Kushner's memoir shows how disarray in the White House led to the 'Deal of the Century'

In his new book, Jared Kushner says his team had the best intentions, but intentions are not enough

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MAY 22:  (ISRAEL OUT) In this handout photo provided by the Israel Government Press Office (GPO), US President Donald J Trump (L) and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) at the King David Hotel May 22, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. Trump arrived for a 28-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas on his first foreign trip since taking office in January.  (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)
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A few minutes into a January 2020 White House news conference launching then US president Donald Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, things started to go badly wrong. As Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s senior adviser in charge of the plan, acknowledges in a new book, his big moment was being hijacked before his eyes by an ally, then Israeli prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

“I grabbed my chair so intensely that my knuckles turned white, as if my grip could make Bibi stop,” Mr Kushner writes. “In both tone and substance, the speech was way off the mark … it misrepresented our plan.”

Excerpts released from Mr Kushner’s upcoming memoir, Breaking History: A White House Memoir – to be published later this month – starkly illustrate behind-the-scenes details of the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy and wider foreign policy. They paint a picture of endemic naivety and dysfunction that ultimately led to such a profound failure that Mr Trump’s intended policies have until now not even come to light.

There is little doubt that Mr Kushner intends his book "to set the record straight" and to defend his and Mr Trump’s intentions and actions. Yet it is telling that he seems unaware that his account of events will probably achieve the opposite outcome. His account highlights the disastrous diplomatic and political consequences of having total political novices in the White House.

He tries to show – contrary to prevailing perceptions – that the Trump administration’s intent was not to be as pro-Israel as it looked. But ultimately what he shows is that this perception has held because the inexperienced Mr Trump and Mr Kushner had rings run around them by veteran political players adept at the cut-and-thrust of Middle East politics and diplomacy.

Mr Kushner’s detailed account of January 2020 is certainly eye-opening. He explains that the plan intended to “eventually recognise Israel’s sovereignty over agreed-upon areas [of the West Bank], if Israel took steps to advance Palestinian statehood within the territory we outlined”. Mr Trump wanted to “present a dignified and balanced proposal – one that required compromises on both sides”, insists Mr Kushner, who believed that this had been fully understood by the Israelis. However, he points out, "that certainly wasn’t the deal Bibi was describing”.

“I had explicitly asked Israeli ambassador [to the US] Ron Dermer to make sure Bibi kept his remarks brief and above the politics of the day,” he writes further, but Mr Netanyahu’s speech “contained nothing magnanimous or conciliatory toward the Palestinians. It was essentially a campaign speech for his domestic political audience”.

During his term in office, Netanyahu frequently threatened to annex large parts of Palestine. AFP
Kushner’s detailed account of January 2020 is certainly eye-opening

Israel will apply its law, Mr Netanyahu declared, “to all the Jewish communities [in the West Bank] … and to other areas that your plan designates as part of Israel and which the United States has agreed to recognise as part of Israel".

But this, Mr Kushner writes, “was not what we had negotiated".

The plan conceived of a semi-contiguous Palestinian state – 70 per cent of the West Bank, some neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and some areas in southern Israel – if the Palestinians recognised Israel as a Jewish state and disarm Hamas and other armed groups. Yet, Mr Netanyahu told the world something very different.

How had this been allowed to occur? In addition to his anger at Mr Netanyahu, Mr Kushner accused then US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman – a former lawyer for Mr Trump, and an unapologetically open supporter of Israel – of effectively going rogue by telling Mr Netanyahu that Mr Trump would back Israel annexing large parts of the West Bank.

But the stark reality is that neither Mr Trump nor Mr Kushner were even vaguely prepared for the level of Machiavellian scheming that comes with such high-stakes international political affairs – the kind of tactics Mr Kushner now implies both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Friedman successfully wielding against him. Had the plan’s details and its public unveiling been put in the hands of veteran diplomats, and/or State Department and White House senior officials, such tricks would almost certainly have been pre-empted and evaded – but, instead, Mr Trump entrusted it all to Mr Kushner, an inexperienced political office-holder.

Ownership of the process by such veterans would also have ensured the plan was credible. Almost no one outside the Trump administration believed the plan had any chance of gaining traction let alone succeeding. Indeed, the Palestinian government rejected the plan not just before it was launched, but before it had even been briefed on its specifics. And when published, one informed observer commented that “literally none of it is actionable ... it is the Monty Python sketch of Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives".

Successfully managing, let alone resolving, complex international issues such as Palestine-Israel requires in-depth knowledge, skill and subtlety, hard enough for veteran diplomats and officials, and virtually impossible for those without any pertinent experience. Add utter disdain for such foreign policy and national security professionals – a defining characteristic of the Trump administration – and the failures highlighted come as little surprise.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no place for political novices with no experience or knowledge of the conflict and its ever-deepening complexity. The international community has consistently failed over the years to bring peace there – even former US president Bill Clinton and erstwhile UK prime minister Tony Blair, key architects of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, each tried and failed. Yet, Mr Trump sent as his representative a man whose main qualification was that he was his son-in-law.

Mr Kushner’s account overwhelmingly evidences the imperative for US policy to be based on sound principles informed by wise counsel, rather than by narrow personal agendas and hubris. These required qualities are everything the Trump administration lacked. And what should truly frighten us is that nothing suggests Mr Trump will do things any differently if he gets elected to a second term in 2024.

Published: August 19, 2022, 7:00 AM
Updated: August 24, 2022, 11:11 AM