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Kushner Criticizes Abbas, Questioning His Ability to Make Peace

Posted June 24, 2018 8:11 p.m. EDT
Updated June 24, 2018 8:17 p.m. EDT

JERUSALEM — Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser on the Middle East, said the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, was afraid to make peace with Israel, bore responsibility for the deteriorating situation in Gaza and was prioritizing his own political survival at the expense of his people’s needs.

Kushner, who is on a multination trip to the Middle East, made his comments in an interview published early Sunday by the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds. He said the Trump administration was “almost done” preparing its peace plan and would roll it out soon.

He appeared to be trying to goad Abbas into talks the leader has vowed to boycott, while doing considerable pre-emptive damage control in the event that Abbas does not relent.

But Kushner offered little in the way of enticements to Abbas. Asked what the leaders of other Arab nations wanted to see in an Israel-Palestinian settlement, the White House aide mentioned nothing about a sovereign Palestinian state or Palestinian refugees.

He also did not mention Israeli settlements on the West Bank or using the 1967 lines as a starting point to draw borders, and nothing about East Jerusalem serving as the Palestinian capital. He instead spoke of a potential Palestinian capital “in East Jerusalem.”

Kushner alluded to Arab nations’ desire that Al-Aqsa Mosque “remain open to all Muslims who wish to worship,” but he said nothing about its being in the custodianship of a Palestinian state, suggesting it could remain under Israeli control in the administration’s plan.

Abbas had angrily rejected U.S.-led negotiations after Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy in December by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Since then, Trump has cut aid for Palestinian refugees and moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Kushner’s interview, published on the website of Al-Quds after Kushner met twice over two days in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, was replete with criticism of Abbas, the aging, unhealthy and highly unpopular Palestinian leader. The White House released a translation of the interview.

Asked by the newspaper’s editor, Walid Abu-Zalaf, about an Abbas spokesman’s dismissal of Kushner’s trip as a “waste of time” that was “bound to fail,” Kushner said he believed Palestinian leaders were “saying those things because they are scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it.”

Kushner questioned Abbas’ flexibility and capacity to make peace, and said the “global community” was frustrated with Abbas. “He has his talking points, which have not changed in the last 25 years,” Kushner said. He added: “To make a deal, both sides will have to take a leap and meet somewhere between their stated positions. I am not sure President Abbas has the ability to do that.”

Abbas has raged at the Trump administration, Kushner observed, but he questioned whose interests that served.

“There are a lot of sharp statements and condemnations, but no ideas or efforts with prospects of success,” Kushner said. “Those who are more skeptical say President Abbas is only focused on his political survival and cementing a legacy of not having compromised, than on bettering the lives of the Palestinian people.”

Abbas was elected for the first and only time in 2005 to a four-year term, and recent polls show a majority of Palestinians believe he should resign. Kushner alluded to this unpopularity, saying, “I don’t think the Palestinian people feel like their lives are getting better, and there is only so long you can blame that on everyone other than Palestinian leadership.”

Kushner said the Trump administration was determined to find solutions to the “core issues” of the conflict — including Jerusalem, borders and refugees — “that both sides can live with.” But he said that “without creating a pathway to better life,” no solution would be durable.

To that end, he said his team had “spent our time focusing on the people and trying to determine what they actually want,” which he said was “more and better-paying jobs and prospects for a better life.” He suggested that could involve “massive investments in modern infrastructure, job training and economic stimulus” and could allow the “industrious, well-educated” Palestinian population to leapfrog to the forefront of the “technological industrial revolution.” Palestinians would particularly benefit from integrating their economy with that of Israel, “the Silicon Valley of the Middle East,” Kushner said.

“Israeli’s prosperity would spill over very quickly to the Palestinians if there is peace,” he said, and Egypt and Jordan would also see a windfall.

Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator, said Kushner’s conjuring of an economic leap forward for Palestinians could be “appealing,” but he warned that leaders of neighboring Arab countries would require a political compromise between Israel and the Palestinians to be able to support a U.S.-led deal.

“Arab leaders need to be able to justify their position by pointing to what the Palestinians would be getting and what is important to Arab audiences,” he said. “That certainly suggests something credible from their standpoint on Jerusalem and a Palestinian state.”

“There is a challenge to Abu Mazen here,” Ross added, referring to Abbas and the overall tone of Kushner’s remarks. “But the door is open to him, as well.”

Notably, Kushner did not mention Abbas’ counterpart, Netanyahu, or offer any criticism of the Israeli side. Abbas and his advisers have complained that the Trump administration has dispensed with any pretense that the United States can be a neutral mediator of the conflict and has essentially taken Israel’s side.

Indeed, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said that Kushner’s description of the U.S. plan could have been drafted by the right-wing Israeli government. Erekat said in an interview, “That is verbatim what we heard from Netanyahu.”

Erekat said that he had repeatedly asked Kushner to facilitate direct talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, but that Kushner had rebuffed him.

“They want to dictate a solution, not negotiate it,” Erekat said. “He’s trying to blame us, that’s it — he’s trying to show that the Palestinians want away from the table. They’re preparing the ground for finger-pointing and assigning blame on us.” In the interview, Kushner laid considerable responsibility for the deterioration of the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, at the feet of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade of the coastal enclave for more than a decade, but Abbas imposed harshly punitive financial measures in the past year, including cutting the salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants in Gaza.

“The political dysfunction, greatly exacerbated by the PA’s salary cuts, has made Gaza ungovernable,” Kushner said. “It’s time for the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to stop using the people of Gaza as pawns.”

Kushner welcomed the idea of a referendum on a peace plan as a way to bypass recalcitrant leaders in both the West Bank and Jerusalem. “That’s something that the leadership of both sides should consider doing,” he said.

Rhetorically, at least, he spent much of the interview appealing to ordinary Palestinians to give the Trump administration’s proposal a fair hearing.

“Don’t let your leadership reject a plan they haven’t even seen,” he said. “The world has moved forward while you have been left behind. Don’t allow your grandfather’s conflict to determine your children’s future.”