Another week, another leak.
This time the victim was Jared Kushner. And the leaker? A daring congressional intern. Yes, an intern.
On Monday, the publicity-shy Kushner spoke in front of a group of congressional interns as part of what Wired magazine — which obtained the leaked, hour-long recording of his remarks — called “an ongoing, off-the-record summer lecture series.”
So what wisdom or insights did the 36-year-old senior White House adviser, appointed by the President of the United States to bring peace to the Middle East, offer his young and impressionable audience? Well, for starters, did you know that “not a whole lot has been accomplished over the last 40 or 50 years?” Or that there are “some people who don’t want to see and achieve an outcome of peace” in the Middle East? Were you aware that “this is a very emotionally charged situation?”
These, to borrow a line from Slate’s Joshua Keating, are “no-shit-Sherlock” observations. But, then again, should we really be surprised by the sheer vacuousness of Kushner’s statements? What else did we expect from a millionaire property developer with no knowledge of Middle East affairs and zero experience of international diplomacy who was appointed by a billionaire property developer with no knowledge of Middle East affairs and zero experience of international diplomacy?
Trump’s son-in-law not only lacks the necessary qualifications, experience and knowledge, he also lacks even the pretense of balance or objectivity. Kushner is an Orthodox Jew with “ties to Israel that are personal and religious,” according to a New York Times profile which also noted how 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.” (“For hardline West Bank settlers, Jared Kushner’s their man,” read the headline to a recent Reuters article.)
He is also a close family friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the Kushner family home in New Jersey during Jared’s childhood and, on one occasion, even slept in his bed. (“The teenager moved to the basement that night,” reported the Times.) Kushner’s recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories, alongside fellow Trump administration envoy Jason Greenblatt, in which the duo berated Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas over his alleged incitement of violence against Israel, was a diplomatic disaster. “They sounded like Netanyahu’s advisers and not like fair arbiters,” a senior Palestinian official later complained.
But here’s the thing: have there ever been “fair arbiters”? From the U.S. side? Kushner, for all his many sins and flaws, is only the most extreme and egregious example of a long-standing and bipartisan trend in U.S. Middle East policy: the appointment of special envoys, negotiators and ambassadors who see themselves more as advocates and defenders of Israel than as neutral or honest brokers.
Don’t believe me? According to former State Department official Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state, U.S. negotiators, himself included, have spent decades acting “as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.” Miller has admitted that he, Martin Indyk and other members of the U.S. negotiating team at the Camp David summit in 2000 brought a “clear pro-Israel orientation” to the discussions and that their “departure point was not what was needed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides but what would pass with only one – Israel.”
Is it any wonder then that “not a whole lot has been accomplished over the last 40 or 50 years”? How can the United States claim to sponsor a peace process when it has decided in advance that it will back one side over the other?
This isn’t rocket science. “There are many reasons for America’s failure to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians but the most fundamental one is that it is a dishonest broker,” observed the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in 2010.
To be clear: the Palestinians and their supporters are not asking for the United States to attack or even abandon the Jewish state. What they want is fairness, not favors. But thanks to a mixture of factors — US strategic interests in the Middle East; the power of the military-industrial complex; the influence of Jewish American organizations; the rise of Rapture-obsessed Christian evangelicals — they tend to get neither.
Remember how Howard Dean, while running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, was pilloried by leading members of his own party, such as Nancy Pelosi, merely for suggesting that “it’s not our place to take sides” and that “the United States needs an even-handed approach in the conflict”? The former Vermont governor had to walk back his remarks and confirm that the United States had “a special relationship with Israel.”
In the context of U.S. Middle East policy, “even-handed” is a dirty word. So too is “neutral.” Yet for the past two decades, according to polling data collected by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, despite a clear majority of Americans offering greater sympathy for the Israelis than for the Palestinians, an equally clear majority says the United States ought to take neither side in the conflict. In 2015, for example, 66 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should “not take either side,” compared with only 29 percent who suggested the U.S. should side with Israel.
Some politicians, such as Bernie Sanders, who happens to be Jewish, agree — and are now pushing back against the pro-Israeli, pro-Likud consensus. “There will never be peace in that region unless the United States plays a role, an even-handed role trying to bring people together,” Sanders said in a CNN debate last year, adding, “If we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”
This is the key point: You cannot make peace in the Middle East without an honest broker, and the United States is not an honest broker. But are Kushner or Trump, who once claimed “to be sort of a neutral guy” on the Israel-Palestine conflict, even listening? The presidential son-in-law told his audience of interns on Monday that he did not want to focus on the past because “we don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books.” But the past matters; facts matter. The history of U.S. policy on the Middle East is a long and shameful history of bias, partiality and favoritism; of putting Israeli interests ahead of Palestinian rights.
Previous Mideast envoys played the “peace process” game; they made the right noises about “two states for two peoples” and publicly suggested compromises on both sides while privately coordinating their “peace proposals” with Tel Aviv and providing diplomatic cover for Israeli expansionism. Kushner does not even bother to pretend. He and his family are financially and ideologically invested in the occupation and personally invested in Netanyahu.
On the eve of his inauguration, in front of a crowd of supporters, Trump turned to his son-in-law and declared: “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.” If that is the only choice before us, I guess we will have to go with “nobody” then.