Jared Kushner's second visit to the Mideast is widely perceived as a Seinfeld-like show about nothing—and the Israelis love it.
Seeking President Trump’s “ultimate deal”—peace between Israelis and Palestinians—Kushner arrived in Jerusalem and Ramallah this week, where few could point to any progress made in promoting a deal between the parties. White House officials say they're keeping mum on progress by design, but commentators in the Israeli and Palestinian press claim there is little substance behind the first son-in-law’s diplomacy.
And that's just fine by Israeli government officials, who quietly express hope that Kushner's latest trip, and perhaps future ones as well, will yield no earth-shaking results.
“Past American administrations jumped into the peace process pool before checking if there’s any water in it; we jumped after them and cracked our heads,” Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, told The Daily Beast. He commended Kushner’s go-slow approach, saying, “Perhaps he’ll realize there’s no water in this pool, and so there's no reason to jump in.”
Publicly, after meeting with Kushner, Jerusalem and Ramallah officials made statements that were remarkably similar, using words diplomats have long employed to obscure content. Privately, however, several Israeli officials say they expect no progress. Further, they're grateful the Trump administration, unlike previous ones, exerts no pressure on them to make major concessions.
Political conditions are far from optimal for a meaningful peace process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under unprecedented pressure, as investigations of various alleged wrongdoings mount against him. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is unpopular and weak.
While Kushner and international negotiator Jason Greenblatt do their best not to discuss the substance of their talks—saying they would rather conduct quiet diplomacy—critics note that not too long ago Kushner told White House interns, in a conversation that was leaked to the press, that there may be “no solution” to the Israeli Palestinian problem.
Dayan—a former leader of Yesha, the West Bank settler movement—said that rather than seeking a final deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute once and for all, Kushner should seek smaller victories. Dayan cited a deal reached recently about water-sharing between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “You won’t get a Peace Nobel for things like that, but they may be more achievable" and helpful, he told The Daily Beast.
The Palestinians fear that kind of approach would muddy their goal: to be recognized as an independent state.
In a recent State Department briefing, spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to endorse the two state solution, a formula expressed by three prior administrations that calls for the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state next to the Jewish state of Israel. “We are not going to state what the outcome has to be,” Nauert said, adding, “It has to be workable to both sides.”
Palestinians were outraged. Even as Kushner met for several hours with Abbas in Ramallah Thursday, demonstrators, said to be organized by Abbas’ own lieutenants, gathered outside the presidential headquarters, known as the Muqata, with some reportedly carrying anti-Trump signs, including one depicting the president as being led on a leash by daughter Ivanka, who is married to Kushner.
A White House official close to the negotiations noted however that Abbas has threatened—as he’s often done in the past—to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority if Kushner declined to push hard on the peace process. But then, the official said, "Abbas didn’t pull out,” which indicates that the talks are substantial after all. “This shows it’s not about nothing," the official added.
The official asked to speak on background as part of Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s expressed desire to keep the content of the negotiations under wraps. This, the official said, may be the reason many feel no progress is being made, but it is a deliberate strategy.
Past administrations “put process ahead of results. It was about a road map, time lines, impositions of deadlines,” the official said, adding that past diplomacy “suffered from a constant effort to show some achievement,” which doomed it to failure as the parties pushed back against public statements in Washington.
Critics however say that the current diplomatic ambiguity may lead to failure. “You have to say publicly where you want to go,” said Gilead Sher, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. Kushner, he says, is undermining progress by not stating what the American goal is. “When no one knows which way America is sailing, it’s impossible for all to steer their boats," he added.
Sher, who headed Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s team of negotiators with the Palestinians in President Clinton’s days, continued, "if there's a clear goal, progress can be made after each round of talks. If you tread in place, you get nowhere."
Despite public pronouncements, he said, the Netanyahu government never really believed in the two state solution.
Government officials say privately however they don't believe Abbas can cut a deal. They argue that the region is changing fast, and are more concerned with new threats, like Iran's attempt to set camp on their border with Syria, than with the Palestinians. For them, a show about nothing is, like Seinfeld, a smash hit.