The four men behind Trump's Israeli-Palestinian ‘deal of the century’

Mungo Drake , Thursday 5 Jul 2018

Four men have been busy orchestrating US President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

The men behind ‘the deal of the century
From L to R - Jared Kushner, senior adviser to Trump; David Friedman, US Ambassador to Israel; Ron Dermer, Israel Ambassador to US Jason Dov Greenblatt, Trump special aide

Of the four men responsible for orchestrating US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, three of them, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, are united in their lack of any prior diplomatic or political experience.

Through their pre-existing ties to Trump, they also embody the cronyism at the heart of the current American administration.

Jared Kushner / Jason Greenblatt 

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has long lived a life of privilege.

His father, Charles Kushner, built up a massive fortune from investment in New Jersey real estate and is rumoured to have bought his son a place at Harvard University thanks to extensive donations.

His family are Orthodox Jews who have always preserved strong ties with Israel and been generous contributors to Zionist organisations. Kushner’s father is a personal friend of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

In 2010, Kusnher bought the weekly newspaper The New York Observer. The newspaper’s former editor, Peter W Kaplan, had a strained relationship with Kushner from the beginning, referring to him as a “guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”

Kushner’s sudden transition from being the owner of a New York tabloid newspaper and inheritor of a real-estate empire to Trump’s senior Middle East adviser is extraordinary.

Since being appointed to the position in January 2017, he has had unrivaled diplomatic power in the region as a figurehead in determining American foreign policy.

Assisting in his efforts has been Jason Greenblatt, a former vice-president of the Trump Organisation and now US special representative for international negotiations. Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s corporate background seems to have influenced his approach to the current negotiations and his ideas of what constitutes a fair settlement for the Palestinians.

It is becoming clear that “the deal of the century,” while denying the Palestinian people many of their fundamental political objectives, will offer them instead a number of “tempting” financial incentives.

Having travelled around the region to visit a number of Arab leaders with Greenblatt, Kushner has made a concerted effort to ensure Arab cooperation in this proposed economic package.

The focus of the talks has been investment in a number of development projects in Gaza, including the creation of a free-trade zone, in the hope of alleviating the effects of the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

The interest in developing Gaza specifically has raised questions about its political motivations. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has described the initiative as indicating an attempt “to create a mini-state in Gaza while bringing down the Palestinian Authority (PA).”

The idea that an entire people can simply be bought off with the illusory promise of investment from the Gulf seems deeply delusional given more than half a century’s worth of bitter political struggle.

However, it is arguably very apt for a man whose entire experience of life has been dominated by a fixation with material wealth.

Seeing in the current Palestinian leadership an irreparable obstacle to his peace plans, Greenblatt has publicly called for its being sidelined. In an interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds on his trip to Israel on 24 June he tried to appeal directly to the public.

Not only did he suggest to the newspaper’s Palestinian audience that the PA administration was the source of their economic and social woes, but he also said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a “hindrance” to any successful attempt at achieving peace.

Unsurprisingly, such public opposition has gone a long way towards alienating the PA’s political elite and has effectively shattered any hope of reconciliation, not to mention cooperation, once the details of “the deal” are officially announced. Abbas recently rejected an invitation from Kushner while he was in Egypt to meet with him and various Arab leaders to even discuss the peace plan.

David Friedman

Since becoming US ambassador to Israel in February 2017, David Friedman has emerged as a particularly divisive figure in the latest stage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

With his alarmingly undiplomatic lack of discretion and restraint, and his political bias as an overtly Zionist Orthodox Jew, it is difficult to imagine a more unsuitable character to occupy the position.

Friedman was arguably always set to become an unpopular and controversial figure. His appointment was deeply associated with the decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

When Trump announced his choice of Friedman as ambassador in December 2016, he responded by saying that he was looking forward to carrying out his duties “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital Jerusalem.”

Later, as protesters were being gunned down by Israeli snipers in the wake of the new embassy’s opening in May, Friedman criticised the international media’s coverage of the demonstrations. At a press conference, he told journalists critical of Israel’s handling of the crisis “to keep their mouths shut.”

Friedman has repeatedly managed to infuriate and alienate the Palestinian leadership with his attitudes regarding illegal settlement-building in the West Bank, which he refers to by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

In his first interview as US ambassador in September 2017 he took the unprecedented step of saying that the illegal settlements were “part of Israel,” contradicting the US’s longstanding consideration of them as a serious hindrance to peace.

