of the day. He did not
participate in the high school club devoted to criticizing coverage of Israel in
The New York Times. Many of his peers spent a year after graduation studying
religious texts in Israel; he did not.
his family was busy building a world to replace the one it had lost: schools,
organizations, synagogues, campuses. The Kushners’ Judaism and support of
Israel were one and the same, friends said: about ensuring survival.
major Jewish institutions of Mr. Kushner’s life — school and synagogue —
emphasized the connection between religion and Zionism. “In the modern
Orthodox community, the state of Israel has an important place in identity, as a
religious ideal, not only a political reality,” said Elie Weinstock, rabbi at
Kehilath Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue Mr. Kushner joined.
his elementary school, the Hebrew Youth Academy in Livingston, N.J., it was
impossible to walk the halls “without seeing the flags of Israel and Israeli
historical figures and how the kids celebrate Israeli holidays,” said Stephen
Flatow, whose daughter Ilana was in Mr. Kushner’s grade.
eighth grade, their class was stunned by the killing of Ilana’s older sister,
Alisa, in a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. The school community “couldn’t
fathom how a young man can load himself up with dynamite and blow himself up in
a van and have his parents celebrating
Mr. Flatow said. A few years later, the school was renamed for Jared Kushner’s
grandfather, Joseph, and when a new building opened, the family dedicated the
flagpole that flies the Israeli flag to Alisa’s memory.
classmates say the environment Mr. Kushner lived in could feel apolitical,
because most everyone shared similar views, and Palestinian perspectives were
barely considered. Some teachers told students that “Palestinian” was a
made-up identity, a label adopted for political reasons. There was little
discussion of what it was like to live under occupation, several classmates of
Mr. Kushner’s recalled. Many rabbis and teachers seemed comfortable with
settlements, and some students said they never learned that Israel’s borders
were a highly contested topic.
was such an assumption that Jews deserve to have this place, that it was theirs
for thousands of years by biblical fiat,” said Eli Schleifer, who graduated
the year before Mr. Kushner. “There was such a strange blindness to the
complexity of the situation.”
1999, Mr. Kushner left New Jersey for Harvard, where he no longer wore a
skullcap to classes, but continued to follow rules of Orthodox Jewish life.
Jordan Reid Strauch, a friend of Mr. Kushner’s, could not recall his
mentioning Israel. Soon the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was
setting off criticism of Israel on campus and then responses from students who
defended the country, but Mr. Kushner kept his head down.
he spent time at the Chabad House, where Rabbi Zarchi was struck by how Mr.
Kushner “never felt the need to apologize for his differences, his religious
commitments,” he said.
Kushner sometimes expressed his views during long Sabbath meals at the house.
“He certainly believed that a strong and secure Israel was in America and the
world’s best interest,” Rabbi Zarchi said. He didn’t believe that Israel
needed “the approval of Europe, the United Nations or even Washington or
London,” the rabbi continued.
Mr. Kushner was at Harvard, Mr. Netanyahu once again visited his father,
speaking at his office, kicking a soccer ball at one of the schools that carried
the family name and sitting down for a tabbouleh lunch with students, including
Jared’s younger brother, Joshua.
Netanyahu’s visits helped lead to an unexpected outcome: Charles Kushner’s
brother, Murray, sued him for misusing the family company’s funds by paying
hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to the Israeli leader, among
other high-profile figures. The suit was eventually settled, but it set off
investigations and misdeeds
by Charles Kushner that eventually led to a two-year prison sentence for tax
evasion, witness-tampering and making illegal campaign donations.
few years later, Charles Kushner and Mr. Netanyahu still seemed close: When the
Israeli media obtained Mr. Netanyahu’s partly
of wealthy Americans most likely to fund his party’s primary elections, Mr.
Kushner was near the top.
June in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, the ambassador of the United Arab
Emirates, received an unexpected request from his friend Thomas Barrack Jr., a
Lebanese-American businessman and Trump fund-raiser: Would he meet with Jared
struck me in our first meeting is that he asked a lot of questions and
said. Since then, the two have been in touch, with Mr. Kushner playing the
student, asking Mr. Otaiba for his impressions of shifting forces in the Middle
East, Syria, Iran, extremism, relationships.
Kushner had become a force in his family’s real estate business, and a member
of a synagogue known for a brand of religious Zionism similar to the one he was
raised with. He took out loans
for the real estate business from Israel’s Bank Hapoalim and almost bought a
major Israeli insurance company called Phoenix.
he had been raised a Democrat, Mr. Kushner endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012
presidential race, in part because of disappointment with President Barack Obama
on Israel. “Rather than strengthen the nation’s relationship with Israel as
the Arab world imploded, Mr. Obama treated Jerusalem as less a friend than a
read, using language similar to what Mr. Trump would eventually say.
Mr. Kushner has given up his life in New York for a government ID card and a
groaning portfolio. Many foreign policy experts wait their entire careers for a
White House job, but Mr. Kushner is fielding inquiries from foreign leaders even
as he is still learning to navigate the subject. He is far from the first
American Jew with strong ties to Israel to wade into Middle Eastern diplomacy
— Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, is the son of a former
Jewish paramilitary fighter — but the others were Washington professionals or
his first weeks in the White House, Mr. Kushner has had exchanges with officials
from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and elsewhere, and greeted King Abdullah II of
Jordan, whom he met several years ago on a trip
to that country
that included the actors Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
is unclear what shape Mr. Kushner’s role will take, especially as figures like
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and others in the foreign policy apparatus
become engaged in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Some observers see Mr. Kushner as a
welcome counter to an unpredictable president and to firebrands like Stephen K.
Bannon, the White House strategist, and David M. Friedman, the ambassador
designate to Israel.
Kushner “could be a moderate voice,” said Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former
ambassador to the United Nations, who got to know Mr. Kushner in New York.
“The strange thing is, that 36-year-old kid may end up being the grown-up in
years after his teenage encounters with Mr. Netanyahu, he may also be in a
position to help the Israeli leader, who is facing multiple corruption
investigations and ever-stronger challenges from the right.
Mr. Kushner’s task is formidable. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump want to set in
motion a chain of events that could block Iran, redefine Israel’s relationship
with the Arab world and create Israeli-Palestinian peace — “the deal that
can’t be made,” as Mr. Trump has said.
prime minister is coming into the meeting with the hope to forge a common policy
with the president, and Jared’s role is critical in that,” said Ron Dermer,
the ambassador of Israel, with whom Mr. Kushner has been in close contact.
“He’s someone who, in my interactions with him, has really been able to