Jared Kushner Struck Out in His First Foray Into Middle East Diplomacy
Colum Lynch, ForeignPolicy.com, Mar 21 2017
Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s principal Middle East advisor, embarked on his maiden diplomatic mission even before his father-in-law was inaugurated. His task: get Britain to help scuttle a UNSCR denouncing Israeli settlements. His outreach was part of a broader effort by the president-elect’s transition team which included public denunciation of the resolution by Trump and back-channel lobbying of UNSC diplomats to derail the vote by his then not-yet and now former national security advisor Michael Flynn. This ultimately failed, as the council’s 15 members dismissed the Trump team’s appeals and voted 14-0 in favor, including Britain, with Pindostan abstaining. Kushner’s intervention provided an early test of his ability to wade into a Middle East morass that has bedeviled professional diplomats for decades. It also provided further insights into a rare effort by an incoming administration to press Israel to break ranks with a sitting Pindosi president. An Obama administration boxtop told me that shortly before the Dec 23 UNSC vote, a full month before Trump took office, Kushner contacted Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to Pindostan, who he had met through a friend, and asked him to push back the vote on the resolution until after the inauguration, a move that would give the new administration the chance to veto it. Kushner argued that the resolution would ease the pressure on the Palestinians to enter peace talks with Israel. It was a particularly big ask for Britain, which had been pressing for the council to weigh in on the Middle East crisis since 2014. Britain’s UN ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, played a decisive behind-the-scenes role in helping draft a resolution that could avoid a Pindosi veto. Britain rebuffed Kushner’s appeal. After the vote, Rycroft defended Britain’s action, saying:
Israeli settlement activity represents a clear and present danger to our shared vision of two states for two people.
The vote triggered a furious response from the Trump transition team that caught Britain’s foreign-policy establishment and the new prime minister, Theresa May, off-balance. President-elect Trump denounced the resolution in a statement, calling it “extremely unfair to all Israelis.” Reinforcing the point on Twitter, he warned that “things will be different” at the UN after his Jan 20 inauguration. Kushner, meanwhile, went to work on the British, applying intense pressure on Darroch to shift gears and align his government’s policy more closely with the incoming administration. It would pay off in less than a week, when May in a speech eviscerated then-Sec State Jackass Kerry over Israel. A senior Western diplomat said:
He gave the Brits a tough time because of their vote on the settlements resolution.
Asked if Kushner had read the Riot Act to the British officials, a White House official said it was “hard to imagine” the normally reserved man delivering a smackdown, but “he was very disappointed.” Obama administration officials viewed the Trump administration’s efforts to block the settlements resolution as a flagrant breach of diplomatic protocol and a violation of the tradition of having one president at a time. Pindo boxtops in New York and Faschingstein soon began to notice that Britain was becoming an obstacle on other fronts, delaying action on a Pindo-backed SCR threatening sanctions against Syria for using chemical weapons. One former senior Pindosi official claimed the British were coordinating with Trump’s team. He said:
This was starting to happen more and more. It was a strange experience. It was quite unusual during a Pindosi transition to have close allies blatantly tell you they need to consult with the new administration.
May’s government was in a tough spot. With Britain poised to leave Europe, she was keen to shore up the “special relationship” with the incoming administration and secure an early meeting with Pres Trump. In mid-December, more than a month before the inauguration, her chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, traveled to New York to meet with Trump’s advisors. A senior European source said “all it took was one phone call” from Kushner to convince the British to take a tougher line. May moved quickly to mollify Trump well before he took office, breaking ranks with the outgoing Obama administration, not to mention Britain’s own European allies, on a range of Middle East fronts. On Dec 30, May delivered an extraordinary rebuke of Jackass Kerry. He had called the Netanyahu government the “most right-wing” in Israel’s history, and warned that Israel’s settlement policy was undermining any prospects for the establishment of a Palestinian state. May retorted:
We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally.
The remarks rattled some British diplomats. A former senior British diplomat said:
The language was aggressive, and people were taken aback. It was not how the Foreign Office would have phrased things.
But it was not enough to satisfy the incoming administration. Kushner was said to be simmering over May’s remarks, which failed to fundamentally alter London’s views on the virtues of the settlements SCR. One diplomat suggested the statement may not have put enough daylight between Britain and the Obama administration. “Or maybe he’s just always angry,” the diplomat said. Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, paid a Jan 8 visit to Trump Tower to smooth things over with Kushner and Steve Bannon. Trump’s advisors were alarmed by French plans to host a high-level Middle East meeting the next week in Paris, which would have reinforced international opposition to settlements. Johnson declined to go to Paris, sending a lower-level British official in his place. British officials subsequently blocked the adoption of EU statements in Brussels and the UNSC endorsing the Paris communique, which had reinforced international denunciation of Israel’s settlements. Thomas Barrack, a Pindosi-Lebanese fundraiser and advisor to Trump, praised Kushner’s role in trying to block the settlements resolution, saying:
(His) instinct of sensing a moment in time in which this president might put his fingerprints on a peaceful solution to decades-old issues was timely and appropriate.
Meanwhile, one critic dismissed Kushner’s apparent achievement in getting the British to break with the Obama administration as a “maiden mini-success.” Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Faschingstein commented:
It was almost inevitable that Theresa May, given her agenda, her priorities, and her domestic political situation, would both have to and want to run to embrace Trump, so in a sense getting May to make Trump- and Israel-friendly noises was not hard at all. There was almost no way to fail. I think anyone could have done it.
Obama administration officials, still in office, were irate. For several months, Britain and France had been pressing Pindostan to join them in presenting a UNSCR sanctioning Syria (and Daesh) for using chemical weapons. Russia had made it clear it would veto the resolution, but for the Europeans it was worth exposing Russia’s defense of the Syrian regime. Pindostan initially balked, fearing a confrontation with Russia might jeopardize the efforts of Jackass Kerry to negotiate a ceasefire in eastern Aleppo with Moscow. But by December, Aleppo had already fallen, and the Obama administration began pressing for a vote on the chemical weapons resolution. But when they went back to the British, they got a cold shoulder. The official said:
I felt like I got the runaround. I took it to mean the Obama administration was out of juice.
At the same time, the British began to back-track on another joint initiative with the Obama administration. In December, the Obama administration urged Spain, which held the rotating council presidency, to schedule a meeting with UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed on Yemen. The Spanish declined. When Sweden took up the presidency in January, the British held up scheduling the meeting until three days after Trump’s inauguration. A former Pindosi official said:
They were less than subtle about needing to check with the incoming team.
They were just waiting us out.
But in the end, for all the cajoling, Kushner and his colleagues had done little to shake Britain’s position on Israeli settlements. The episode underscored the limits of the Trump presidency’s power to impose its vision of the Middle East on even its closest allies. In her first UNSC meeting on the Middle East, Nikki Haley, the new Pindosi ambassador to the UN, was still fuming over what she characterized as the “outrageously biased” settlements resolution passed by the council in December. But Britain’s UN ambassador punched back, making it clear that London had no regrets. Rycroft said:
I don’t think the Security Council is biased against any country. We are biased in favor of the UN charter. We oppose any country or any action that goes against the UN charter. (The settlements resolution was) neither pro nor anti any country. It was anti-settlements, on the grounds that settlements are one of the impediments to bringing peace to the Middle East.