WASHINGTON – On July 10, hours before The New York Times first revealed that Donald Trump, Jr. had memorialized a June 2016 meeting with Russian government associates by e-mail, Jason Greenblatt arrived in Jerusalem for a critical series of meetings.
The immediate mission for Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser for international negotiations, was to facilitate an end to a water crisis gripping the Palestinian territories. But his broader goal was to continue laying the groundwork for Trump’s ambitious Mideast peace effort.
Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law tasked with leading the peace process, sought to oversee Greenblatt’s trip remotely from Washington. The publication of news that Kushner had been copied on his brother-in-law’s e-mail chain, and had attended that fateful June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower now under investigation by Congress and a special prosecutor, did not change his plans.
“Jared was briefed and engaged throughout the week on the trip,” a White House official told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. “Everything remains full steam ahead in Jared’s portfolio.”
Absent any legal, political or public relations crises, Kushner was always going to be climbing uphill in his bid to solve the world’s most intractable conflict. Already he was juggling the president’s peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians whilst tackling criminal justice reform and an expanding national opioid crisis, running the administration’s new Office of American Innovation, and advising the president on daily challenges that pass before his desk.
Overstretched in the eyes of many around him, Kushner still considers it his serendipitous role to reach for peace in the Middle East. He expresses himself as humbled by the task ahead. But just six months into the job, on top of his extraordinarily broad portfolio, the president’s most trusted adviser is grappling with a set of serious personal challenges of his own creation now affecting his West Wing colleagues and those rooting for his success.
Three times Kushner has updated his security clearance forms with new foreign contacts to include Russian nationals, most of whom are believed by the FBI to have Russian government ties, CBS News reported on Friday. At least two of those individuals met Kushner with the expressed purpose of aiding his father-in-law’s general election campaign against Hillary Clinton. During the presidential transition period, Kushner sought to establish a back channel with the Russian government that would have concealed the Trump team’s communications to Moscow from US intelligence agencies. And Kushner is the only Trump campaign official who attended that June 2016 meeting who has since become a member of the White House staff.
Israeli and Palestinian officials are not blind to these developments and have monitored the American drama like everyone else: With a sense of suspense and amazement. But as far as they are concerned from a diplomatic perspective, Kushner remains the chief Middle East interlocutor for the president of the United States. They have no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.
This is considered a net positive by the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has known Kushner since he was a child, and their teams have built strong ties in Washington, where Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer, has become an especially important emissary. Sensing that Kushner is sympathetic to his views on the peace process, and judging by the politics of his father-in-law, Netanyahu and his team consider Kushner an ally in their cause and have found little reason to consider “domestic affairs” of much relevance to them.
Several Israeli officials contacted for this report declined to comment, citing diplomatic sensitivities. But a handful of Israeli government sources say their conversations with the Trump administration have continued apace and without meaningful interruption.
“I don’t sense that there is any substantive effect of the Trump family’s involvement with Russia on the way that Israelis perceive Jared Kushner’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian context,” said Gilead Sher, chief of staff under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Israel’s chief negotiator during the Camp David and Taba summits.
“I really don’t feel it,” Sher continued. “The moment it will really start is an impeachment process or criminal charges– this will make a difference. But we’re not there.”
Kushner’s visit to the region last month went smoothly among Israeli officials, but left Palestinian Authority leadership with the impression that his views have congealed with the Likud line. Current and former Palestinian aides are questioning whether Kushner can be a fair arbiter in the coming effort, especially following his “tense” bilateral meeting on June 22 with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The American side was focusing on Israeli demands regarding incitement and prisoners’ salaries rather than talking about its vision for restarting talks,” one Palestinian official told the Post.
As a result, some within Palestinian circles would not miss Kushner should the Russia probe take him down. A PLO Executive Committee Member, Hanan Ashrawi, said that her leadership was indeed following the Russia story with interest. “Palestinians follow everything that happens especially when it concerns our lives,” she said. “[Kushner’s] position has already been compromised– he is biased in favor of Israel. His family’s foundation donated to settlements.”
“We don’t have the luxury of choosing the envoys,” Ashrawi continued. “The question is if there are honest and responsible people who can serve in that role.”
Another matter is whether Kushner is capable of managing so many projects under such significant legal stress. Several of his predecessors in the peace process wondered aloud whether he will have the bandwidth to remain engaged.
“Mr. Kushner is one individual – in the end, it is the president and the credibility of his administration that matters,” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to six secretaries of state under Democratic and Republican administrations now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “They’ve so far run a very economical sort of investment in terms of staffing, so Kushner’s attentiveness is especially critical.”
