Must Not Let Jared Kushner’s Peace Plan See the Light of Day
By Robert Satloff
April 10, 2019
The final absentee ballots have not yet been counted in
Israel’s election, but the results so far indicate that Benjamin Netanyahu is
well on his way toward cobbling together the 61-seat majority needed to form a
new governing coalition. This would give Netanyahu an unprecedented fifth term
as Israel’s prime minister.
If Netanyahu does form a government, attention will soon
turn to the Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Since
the U.S. plan was based on close consultations with Netanyahu, it was assumed
that the only stumbling block to its launch would be his defeat and replacement
by a new leader with different ideas on relations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s
apparent victory means that the White House rollout of the plan could be
imminent. That would be a disaster.
It would be a serious mistake for U.S. President Donald
Trump to take the still-secret proposals devised by his son-in-law Jared Kushner
and his colleagues and issue them in the name of the United States.
The problem is not simply that the circumstances are ripe
for failure, due to the deep political chasm between Israelis and Palestinians
combined and the Trump administration’s inability to be both a friend to
Israel and an honest broker of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The
Kushner plan also stands a good chance of actually setting back U.S. interests
in three critical areas: It might lead to annexation of the West Bank, it could
give the Saudi government leverage over the United States that it doesn’t
currently have, and it would distract from Trump’s signature achievement of
putting real pressure on Iran’s government.
Issuing the Kushner plan risks triggering a chain of events
that would result in a decision by Netanyahu to annex parts of the contested
West Bank, a step that even the most conservative and nationalist Israeli
governments over the past half-century have declined to take. Annexation—or,
as many Israelis prefer to say euphemistically, “extending Israeli civil law
to territories currently under military rule”—is already the platform of key
parties Netanyahu needs to form a governing coalition. In addition, a large
majority of his Likud party’s parliamentary delegation supports the idea.
In the final hours of the campaign, Netanyahu himself
endorsed the idea of annexing parts of the territories as a gambit to make sure
the Likud didn’t lose voters to parties further to the right. Controversial
though his last-minute move may have been, Likud’s success suggests it was a
smart one. However, the shrewd and risk-averse Netanyahu would most likely
prefer to find a way to keep the murky status quo, in which Israel maintains
security control over the entire West Bank and channels support to many existing
Israeli settlements while holding out the admittedly dim prospect of a
diplomatic resolution with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.
This awkward situation, in which Israel and the PA have
strained political ties but effective security cooperation, has proven
surprisingly resilient. Few love the status quo, but it is not so objectionable
that either Netanyahu or Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has walked away from
it. It may not have brought a final peace deal, but it has sustained the PA as a
reasonably well-functioning governing entity—by regional standards—and
protected the West Bank from becoming a platform for rocket and terrorist
attacks against Israel.
The fact that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo survived
the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the closing of a separate U.S.
consulate general that traditionally served Palestinians, severe cuts in U.S.
aid to the West Bank, and the closing of the Palestine Liberation
Organization’s representative office in Washington—measures that
collectively appear to Palestinians as a punitive attack—is a testament to its
That surprisingly sustainable house of cards may finally
come crumbling down if Abbas rejects the Kushner plan, which he has already
given every indication of doing. In turn, Israeli rightists will seize on
Abbas’s “no” to argue that Israel has no negotiating partner, gutting a
key rationale for keeping the status quo alive.
Instead, rightist politicians will argue that, with no
partner, Israel should simply extend its sovereignty to key parts of the West
Bank (i.e., annex them), just as it did 38 years ago on the Golan Heights—and
they will point out that Trump’s recent decision to recognize the legality of
the Golan annexation is a powerful hint that the White House will greenlight
West Bank annexation, too.
To entice these right-of-Likud parties into his coalition,
Netanyahu may find himself forced to accede to this demand, especially if it
comes with the sweetener of their support for new legislation that protects
sitting prime ministers from criminal prosecution—which would allow him to
stay in office despite facing a pending criminal indictment on corruption
The morning after a Middle East peace plan is issued in his
name, Trump will face a slew of problems he doesn’t currently have to deal
Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, if it is
done outside an agreement with the Palestinians, will trigger charges from Arab
and European capitals that Israel has violated its legal commitments both under
United Nations resolutions and existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and they
are likely to take steps to punish Israel internationally.