More worrying, however, has been his claim that only two per cent of the West Bank is under occupation and that therefore Israel is abiding by international law and UN Security Council Resolution 242. In reality, 40 per cent of the region has been given over to the rule of settlement councils to say nothing of areas directly under Israeli control.

In another notable instance at the beginning of the year, Greenblatt blamed in a tweet the leaders of the Palestinian Authority for the lack of peace in the region following the murder of an Israeli settler in the West Bank.

Such comments have incited unanimous fury within the PA. In his opening address to a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in March, Abbas referred to Friedman as “a son of a dog” and a “settler”.

Before becoming US ambassador, Friedman had played an active role in American-Zionist political life. He was president for many years of the American Friends of Bet El, an advocacy group against the two-state solution in Palestine which has provided tens of millions of dollars in financial support to an illegal Israeli settlement.

He has also written extensively as a columnist for the conservative Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva. In one column he accused supporters of J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group, of being worse than “kapos,” Jewish collaborators during the European Holocaust.

Given this lifelong commitment to a particularly virulent and expansionist form of Zionism, Greenblatt’s ideological distortion of his diplomatic office should not come as a surprise. There is a worry that Friedman’s radical influence will rule out a two-state solution and deny Palestinians the right to Jerusalem as their capital.

Moreover, there are plans to increase his power. According to reports, Trump is contemplating a proposal to put the US consulate in East Jerusalem under the embassy’s, and therefore Friedman’s, jurisdiction.

For years the consulate has acted as a conduit for direct relations between the US and the Palestinian Authority independent of the Israeli authorities. Ending its autonomy would amount to stripping the Palestinians of an independent diplomatic channel with Washington.

However, this attempt to uproot the status quo has resulted in a backlash from America’s diplomatic establishment. Before Friedman was sworn in as ambassador, five former ambassadors to Israel appealed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a letter to reject his application. They referred to how his support of illegal settlements and flouting of a two-state solution discredited him from being a viable candidate.

Meanwhile the State Department has repeatedly had to publicly distance itself from Friedman by reiterating that many of his comments don’t reflect a “policy shift.” Heather Nauert, a spokesperson, went as far as to suggest that Greenblatt and Kushner better represent America’s position in the region than its own ambassador.

Prior to his ambassadorship, Friedman was a partner at the New York law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman which represented Trump in a number of bankruptcy suits related to his casinos in Atlantic City.

Since then, he has developed a personal relationship with the president, playing a key role in Trump’s presidential campaign as an adviser on Israeli affairs and personally donating $50,000 to the cause.

Ron Dermer

Ron Dermer’s dealings with the White House as Israeli ambassador to the US have been a reminder of the deep complicity of Netanyahu’s government in orchestrating the anticipated “deal”.

Now in his sixth year as ambassador, Dermer is seen as a loyal supporter and advocate of Netanyahu’s government. In a statement following the extension of his ambassadorship for another year, Netanyahu said of Dermer that he had “managed to create a wide and high-quality network of contacts… enabling him to advance Israel’s highest goals.”

The ambassador’s collusion with the current administration began in December 2016 before Trump was inaugurated as president. In the wake of a political crisis in Israel precipitated by the threat of a UN Resolution regarding illegal Israeli settlements, Dermer appealed to then president-elect Trump.

By capitalising on existing ties to prominent members of Trump’s presidential campaign such as Jared Kushner, Dermer used Trump’s then-transitional team to pressure then US president Barack Obama into scrapping the proposed resolution.

Although Trump and his entourage proved unable to block the settlement resolution being passed at the UN because of Russian support, the incident heralded the closer alignment of the White House and Netanyahu’s interests and policy.

Since then Dermer’s role has grown, maintaining an influential presence in the White House and Congress as well as attending frequent meetings with Kushner, Greenblatt and of course the president.

This is not to say however that the relationship has always been perfect. Kushner was overheard by a number of White House aides telling Dermer that “you’re not going to tell us how to run things” and “don’t boss us around.”

However, it has to be said that from what we know of “the deal of the century” it seems to align with Netanyahu’s political interests: to sideline the Palestinian cause on the world stage by discrediting once and for all the possibility of a viable two-state solution.

Coming out of a meeting last month with Dermer, Greenblatt, Kushner and Friedman, the Israeli prime minister, referring to the American envoys, said “I have to say that there was absolute support for our positions and activities to ensure the security of the state of Israel.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The men behind ‘the deal’  

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