This Week in Washington: Trump’s “Deal of the Century”

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is tasked with achieving what has been an unobtainable peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, made a rare public appearance on May 2nd at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to talk about the president’s so-called “deal of the century.” Up to this point, Kushner and his team, including Trump advisor Jason Greenblatt and the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have done an effective job of preventing significant parts of their proposal to leak to the general public—though shortly before this publication an unverified segment of the proposal was supposedly published in Israel.

While it is impossible to know the exact details of Kushner’s proposal before it is made  public, understanding the perspective from which Kushner and his team approach the problems between the two sides can lend some valuable insight into what priorities the plan could try and address, as well as its potential shortcomings.

Rejection of Past Efforts

Kushner made it clear from the outset of his conversation that while he read previous peace proposals and spoke to former negotiators, he had little use for or interest in the past efforts. Like his father-in-law, Kushner values having an “outsider’s” perspective—that is, bringing ideas from outside the Washington beltway. This ostensibly is not a bad thing, as Washington has the ability to quash new and fresh ideas from receiving serious consideration. But Kushner’s disdain for past efforts could have caused him and his team to ignore crucial lessons from the history of US diplomacy in the Middle East. This means that his proposal could put forth ideas that are unpalatable to Israelis and Palestinians, ones that previous negotiators had already discovered were nonstarters. It is also clear that Kushner and his team were confident they could craft a peace proposal without speaking with the Palestinian leadership, surely something no other peace negotiator would have suggested.

Ensuring Israeli Security

Kushner’s entire discussion about peace between Palestinians and Israelis was offered through the narrow lens of what is good for Israel’s security. He made no mention of human rights or international law and he only begrudgingly spoke of Palestinians’ political aspirations and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. From his perspective, peace has been unattainable up to this point because of what he considers the intransigence of the Palestinian leadership whose alleged poor governance and corruption have jeopardized the livelihoods of the Palestinian population

This monocular vision distorts the true nature of the conflict and shows that Kushner and his team had no interest in considering the Palestinians’ vision of a just and lasting peace. For instance, when discussing the economic well-being of Palestinians in the occupied territories—which seems to be the crux of the team’s proposal for them—Kushner only spoke about corruption and mismanagement within the Palestinian Authority (PA) while  failing to address how the decades-long Israeli occupation itself stifles economic activity and strangles the free market as much, if not more, than anything the PA can manage.

Looking at the conflict through the prism of Israel’s security could also induce Kushner and his team to ignore other issues important to the Palestinians, such as their right to an independent state and the plight of refugees and their right of return. It also could ignore the national aspirations of Palestinian diaspora communities that do not seem to figure in Kushner’s discussion of the issues.

Disconnect from the Public

Interestingly, what Jared Kushner did seem to learn from Palestinians and other Arabs in the region is out of sync with what the general public in the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora hold true. Kushner explained how, as part of his learning process, he spoke with Palestinians about what they desire from a peace agreement and what is necessary to achieve that goal. A common refrain in response to Kushner’s declaration, however, have been questions about the identity of his interlocutors. This sentiment illustrates that the most likely Palestinian perspective Kushner heard was from individuals who already do well despite the occupation, and not the general public that is crushed by Israel’s policies.

Kushner himself alluded to this point. He said that Palestinians have been stymied by their own corrupt, elitist political leaders for decades, insinuating that the leaders in the PA and those who have made money despite the occupation are disconnected from the public. This then begs the question: why did he and his team ignore the opinions of the Palestinian public, which is overwhelmingly skeptical about the Trump Administration?

Even if Kushner had received positive feedback from some Palestinians and their backers throughout the Arab world, he fails to realize that if he is correct and a corrupt elite in Palestine makes decisions without the support of the Palestinian public, a deal that satisfies the elite may very well face widespread resistance. This disconnect transcends borders, too. Kushner told the WINEP audience with great confidence that patience with the Palestinian cause is waning precipitously in the region and that the Palestinians’ Arab neighbors may soon run out of interest in supporting the cause. This assessment, while it may arguably be true among some in the Gulf region, belies the fact that annual surveys of Arab publics by the Arab Opinion Index illustrate a high level of support for the Palestinians and concern for their plight (see here).

It may be some time before the world fully learns what the Trump Administration hopes will be a serious proposal for an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. While Kushner and his team have refused to share many specifics, the public knows enough about Kushner’s approach to crafting such a plan to understand that it likely will not be received warmly by many Arabs in the region, let alone the Palestinians.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Repeal the AUMF against Iraq Resolution of 2002. On May 1, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) introduced H.R. 2456 in an effort to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq.

Recognizing the Commencement of Ramadan. That same day, Rep. Eddie Johnson (D-Texas) offered H. Res. 343 to recognize the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Veto Override Vote. On May 2, the Senate held a vote to try and override President Trump’s veto of S.J. Res. 7 that sought to end US support for the ongoing war in Yemen. Senators failed to override the veto, which requires 67 votes, by a count of 53-45. Moving forward, Democrats are expected to try and find other legislative avenues for punishing the Saudi-led coalition.

US-Israel Cybersecurity Center of Excellence. Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) introduced H.R. 2488, requiring the secretary of state to issue a report to Congress assessing the benefits of establishing a joint US-Israel cybersecurity center.

Limiting F-35s to Turkey. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) introduced H.R. 2512 to limit the US government’s transfer of F-35 jets to Turkey.

