The Drama since Manama: Kushner’s Failed Initiative

In late June, the United States and the Kingdom of Bahrain hosted a conference in the Bahraini capital, Manama, at which the two countries began to release what they called an economic development plan for Palestinians. This represented the first piece of their broader peace initiative. The controversial conference, which was largely boycotted by Palestinians—who saw it as an attempt to try to buy off their national aspirations—was also attended by lower level delegations from other Arab states who were likely balancing their relations with Washington and their commitment to Palestinians and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Failing to deliver anything close to the hype that preceded it, the conference, in which advisor Jared Kushner was the centerpiece, fell flat. Now, trying to build on what little momentum the event created, Kushner returned to the region to shore up support for the political vision that Washington has over the last three years repeatedly said was imminent.

Kushner’s Middle East Trip

At the end of July and early August, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and lead envoy for all things dealing with the Middle East, held meetings in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. The goal was to build support for the White House’s efforts after the Bahrain conference and ahead of the supposed release of the Trump Administration’s political vision, routinely derided in the region as the “deal of the century.” The plan, whose release has been delayed yet again, has failed to generate much support despite Kushner’s push. Little is known about his trip to Saudi Arabia, or even if it took place on this itinerary of five countries in five days. Nor were his meetings in Israel particularly interesting, given the great extent to which the administration and the Israeli government are aligned. In Morocco, it is believed Kushner met with Moroccan, Omani, and Emirati officials, including the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed.

Little is known about his trip to Saudi Arabia, or even if it took place on this itinerary of five countries in five days. Nor were his meetings in Israel particularly interesting, given the great extent to which the administration and the Israeli government are aligned.

The more instructive visits from the trip are those to Egypt and Jordan, states that play crucial roles because of their proximity and peace treaties and diplomatic relations with Israel. Further, both enjoy strong relations with influential Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

An important player in the region with whom Kushner has reportedly developed a strong relationship is the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), who met Kushner in Morocco. The combination of the allies MbZ and Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has operated as a central pillar of the Trump Administration’s efforts in the region. Recently, however, the two princes’ strong and unified position on Iran, Qatar, Yemen, and Turkey is starting to show some cracks. The UAE has very deep interests in relations with Iran and a significant economic stake in the outcome of any US policies aimed at access to the Strait of Hormuz or other geopolitical issues. Increased tensions in recent months, and the absence of a clear American strategy for achieving an end game with the UAE’s Persian neighbor, might be increasingly sensitizing policy-makers in Abu Dhabi to the costs of following Washington blindly without being able to envision the benefits.

The Trump Administration has constantly messaged its Israel-Palestine peace plan as part of a broader vision for the region that plays on division between Iran and Arab Gulf states to push Palestinians to bend to Israeli whims.

The Trump Administration has constantly messaged its Israel-Palestine peace plan as part of a broader vision for the region that plays on division between Iran and Arab Gulf states to push Palestinians to bend to Israeli whims. The Americans hoped to be able to rely heavily on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pressure the Palestinians as well as other Gulf countries to move toward this vision; thus far, however, they have had limited success and the regional consensus around the Arab Peace Initiative has largely held. If leaders in Abu Dhabi have doubts regarding other issues on the American agenda for the region, they are probably less willing to go along with Washington. And they are likely having additional doubts about the Trump Administration’s ability to leverage American geopolitical maneuvering against the Palestinians.

Greenblatt and Friedman Step Up Rhetoric

For their part, the remaining two-thirds of Trump’s dynamic trio, Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, have regularly voiced opinions contradicting those Kushner heard from Arab leaders. Both have assailed the idea of a Palestinian state and in recent weeks gave media interviews hammering home the opposite view.

Remarkably, Greenblatt  told the media at the Bahrain conference that he could not find “anything to criticize” Israel for. In a recent interview with PBS, just ahead of Kushner’s tour of the region, Greenblatt blamed the Palestinians again and, in response to a question about what rights Palestinians deserve, said that “‘Rights’ is a big word,” emphasizing that the “hope is to give Palestinians as great a life … as the Israelis have, with everybody in the region being secure, as secure as possible.” As for Palestinian self-determination, he said that the “goal is to give the Palestinians everything possible … so long as Israel’s security is not affected in a negative way.”

Elsewhere Greenblatt said that the Palestinian aspiration to East Jerusalem “is not a right” and decried what he called “the fictions of the international consensus” and “inconclusive” international law. In response to this dismissiveness, the German Ambassador to the United Nations, Christoph Heusgen, proclaimed that “It is the U.S. that has left the international consensus … For us international law is not an a la carte menu.” Criticism came in from other US allies as well, including France.

