What an old Hebrew parable can tell us about Kushner’s strategy and the deal of the century.
Over the past two years, the Trump administration has launched an all-out diplomatic assault on the Palestinians, while preparing a new initiative to resolve the Middle East conflict. It has claimed its plan is different from any other, downplayed anything said about it as wild speculation, and accused critics of rushing to judgment before they have seen it.
Indeed, the Palestinians have not seen the actual plan, but they have a pretty good feeling about what it will involve. They have watched closely as the Trump administration has spat out one policy after the other with the clear intention of humiliating and subduing them.
Trump: Israel’s gift that keeps on giving
Over the past year and a half, US President Donald Trump administration has been giving Benjamin Netanyahu’s government one political “gift” after the other.
In December 2017, his administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv in May 2018. In January 2018, it froze all assistance to UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with supporting millions of Palestinian living as refugees, and in June that year, it quit the UN Human Rights Council after accusing it of having a bias against Israel on account of its policies in occupied Palestine. In September, the Trump administration closed the representative office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington.
Meanwhile, it gave Netanyahu freehand to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which the State Department stopped calling “occupied” in official documents and instead designated as “Israeli-controlled”.
Then, just before this year’s Israeli elections, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation recognising Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, which had been previously declared “null and void” by the Reagan administration and the UN Security Council.
Perhaps most alarmingly, his administration pushed certain Arab countries towardsnormalisation of relations with Israel without any Israeli concessions being made.
These US policies have encouraged Netanyahu, who will serve a fifth term as prime minister, to boast of maintaining forever Israeli sovereignty over a “united Jerusalem”, as Israel’s “eternal capital”, and to vow to never relinquish Israel’s control over any Palestinian territories west of the Jordan River. He has also pledged to annex all the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In the meantime, the Palestinian leadership and Arab rulers have done little more than issuing inconsequential statements.
Zealots on steroids
These and other changes to the traditional US foreign policy in the Middle East have come at the initiative of Trump’s three top Middle East advisors: his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his two former New York lawyers, Jason Greenblatt and David Freedman, who have been actively promoting pro-Israeli policies for decades.
These three proud radical Zionists have clearly demonstrated their enthusiasm for Israel’s illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories and their rejection of the label “occupied” for the West Bank and Jerusalem.
But the Trump trio continue to surprise, and not in a good way. Kushner and company are so extreme that they make Netanyahu look moderate in comparison.
They are part of a group of American Zionist hardliners who opposed the “Oslo Peace Process” in the 1990s and have even made comparisons between Israeli peacemakers and Nazi collaborators. They have dismissed Palestinian national and historical rights out of hand and defended Israel’s actions as ordained by God. Like their evangelical partners, they believe their boss Trump might have been anointed by God to look after Israel and reckon their interpretation of divine will supersedes the will of the international community.
Last year, Friedman, who has been serving as US ambassador to Israel, tweeted: “More than 2000 years ago, Jewish patriots (Maccabees) captured Jerusalem, purified the Holy Temple and rededicated it as a house of Jewish worship. The U.N. cant vote away the facts: Jerusalem is the ancient and modern capital of Israel.”
That the Trump trio displays such religious fundamentalism on steroids, while disingenuously insisting that they have the Palestinians’ best interest at heart, should worry everyone in the Middle East and beyond.
Wheeling and dealing
While Kushner has remained largely quiet about the new deal, Friedman and Greenblatt have been chatty about its merits and implications for the Palestinians.
With unmatched chutzpah, both lawyers have been trolling Palestinian leaders and shaming them for not caring about the Palestinian people. They have also wrongly attacked the Palestinians for “praising” terror and harbouring terrorists, and at the same time, have wholeheartedly defended Israel against any and all criticism of its violence and repression, including by US media.
In all likelihood, the trio has been relying on the infamous “Israel Project” media guidefor “leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel”, in order to embarrass the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority and cheer the Netanyahu government. They persistently use PR gimmicks like: “We are ready to help the Palestinians, but is the Palestinian leadership ready?”
All of this prompts the question: Why should the Palestinians even consider the US plan when Kushner and company advocate for the expropriation of their land, their capital and their resources, all in the name of realism and peace? Why should they think differently, when two leading pro-Israel experts and former White House advisers reckonthe plan is no more than “economy plus-plus”, that is “set up for failure”?
Well, the Trump trio insist they are working on something completely different than past US initiatives, as Kushner told Time 100 Summit this week – something based on reality not fantasy – and the sooner the Palestinians embrace it the quicker their lives may improve. But if past initiatives failed because they were slanted in favour of Israel, how does making them even more favourable to Israel lead to peace? Needless to say, no occupied or colonised nation have or ever will accept any such advice that is based purely on the logic of rogue power.
But if the US administration wants the Palestinians to come on board with the plan, why does it continue to humiliate them in public and private? After all, any new deal, like any old deal, would have to involve accepting dividing or/and sharing the land.
There’s old Hebrew wisdom at play here.
‘The art of humiliation’
In an attempt to offer his own rendition of the old adage, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”, Mr Kushner wrote in a January 2018 email that: “Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are, our goal has to be to make thing significantly BETTER! Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”
But breaking what exactly?
It seems Kushner’s main goal is to break the Palestinians’ spirit and their hope for a sovereign state on all territories occupied in 1967, in order to force them to settle for autonomy in parts of these territories with a down-the-road option for a “Gaza first” pseudo-state, conditional on good behaviour.
All of this reminds me of an old story Kushner surely knows – a Hebrew parable about a poor man who complained to his rabbi about living with his big family in a small house. The rabbi told him to bring all his animals into the house. Though astonished, the man did what he was told. The next day he rushed back to see the rabbi and complained that the situation has gotten much worse. The rabbi then suggested the man take out the chickens. Feeling a slight relief but still frustrated with his living arrangements, the man headed back to the rabbi, who advised him to take out another animal. This back-and-forth repeated until the man had taken all animals out. The following day he went back to the rabbi with a big smile. “O Rabbi”, he said, “we have such a good life now. The house is so quiet and we’ve got room to spare!”
The moral of the story is that when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. In this sense, the Trump trio is trying to force the Palestinians to see that their reality is not so bad in comparison to how bad it could become.
But the truth is, changing your perspective does not change your reality. In fact, every time the Palestinians changed the way they viewed things at US insistence over the past quarter of a century, their situation has only gotten worse. Whichever way you look at it, Israel has been expanding at the expense of Palestine for decades.
It is high time for a new generation of Palestinian leaders to fundamentally reshape the reality on the ground by reversing or overcoming past and present US and Israeli policies.