Jared Kushner’s Jewishness Won’t Doom His Peace Plan. This Will.
In the fall of 1996, while in Israel as part of a small US team trying to negotiate an end to a particularly serious and violent crisis between Israelis and Palestinians, I learned that my mother’s cancer had progressed, and I returned home to be with her for those last precious days. Although neither religious nor observant, I decided that to honor my mother, an extraordinary woman, I’d say kaddish, the ritual prayer for those departed, every day for a year as per Jewish custom.
Weeks later, after her passing, I went back to join my colleagues, who were already deeply immersed in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which included Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammed Dahlan.
One night, during a negotiating session at the home of the US Ambassador Martin Indyk, I realized that it was nearing midnight and I had not yet recited the kaddish that day.
I whispered to Martin that I knew this was a difficult call, but I wondered whether we could take break and do a short service.
Martin smiled and said it shouldn’t be hard to assemble ten Jews, the number required by Jewish law to form a minyan and say the kaddish. As I looked around the room at the number of Jews on Israeli and US delegations, I couldn’t help but laugh.
He was right. Between our team and Israel’s, we made a minyan, the ten required by Jewish law. And together, we recited the kaddish service as Abbas and Dahlan watched.
Later, Abbas would remark favorably how extraordinary it was that an American would interrupt a negotiation to honor a religious tradition and pay respect to his mother.
Still, over the years I’ve often wondered about the appropriateness of that kaddish, and whether I crossed some line. Despite their kind words, I’ve wondered what Abbas and Dahlan might have really been thinking watching the Israeli delegation and the American one — which was supposed to be the objective negotiators, the middle ground — bond together in a Jewish ritual.
Most crucially, I’ve wondered about the objectivity of Americans Jews, who have strong attachments to Israel, working on this problem.
Is it really possible for American Jews working the negotiations to play an objective role?
The issue isn’t an academic one. I told the kaddish story to Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who helm President Trump’s Middle East team. Hopefully, they’ll have no need for a kaddish; but I couldn’t help but note that if they did, they would clearly have no problem getting a minyan, either.
I’m not the only one to joke about this topic with them. Interviewing Kushner in December 2017 at a forum that bears his name, Haim Saban, the Israeli-American billionaire and Democratic donor, observed that the President’s peace team was comprised of “a bunch of Orthodox Jews who have no idea about anything.”
In his half-joking way, Saban was bringing up the very question I’d asked myself many times. Does being Jewish, let alone Orthodox, disqualify one from leading or participating in a US team charged with mediating a complex conflict that requires a high bar of fairness and sensitivity to the needs of both sides?
So, have there been and are there now too many American Jews working the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
Objectivity, With Allowances
There is no perfect, gold standard for objectivity when it comes to measuring one’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or how best to resolve it.
In four decades of analyzing this conflict, nobody I’ve ever encountered is truly objective on this issue, whatever that means. We are each the sum total of our experiences, biases, prejudices and prejudgments, collected over the years. Sometimes we’re aware of them, sometimes not. But they serve as a filter, coloring the way we perceive the world
As an American who happens to be Jewish, I do have a strong commitment to the survival and well-being of Israel as a Jewish State. And as I have made clear, repeatedly and honestly over the years, that sensibility did in fact help shape my views on what a solution to the conflict might look like.
But throughout my career, my own views evolved too. I have tried to understand and recognize the biases I have. I have tried to set them aside and understand the needs and requirements of Palestinians and key Arab states. I have tried to understand what it would take to gain their support, what would be required to create a solution that was fair, durable and equitable.
Above all, I have strived to do what I believed to be in the best interests of the United States. That has been my prime directive.
Still, I very much doubt that from the perspective of my Palestinian, Arab, and even Israeli interlocutors, let alone their supporters here at home, I met their expectations. My wife Lindsay collected letters and articles over the years full of the worst possible invective directed at me and my colleagues. They came from Muslims, Christians, and especially Jews, and called us everything from Jewish Benedict Arnolds to unapologetic Zionist tools to Israeli stooges.
While I reject the most extreme attacks from those who are unable to see beyond their narrow worlds and prejudices, I do believe we could have used more balance on our team, particularly during the Clinton years.
We should have included experts who were American Arabs and Muslims, who would have made our efforts stronger. We also too frequently chose to exclude the views of our own ambassadors in the Middle East who might have argued the Palestinian case in stronger terms as we prepared our negotiating strategy.
Still, as prospective mediators, it’s really not your religion or ethnic background that should matter, but how you see the conflict, and the lengths you will go to understand — honestly and empathetically — the realities on both sides, and the lengths you will go to fight for an equitable settlement.
The Middle East Is Not A Fight Of Good Versus Bad But Of Competing Justices
One thing is for certain: No one who chooses sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will succeed in resolving it.
This is not because it’s wrong on some moral level to identify and sympathize with one side over the other, but because of the nature of the conflict itself. Though there are two sides to the conflict, they both have valid and just claims, and someone who is unable to see that will never make headway.
Ironically, I would learn much on this issue from an observant Jew with whom I worked closely on this issue since the Reagan Administration.
