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Kushner shares Jerusalem embassy spotlight

Kushner shares Jerusalem embassy spotlight
May 14
10:02 2018

The opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem will reset the power balance within the administration on Israel-Palestine.

Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Jared Kushner has served as the administration’s point person in the Middle East, eclipsing even the secretary of state in some meetings with foreign leaders.

But when it comes to the historic opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, a move Kushner championed behind the scenes, the president’s son-in-law will be on the ground as an attendee of the U.S. delegation, not as its leader.

That position will be filled by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. It is “normal protocol” for the highest-level official in attendance to act as the leader of the delegation. And Sullivan technically outranks Kushner, a senior White House adviser.

But the line-up for Monday’s embassy opening — a signature Trump policy that makes good on a campaign promise but could threaten an already moribund peace process — was interpreted by tea-leaf readers in the region as a sign that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to assert himself in the Middle East in a way that his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, never did.

“Jared Kushner has up until now had control of the Israeli-Palestinian file,” said Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton. “Although it’s normal protocol to have someone of the level of the deputy secretary of state leading the delegation, the fact that Jared Kushner is not leading the delegation is going to be noticed.”

Indyk added: “I don’t believe Pompeo has any intention to take a back seat on Arab-Israeli issues. It indicates that he intends to be a player here in a way that Tillerson was not.”

In the early months of the administration, Kushner was seen as a shadow secretary of state — the aide who really had the president’s ear, as well as a separate power center in the West Wing from which he helped negotiate a Saudi arms deal, involved himself in discussions about the North American Free Trade Agreement, helped organize Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat, and, most notably, oversaw the administration’s peace efforts in the Middle East.

But with a new leader at the State Department — and Kushner keeping a lower profile as his family company has become the subject of a federal probe — the embassy move appears to be a moment for a reset.

The White House said that Kushner is the one seeking it — and that his office originally reached out to Pompeo asking him to attend the embassy opening.

Pompeo, who returned early Thursday morning from North Korea, where he brokered the released of three American hostages, sent his No. 2 as a sign that the State Department is aligned with the president on the embassy decision — and to underscore that his department will have a piece of the legacy.

“Pompeo is confident enough in his own standing that he does not feel threatened by Jared the way Tillerson did,” said one White House official. “The dynamic is much more collegial.”

Another adviser close to Pompeo noted that the new secretary of state “has a great relationship with Jared and with the president. Because of that, the State Department is going to be relevant in all foreign policy matters, including this.” Pompeo also made a trip to Israel his first as secretary of state.

In the first 15 months of the Trump administration, Tillerson was constantly big-footed by Kushner when it came to the region, playing only a small role in the decisions made there, while Kushner and his small team forged relationships with the Saudis, the Palestinians and the Israelis. When Trump visited Israel last May, for instance, Kushner reportedly attended a “leaders’ summit” between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel — while Tillerson and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster both sat outside for the majority of the meeting.

Tillerson also clashed with the administration in his opposition the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, White House sources said. Tillerson wasn’t the only voice against the move: The announcement last December drew criticism from Arab nations, and even Pope Francis, who warned of the potential for violent outbursts in the region.

Kushner, who fell for Tillerson during the transition, quickly soured on him and admitted to colleagues, over the past year, that he made a huge mistake in advocating the former ExxonMobil CEO. The turf war cut both ways: Tillerson aides rolled their eyes at Kushner and often joked about how many officials in the administration seemed to think of themselves as the real secretary of state.

In the new paradigm, Kushner may no longer be competing with America’s official top diplomat. But he is still staking his reputation on forging peace in the Middle East.

Kushner and the Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, have been pushing for the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — even though many experts in the region view the move as an official deal breaker for any potential peace plan that could emerge from the current ash pile.

“This is actually a shell game,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of liberal American Jewish lobbying group J Street. “They’re not speaking to one party in this conflict.” Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, has not spoken to the Americans since December.

Whatever peace plan Kushner eventually releases, Ben-Ami said, “will probably be very similar to the talking points of the Netanyahu government. It will have nothing in it that will be appealing to the Palestinians, so it will be dead on arrival.”

In Israel, tensions with Iran were overwhelming the story of the embassy opening this week. On Wednesday night, Israeli warplanes struck Iranian targets in Syria, in response to an Iranian rocket attack and days after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Experts in the region said they worried the embassy move was only inflaming a region on the brink. ”We are acting as the arsonists instead of the fireman,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, warning that the embassy move could inflame tensions in the region. “I wouldn’t have done it if I weren’t going to give something big, symbolically, to the Palestinians. It really hurts us as the mediator.”

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