Consideration for Strengthening US Defense and Security in the Middle East. GOP Reps. Lee Zeldin (New York) and David Kustoff (Tennessee) are again trying to bring H.R. 336 to the floor for a vote. The two have introduced another resolution (H. Res. 348) in an effort to circumvent the House Foreign Affairs Committee and have a full House vote on the bill that includes a controversial provision regarding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Encouraging a Swift Transfer of Power in Sudan. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced S. Res. 188, advocating for a swift transfer of power from the current transitional military council in Sudan to a civilian government.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Pen Letter to Netanyahu about Deportation. On April 30, 17 House Democrats sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging his government to reconsider its efforts to deport Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine office director, Omar Shakir. Shakir’s deportation order is the latest effort Israel has undertaken to push back against the BDS movement and thwart monitoring of Israel’s human rights abuses.

Levin Writes to Pompeo about War with Iran. On May 2, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) wrote a letter to Secretary Mike Pompeo with concerns about the administration’s position on using military force against Iran without congressional authorization. Additionally, he asked for proof of an alleged connection between Iran and al-Qaeda, which Pompeo had cited at a previous hearing.

3) Hearings and Briefings

The Humanitarian Impact of Eight Years of War in Syria. On May 1, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) hosted actor Ben Stiller, who is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador, and Dana Miliband of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to discuss the humanitarian struggles facing the Syrian people after eight years of conflict. The overarching message of the hearing was clear: the United States must do everything it can to help stabilize liberated areas inside Syria, as well as those neighboring countries hosting refugees, in order to ensure that humanitarian crises are addressed and alleviated.

Fiscal Year 2020 Budget – Department of Defense. That same day, the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Defense hosted Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford to discuss the Pentagon’s funding for the coming fiscal year. It was clear from the hearing that although the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy prioritizes “near-peer competition” with China and Russia as its primary threat, members of Congress—particularly Republicans—demanded that the Pentagon not completely forego counterterrorism activities in places like the Middle East and North Africa. They cited the recent Islamic State-inspired attack in Sri Lanka as a large part of their reasoning.

United States and Iraq: Going Forward. On May 6, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about her recent trip to Iraq and shared her thoughts on the future of US-Iraq relations. Her recommendations included three specific strategies for strengthening ties between Washington and Baghdad. First, the United States should maintain military support for Iraq but shift away from combat operations and toward better advising and training of Iraqi soldiers to improve their performance. Second, the United States needs more robust economic involvement with Iraq; the senator said she and some of her colleagues are working on legislation to further that very goal. Finally, Duckworth said the United States must remain a steadfast supporter of Iraqi Kurdistan and help the region maintain its comparative level of security and economic success.

4) Nominations

Schenker, Satterfield Move Forward in Nomination Process. On May 2, the SFRC met to vote on a handful of political nominees, including David Schenker, who is slotted to become the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and David Satterfield, who will likely become US ambassador to Turkey. Both men received enough votes to make it through the committee, despite Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-Virginia) long-held opposition to appointing an assistant secretary overseeing Middle East issues due to a dispute with the Trump Administration.

Trump Officially Nominates Candidate for UN Ambassador. That same day, President Trump formally notified the Senate of his intention to nominate Kelly Craft, who currently serves as US ambassador to Canada, to serve as ambassador to the United Nations.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA Bolton Says Military Deployment a Sign to Iran. On May 5, the White House issued a press release attributed to National Security Advisor John Bolton explaining that the Pentagon is dispatching an air carrier and a bomber task force “to the US central command region” as a deterrent to Iran. Though the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier is routine and was announced April 1, some reports say that Bolton’s statement was in response to “troubling warnings” of Iranian attacks against US troops in the Middle East. Others, however, suggest that the administration has had a bombastic overreaction to the intelligence regarding Iranian threats.

Trump Pardons Ex-Soldier Convicted of Killing Iraqi Man. President Trump pardoned an ex-soldier this week who was convicted of shooting an unarmed and bound Iraqi man in 2009. To some, this is justice because they believe that the solider was simply acting in a time of war. For many others though, Trump’s pardon shows that soldiers can act with impunity, even when violating US military codes of ethics and the laws of armed combat.

2) Department of State

Trump Administration to Reduce Iranian Nuclear Cooperation Waivers. On May 3, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the Trump Administration was making significant reductions to the waivers that allow other countries to cooperate with Iran on its nuclear energy program, without completely refusing to reissue them. Some waivers that allow foreign countries to cooperate with Iran on its civilian nuclear energy program will not be renewed while others will be reduced from 180 to 90 days.

Post-IS Stabilization and Reconstruction in Iraq and Syria. On May 2, Assistant Secretary of State for Stabilization Denise Natali appeared at an event in Washington to outline the Trump Administration’s approach to stabilizing and reconstructing areas of Iraq and Syria previously under IS control. The specifics of the approach are laid out in the 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review, but Natali offered the administration’s general positions on stabilization efforts, namely tying aid to positive political reforms in both Syria and Iraq.

Secretary Pompeo Makes Unannounced Visit to Iraq. On May 7, after cutting short a trip to Europe, it was reported that Secretary Pompeo made an unannounced trip to Iraq, sending what the administration hopes is another “message” to Iran in the face of threats.

3) Department of Defense

New Survey Shows Americans Do Not Support Airstrikes That Harm Civilians. On May 6, researchers took to The Washington Post to outline the results of a recent survey that found that, “No, Americans don’t support airstrikes that kill civilians, even when they target terrorists.” The United States carries out routine air and drone strikes throughout the Arab world—mainly in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Libya—and thousands of civilians have been injured or killed over the years. The researchers argue that the US public’s support for these tactics is not high.