Of all those I have encountered over the years, my close friend and mentor Dan Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, is perhaps the fairest, most sensitive and skilled negotiator and analyst of this conflict that I know. Dan’s balance and fairness has bought him his fair share of detractors, particularly on the Israeli side. Still, his point of departure is mine as well, though we’ve argued and debated the issue of the US role over the years.
We both believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not some kind of morality play that pits the forces of good against the forces of evil in some epic Manichean struggle.
Rather, the conflict is a terribly complicated case of competing justices, where both sides have legitimate needs and requirements, even as they (both) behave in illegitimate ways that prolong the conflict and inflict pain on one another.
If you want to pick a team and root for on, go ahead. It can feel emotionally empowering and it’s much easier to remain in the warm comfort of the tribe. But if the conflict is to be managed and resolved, the effort must be made to try to reconcile two valid and just sets of needs. That’s much harder and requires sometimes being out in the cold and alone.
Those who make this effort — however imperfectly because neither side is going to get everything they want— are likely to have more success than those who choose to pick sides and support one side over the other.
The history of US policy has certainly borne this out. When the US has succeeded in Arab-Israeli negotiations over the years — and the set of successes are pretty limited (see Henry Kissinger’s three disengagement between Israel, Egypt, and Syria; Jimmy Carter’s Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and James Baker’s Madrid Peace Conference) — the US succeeded in finding ways to develop proposals that all sides could accept, albeit sometimes reluctantly.
Furthermore, when asking if American Jews working the negotiations can be objective when it comes to Israel, it’s critical to understand and appreciate that advisers advise and set up options and choices for their principals; they are rarely in a position to make unilateral decisions on the big issues.
It’s worth noting that many of the same Jewish advisers who worked for James Baker under the Republican Administration of George H. W. Bush also worked for the Democrat Bill Clinton. Circumstances were certainly different. Ironically, Baker was more discriminating in rejecting advice from advisers he thought were too supportive of Israel, and much more amenable to being tough with the Israelis both in public and private.
Clinton, on the other hand, who was truly committed to a peace agreement in a way few of his predecessors have been was reluctant to push the Israelis, or the Palestinians for that matter. He was more inclined to listen to the views of his advisers, who, despite the best of intentions and impressed by how much Ehud Barak was prepared to offer, weren’t prepared to push for terms that might have produced an accord until it was too late to negotiate a deal, partly out of concern that Yasser Arafat would pocket more concessions.
Tellingly, when Clinton put possible terms on the table in December of 2000 which might have produced an accord, Arafat, having improved his leverage and acquiesced to and even orchestrated violence, figured he’d wait to see what Bush 43 would offer.
We Aren’t Israel’s Lawyers. We’re Supposed to be Advocates for Both Sides
No matter who is advising the President on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, it’s essential to understand that while the US has a stunningly special relationship with Israel based on shared values and interests (though hardly across the board), special can’t become exclusive.
In 2005, I wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled “Israel’s Lawyer” — a term I didn’t create but drew from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs. Kissinger knew he couldn’t just push Israel’s point of view and succeed. Indeed, it was Kissinger — the first Jewish Secretary of State — who called for a reassessment of US Middle East policy to pressure Rabin.
To succeed in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, we need to maintain our credibility and independence in decision-making.
That means ignoring neither Israeli nor Palestinian interests and making our own judgments about possible ways to bridge gaps, while not trying to impose a solution.
Even with our special bond with Israel, we need to be an advocate — a lawyer if you will — for our real client: the US national interest which includes an equitable and durable Israeli-Palestinian peace.
That’s not the role the Trump Administration peace team is playing today.
The problem with Trump’s Middle East team is not that it’s made up of “a bunch of Orthodox Jews” as Saban put it.
Sure, the team lacks expertise about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — its history, politics, and negotiating record; and no one on the team has prior government experience, or experience being immersed in the region.
But the real problem is that the team has compromised and undermined America’s ability to present itself as an effective broker, let alone an honest one.
Trump’s team, helmed by Kushner, Greenblatt and David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer, are pursuing an approach that hews far more closely to a Netanyahu narrative, and is not only hostile to a Palestinian one, but seeks to dismantle the elements of a two state solution, including on borders and Jerusalem.
Now, we don’t know the details of their plan. Maybe we will be surprised when the “ultimate deal” is put on the table.
But right now, it seems as though the Trump Administration, both in their approach toward Israel and their pressure campaign against the Palestinians, are doing a lot of lawyering for the Israelis — instead of for a deal that both can accept.
Of course, now as always, the primary responsibility for making those decisions rests with the parties themselves, and right now, you could bring back Henry Kissinger and James Baker to negotiate and given the gaps and mistrust between the parties, you still couldn’t reach a deal. Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is willing or able to make decisions that will produce a conflict-ending solution.
Still, if we want to have any chance of playing a credible and effective role in bringing peace to the Middle East, we’ll have to return to an approach that’s far more balanced and in sync with the needs of both sides.
The odds of resuming serious negotiations with this peace team and with Netanyahu and Abbas are at best uncertain and at worst slim to none.
But one thig is unmistakably clear: If we continue to take sides, providing Israel with all the honey and Palestinians with all the vinegar, we might as well hang a “closed for the season” sign on any hope for a meaningful US role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking — now and in the future.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic Administrations. His most recent book is “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.”