For his part, David Friedman spoke to CNN about Palestinian self-determination and whether the proposed peace plan envisions a two-state solution. He said:

Look, we haven’t used that phrase, but it’s not because we are trying to drive towards a one-state solution. The issue we have is agreeing in advance to a state because the word state conjures up with it so many potential issues … We believe in Palestinian autonomy. We believe in Palestinian, civilian self-governance. We believe that that autonomy should be extended up until the point where it interferes with Israeli security.

When asked to explain why he said Israel could annex parts of the West Bank, Friedman responded: “My view was a legal one, whether Israel has the legal right to retain under some circumstances some portion of the west bank [sic], the answer is yes. But it’s a hypothetical question and more importantly it’s a legal question.”

From both Greenblatt’s and Friedman’s comments, what can be deduced is that they believe fundamentally that Israelis have rights and Palestinians don’t. Specifically, this includes rights to freedom and security.

From both Greenblatt’s and Friedman’s comments, what can be deduced is that they believe fundamentally that Israelis have rights and Palestinians don’t. Specifically, this includes rights to freedom and security. The extent to which Palestinian self-determination is possible in their view is entirely defined by meeting all of Israel’s security concerns. In short, they are making a very clear, unabashed argument for perpetual occupation and apartheid.

Palestinian Public Opinion

While Washington’s representatives are busy working to lay the rhetorical groundwork for their elusive peace plan, it is also worth checking in on the domestic political situation among Palestinians and Israelis. Since the Bahrain conference, an early July opinion poll gave insight into where Palestinians stand on the political plan Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman are looking to put forward.

Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians supported the decision to boycott the conference in Bahrain despite pressure from Washington. Further, a near identical number viewed Arab participation in the conference as an abandonment of Palestinians. A striking 90 percent said they do not trust the American administration. Three quarters do not expect the US economic development plan released in Bahrain to lead to economic prosperity. When asked to choose between independence and economic prosperity, 83 percent chose independence.

Given such statistics, the American vision—as Friedman and Greenblatt have made clear—does not include Palestinian independence. This is why 75 percent of Palestinians want their leadership to reject the Trump Administration’s purported peace deal.

Israeli Elections

Israelis are heading toward elections for the second time this year after the last elections in the spring failed to produce a government. Polling thus far indicates that the results will be very similar to those of the last election; more seats will be won by Benjamin Netanyahu and his natural allies, but they will likely not have enough on their own to form a government without a kingmaker, who is once again looking to be former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. As a secular right-wing nationalist, Lieberman occupies a space on the Israeli political spectrum between the religious and the more secular-oriented nationalists. Because of this, he could fit into a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu—but he could also fit into a non-Netanyahu-led coalition. No other small party has this flexibility; they are either limited to constellations on the right, as the religious nationalist parties are, or to those on the left, such as parties like Labor and Meretz.

It is unclear how the situation will be different in this election if the results are similar to the last one. Lieberman seems to be insisting he will play his cards the same way, but this could be a risky strategy if it fails and the public holds him responsible for the election rerun. Another possibility is that the Blue and White Party, led by Benjamin Gantz, is given the opportunity to form a government. There is also no clear path forward in this scenario since a Gantz coalition would require pulling parties from the right-wing bloc who would not be able to work with other parties.

It is also unlikely that the entry of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak into the election fray and his promise to push for a different approach to peace with the Palestinians will cause major changes in the electoral map. His attempt to revive the traditional leftists of Israel, such as the Labor Party, appears to have fizzled as the country’s electorate has shifted rightward, seeing Netanyahu as a true representative of its social and political interests.

What is yet to be seen this time around is whether Washington will grant Netanyahu any gifts ahead of the election as it did last time to boost his chances.

What is yet to be seen this time around is whether Washington will grant Netanyahu any gifts ahead of the election as it did last time to boost his chances. Equally unsure is whether what is offered is enough to help him surmount the challenge he faced last time in forming a government.

Interestingly, this election campaign is once again proving how far right the Israeli electorate has moved. The main opposition party to Netanyahu—Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party—is now promising never to uproot Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley and to retain control over the area forever. Indeed, while the rhetoric of Friedman, Greenblatt, and Kushner is falling on deaf ears in the Arab world and throughout the international community, the views they represent are resonating with a wider range of the Israeli electorate than ever before.

Doubling Down on Failure

While Palestinians and Arabs rejected the Bahrain conference as an unwelcome initiative, Washington’s Kushner-Greenblatt-Friedman trio doubled down on the approach put forth there. In the process, they managed to alienate their own allies in Europe, garnered rejection from Arab friends in the Middle East, and united the Palestinian public behind the very leader Washington has increasingly tried to isolate. It is hard to imagine a more stubborn instance of failure in the history of international diplomacy.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here