Aides to Kushner say the opinions of prior Mideast envoys amount to meaningless conjecture on a unique role they do not understand: These people don’t know Jared, who makes no secret of his diversified portfolio and who has no intention to lead negotiations on a technical level. In that sense, the Russia “distraction,” as they refer to it, will not distract much at all from Kushner’s mission, because he has already delegated the daily, granular work of peacemaking to others.
“You could argue on paper that this [Russia probe] could have a paradoxical effect, and accelerate their efforts– if they believe that something could get done, they may see personal advantage in pursuing it,” Miller continued. “But right now, the peace process as best I can tell is a handful of conversations that can go on forever.”
Kushner’s team is also wary of boxing him in to a publicized diplomatic framework the likes of which have failed past administrations. He has thus far rejected outlining a rigid structure that will govern the process, and has not decided the extent to which he wants to involve Arab powers, whether to proceed with direct, indirect or proximity talks, or what near-term goals he should set for himself, much less for the parties.
His team adamantly protects his flexibility and wants to provide him with the privacy necessary to make these decisions on his own time. But the parties themselves have begun questioning where Kushner plans to lead them, and without a clear and expressed vision, they appear less likely to follow.
Several current US diplomatic officials, as well, privately expressed apprehension over the structure and size of Kushner’s Mideast peace team, and whether strains from the Russia probe might impact his ability to lead a focused and disciplined process. One such source described his unit as a “small operation.”
An administration official dismissed their concerns, asserting that, contrary to popular belief, Kushner has actually welcomed interagency involvement and incorporated talent from across the National Security Council and State Department.
“The team, led out of the White House, coordinates with and draws on the resources of different agencies as well as the US Embassy and Consul General missions,” the official said, noting that high-frequency bandwidth challenges every White House.
As Kushner’s effort gathers momentum, his team “will ramp up as and when needed,” the official added. As it stands, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are already actively engaged in the effort.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday called on Trump to “immediately” revoke Kushner’s security clearance over his handling of Personnel Management forms– a move that would complicate his ability to handle classified material on the Israeli-Palestinian file. Kushner’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, said in a statement that his SF-86 form was “prematurely submitted and, among other errors, did not list any contacts with foreign government officials,” but that the forms were quickly corrected.
Separately, Kushner also failed to disclose roughly $250,000 in Israel Bonds in his initial financial disclosure forms filed in March, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
Trump has offered no indication he would consider revoking his son-in-law’s security clearance, which has been reported by US media as temporary and limited until a final review is completed (the status of Kushner’s security clearance could not be independently verified by the Post, and a White House official declined to comment on the matter). But should that clearance be in jeopardy over his pattern of contact with Russians, or over his handling of forms, then Trump might face the unprecedented test of unilaterally protecting his access.
“The president has the authority to do whatever he chooses in terms of security– it is a presidential decision in the end. So if the president chooses to give [Kushner] access to Middle East information, he will get that access,” said Alan Dershowitz, a prominent scholar of constitutional and criminal law who knew Kushner when he was a student at Harvard.
Speaking with the Post on Wednesday, Dershowitz offered praise for Kushner’s “superb” legal representation. That team faced a shakeup two days later as Gorelick was replaced by Abbe Lowell, reflecting the fast-moving pace of this developing story.
“Obviously, any time there’s an investigation, there’s a distraction. But smart people are used to having distractions,” Dershowitz added. “Jared strikes me as a very intelligent and a very determined young man who is learning quickly on the job the complexities of the Middle East peace process.”
One former senior US official said Kushner would practically be paralyzed without a security clearance: “just by definition, you’re coming into contact with classified information every single day, and much of the material the US team generates is classified material,” the official said, regarding the Mideast peace desk. A second former senior US official said that Trump would enter uncharted waters in granting Kushner access to the nation’s coveted secrets against the advice of established vetting professionals.
Granted, everyone who spoke for this article acknowledged there is little of precedence to this presidency.
“Here we’re consumed by the Russia probe, but abroad it is interesting– there’s the melodrama of it, but it all seems a bit obscure,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Sachs compared Kushner’s challenges to those of envoys in turbulent administrations past, including Henry Kissinger, who operated through Richard Nixon’s crisis with Watergate, and Dennis Ross at Camp David in 2000.
“The [Monica] Lewinsky scandal was all over the Israeli press, but at the end of the day, [Bill Clinton] was still the American president,” Sachs said. “And Kissinger had his own clout, which was important– Kushner’s clout comes from his special proximity to the president and his inability to be fired.”
Trump’s own Justice Department officials have appointed a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller III, to broadly investigate ties between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. In recent days, American media, including CBS, CNN and The New York Times, reported that Kushner’s June 2016 meeting with Russians will be a part of Mueller’s inquiry.
“Kushner will be taken seriously in the region commensurate to how the administration as a whole is being taken, and depending on how this investigation unfolds,” a former senior US official said. “And even if it begins to affect their calculus, they’ll never admit it.”