Moreover, annexation will probably sound the death knell
for Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and perhaps for the PA itself,
offering enemies of peace both a substantive and a propaganda bonanza. And
unlike the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, on which the U.S. Congress was
on the record with strong bipartisan support for more than two decades,
annexation will threaten to splinter U.S. opinion when it comes to backing
Israel, affecting a far larger slice of the political spectrum than just the
increasingly anti-Israel progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Even if Kushner has already factored in all these negative
repercussions of persuading his father-in-law to issue the peace plan, he might
still win the day by reasoning that only a dramatic change to the status quo can
shake the parties into rethinking their traditional positions and open up new
possibilities. He likely assumes that key Arab states—led by Saudi
Arabia—are poised to bless his plan, giving it vital backing that will compel
Abbas not to reject it out of hand.
But there are two problems with this assumption. First, the
Saudis are unlikely to offer even a tepid endorsement of the peace plan without
similar backing from Israel’s Arab peace partners, Egypt and Jordan. Just last
week, Jordan reportedly rejected a U.S. offer to mediate a narrower issue—a
simmering dispute with Israel on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif—because
it accuses Washington of bias on matters related to Jerusalem. And Egypt is
firmly part of the Arab consensus that publicly rejected the Trump
administration’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan,
a step that severely curtailed Arab room for maneuver on a future peace plan.
The friendship between the Trump and Al Saud families
notwithstanding, both Jordan and Egypt have shown spine in recent years in
resisting Saudi pressure to take steps they view as contrary to their national
interests, and endorsing a plan that earns a Palestinian rejection would almost
certainly be a bridge too far.
The second problem with the Saudis-will-back-us scenario is
that the Saudi leadership is not stupid. If the fate of the Kushner plan is in
the hands of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that provides
them with critical leverage at a moment when broader U.S.-Saudi relations are
facing their worst tensions since the 9/11 attacks.
Viewed from Riyadh, the deepening bipartisan criticism in
the United States of Saudi Arabia—manifested in repeated congressional votes
condemning Riyadh on the war in Yemen, its detention and prosecution of human
rights activists, and, of course, the assassination of dissident journalist
Jamal Khashoggi—must seem galling. While the near-universal view in U.S.
policy circles is that the solution to this problem begins with the Saudi crown
prince accepting some measure of responsibility for the heinous actions of his
subordinates, the leverage provided by the Kushner plan will give Riyadh the
power to turn the tables on the White House.
It would not be surprising if the Saudis demand that Trump
fix their problem in Congress as the price for Saudi backing for the Kushner
plan. Any administration efforts to strong-arm Republican critics of Saudi
policy would only worsen the underlying crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, to the
detriment of U.S. security interests in the broader region. And this too would
all be because the president had needlessly advanced his son-in-law’s peace
Finally, in addition to triggering a negative spiral in
U.S.-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian, and U.S.-Saudi ties, moving forward with the
Kushner plan would distract from the president’s signature achievement in the
Middle East: the unexpectedly effective impact of the so-called maximum pressure
campaign on Iran.
When Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and
reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran last year, there was good reason to be
skeptical. But the administration has made impressive headway in its effort to
impose a cost on Iran for its objectionable behavior. So far, the campaign has
compelled nearly two dozen customers of Iranian oil exports to bring their
purchases down to zero, severely exacerbating the troubles of Iran’s economy.
To see Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah beg his followers for donations, as
he did in a recent
speech, is a clear sign that Tehran is running low on cash.
The Trump administration should not give Iran and its local
Islamist allies a political victory by issuing a Middle East peace plan that is
likely to earn swift rejection by the Palestinians and strong criticism
even from longtime U.S. allies. It makes little sense to hand Iran’s supreme
leader and his regional partners a propaganda coup at a moment when the U.S.
pressure campaign might actually be bearing fruit. Tehran might even sense
opportunity and scrape together enough money—along with Islamist sympathizers
in Qatar and Turkey—to help Hamas and Islamic Jihad take advantage of
Abbas’s weakness to make a play for power in the West Bank.
Issuing the Middle East peace plan in the current
environment is a lose-lose-lose proposition. It is not easy to devise a U.S.
policy proposal that could unleash forces that drive a stake in the heart of
U.S.-Israeli relations while destroying the Palestinian Authority, that could
worsen the already severe crisis in U.S.-Saudi ties, and that could provide a
powerful boost to the mullahs in Iran, but there is a nontrivial chance the
Kushner peace plan would do all of this.
Right now, the plan is still Kushner’s, not Trump’s.
For the sake of important U.S. interests in the Middle East, the president
should ensure it stays that way.