While President Donald Trump struggles with unrest over his policies and rhetoric at home, his son-in-law Jared Kushner has spent the week in the Middle East, attempting to shape U.S. foreign policy in the region with an emphasis on peace between Palestinians and Israelis. But the trip has been shrouded in mystery—and it’s unclear that real progress will be made.
Kushner, who serves as a White House adviser, has been tasked with breathing new life into one of the world’s most polarizing conflicts. On Thursday, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem before heading to the West Bank, where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Earlier in the week, Kushner met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Before visiting Israel, Kushner was in Egypt, part of a larger effort to recruit regional powers in reviving peace talks.
Speaking next to Netanyahu, Kushner attempted to spotlight the importance of his trip, stating Trump was “very committed to achieving a solution here that will be able to bring prosperity and peace to all people in this area.” Netanyahu’s office also released a statement emphasizing that “talks were constructive and substantive and the prime minister looks forward to continuing those discussions in the weeks ahead.”
But none of Kushner’s meetings this week garnered significant U.S. media coverage, despite the emphasis Trump has put on Kushner’s role in achieving what the president has called the “ultimate deal.” Even Thursday’s schedule in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories hasn’t attracted much attention, something that doesn’t spell promise for the Trump administration’s efforts in the region.
Some of that is clearly intentional—the White House kept much of the information regarding the trip under wraps—but some is indicative of the mistrust and skepticism surrounding Trump’s approach to regional relations.
Since taking office, Trump has failed to formulate a coherent approach to foreign policy more broadly, something that’s been especially true when it comes to Israel. Trump appointed noted pro-settlement hardliner David Friedman as ambassador, in a move that alarmed both Palestinians and progressive Israelis. The president also initially promised to move the move the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to the contested Jerusalem, while saying he could “live with either” a one or two-state solution, breaking with long-established U.S. foreign policy. But little has come of that rhetoric—Trump walked back his embassy threat in June, opting not to aggravate Palestinians and risk international uproar, and has sparred openly with figures on all sides of the issue.
Not helping matters is growing unrest at home. Dogged by low approval ratings, failure to pass major domestic legislation, and a widely-panned response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump has devoted little time to efforts abroad. Relations with Israel in particular are increasingly clouded by Trump’s unpopularity with American Jews, something only exacerbated after the events in Charlottesville, where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed by a Nazi sympathizer after white nationalists marched through the town yelling “Jews will not replace us!” Trump’s failure to soundly disavow the marchers has earned harsh condemnation from Jewish figures and organizations. On Wednesday, a coalition of rabbis said they would skip an annual conference call usually held with the president of the United States in advance of the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin next month.
“The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia,” read a statement from the group. “Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.”
U.S. Jews have long expressed dissatisfaction with Trump, whose administration has been accused of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But Israel’s right-wing government and its supporters have been more accepting of the U.S. president, even in light of Charlottesville. After the tragedy, Netanyahu’s son argued on Facebook that leftists were worse than white supremacists, while other politicians expressed similar sentiments. Still, there have been signs Trump’s welcome is wearing thin. Netanyahu himself eventually condemned the anti-Semitism and racism that played out in Charlottesville, while Friedman noted that Trump’s response to the violence was “not fine”—an indicator that Trump’s support from Israel’s staunchest defenders may not be unshakable.
Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) August 15, 2017
A lack of support for Trump’s policies domestically coupled with increasingly tenuous support in Israel pose a daunting hurdle for Kushner’s efforts. Palestinians are also mistrusting of the administration’s efforts, something that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. On Sunday, Abbas told Israeli parliamentarians that disarray in Washington was impacting any chance of restarting peace talks.
“I don’t even know how they are dealing with us, because his entire administration is in chaos,” he said.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki also piled on in advance of Kushner’s meeting with Abbas, telling the Voice of Palestine that Palestinians were growing tired of the Trump administration’s inability to articulate strong policies and a coherent approach to regional relations.
“Their answers to these questions will enable us to say if we have a historical chance for a peace process that can end the occupation or these visits are no more than a waste of time,” Malki said.
Skepticism from Palestinian leaders wasn’t the only hurdle Kushner faced while on his trip. U.S. cuts to Egyptian aid were met with a swift response on Wednesday, when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry initially threatened to forego a meeting with Trump’s son-in-law. According to the Associated Press, the meeting did eventually occur.
Another member of the Trump administration also quietly made the rounds in the Middle East this week. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited both Iraq and Turkey, where he both asked Iraqi Kurds to put off an independence referendum and pledged to help authoritarian Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the country’s fight against Kurdish separatists.