Aaron David Miller says the idea that Donald Trump's son-in-law could bring about Mideast peace is wildly optimistic
The key missing element is a willingness on the part of the two sides to strike a deal, he says
Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
On Monday, two European newspapers published an interview with President-elect Donald Trump during which he asserted (again) that his son-in-law – soon to be a special adviser in the White House – is “a natural” to fix the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me. I’ve worked and analyzed the Israeli-Palestinian issue for Republican and Democratic administrations longer than Jared Kushner’s been alive without much success. So why not give Mr. Kushner a chance?
The fact that Mr. Trump is prepared to give this important brief to a son-in-law who may become one of his closest advisers would ensure that the issue gets high-level attention. Still, the odds of success are slim. And here are several reasons why.
It’s not the man in the middle: Let’s stop infantilizing the Israelis and Palestinians and treating them as if they were pieces on the chess board that can be moved around at America’s discretion. America certainly plays a role in the perpetuation of the conflict; but not the primary role. That honor belongs to the parties that live in the neighborhood.
Given the stakes, they are the only ones who can begin the game. And right now neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are prepared to start, let alone make, big decisions.
It’s no coincidence that every breakthrough in the conflict came about quietly as a result of secret contacts directly between the parties. Once a foundation was laid, Washington can facilitate, even broker accords. Mr. Kushner must know that without the straw, he can’t make bricks, no matter how talented his father-in-law believes he may be.
Timing is everything: Woody Allen was mostly wrong. Eighty percent of success in life isn’t just about showing up; it’s a matter of showing up at the right time. And now isn’t the right time. Two days after his inauguration, Barack Obama appointed the talented George Mitchell as a special envoy whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton empowered to help bring about peace.
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Not only was the administration wrong in its assessment that the parties might be induced to create an environment for serious negotiations; their analysis that there was a deal that both parties could accept was misplaced, too. John Kerry would make the same mistake. America quickly became part of the furniture – taken for granted and said no to by both parties and the Saudis.
If Mr. Trump is smart, he’ll appoint nobody as a formal special envoy and refrain from making bold statements about how America will do this or that. He should be patient. And wait until his foreign policy team is assembled, has a chance to set priorities and is able to at least wrestle with an overall strategy for the region.
It’s not just a real-estate deal: Well, actually there is a territorial component; but it’s much more than that. Mr. Kushner may have been wildly successful in real estate in New York City. But that doesn’t mean he’s well-suited to negotiate this monumental deal.
It’s not just a question of figuring out a way to reconcile the interests of a couple of companies or big business tycoons. This is a matter of determining whether the national interests of two peoples whose histories are shaped by profound insecurity, historical trauma and wounding and religious and national identity can be somehow made to coincide
And the negotiation is occurring against the background of an ongoing conflict defined by occupation, violence, terror and, above all, domestic politics. It’s not just a question of losing power; the threat to these leaders is always existential. The murders of Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin tell a tragic tale.
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Confidence of both sides: Any negotiator must have the skills and sensibilities to understand the needs and requirements of both sides. Mr Trump keeps talking about his son-in-law cutting a great deal with Israel, and clearly Israeli needs, particularly on the security side, are critical in reaching an agreement. But this conflict has never been one hand clapping. There are not only core Palestinian requirements to consider but also any deal will of necessity involve the participation of key Arab states – to support Palestinians and to reach out to Israelis.
Any US envoy will need to play a big role on a regional stage with the Arabs, too. And you will need someone who’s skilled at playing that role. It’s one thing to operate as a presidential envoy who delivers private messages to the Israelis; it’s quite another to be the repository of the parties’ anger, confidence, trust and most important, their sensitive positions in a negotiation.
Indeed, the easiest way to undermine any new envoy would be for the Trump administration to move the US Embassy –or just the ambassador – to Jerusalem. That would strip away American credibility before Kushner or someone else even got started.
Let Jared Kushner have a chance to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians. But let’s be real. A solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict would be one of the crown jewels of world diplomacy.
No American has ever cracked it – in large part because the parties themselves weren’t prepared to own up to the decisions required to see matters through and to get close enough so that an outside mediator might close the remaining gaps.
In 2001, I was asked to assist then-Bush administration Middle East peace envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni in brokering a ceasefire between PLO President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Meeting Zinni for the first time, I half jokingly asked him why he wanted to ruin a brilliant career by getting involved in this issue. He told me he loved hopeless causes. In that case, I replied he’d come to the right place.
I wish you the best of luck, Jared Kushner. I really do.