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White House

Trump, son-in-law work towards a win on an Israel-Palestinian deal

WASHINGTON

A negotiating team led by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is working with Israeli and Palestinian officials to try to agree on a basic list of principles that could be used as the framework for future negotiations, according to U.S. and former Israeli officials familiar with the talks.

Teams of Palestinian and Israeli negotiators — described as “peace warriors” — are expected to visit Washington separately in the coming weeks to continue conversations Kushner and his team kicked off last week during his visits to Israel and Ramallah in the West Bank, according to a former Israeli official familiar with the talks. The White House would not confirm the visit.

During the trip, Kushner, a White House senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, asked the negotiators to each bring to Washington a list of about a dozen issues that they would like to be part of the negotiations.

“They would like to see the language,” the former Israeli official said. “See where they coincide and where they part company. What should be done to bridge and what can be used from both lists as the entry ticket for the process.”

It may seem like a small step to create a list of priorities, but those close to the talks say it would be a significant accomplishment if the two sides can find enough common ground for a signed declaration outlining what they’d like to achieve. It would serve as a commitment needed by all sides to begin making larger concessions.

He’s at his point of maximum leverage.

Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in reference to President Trump

Even those who have been critical of the lofty expectations Trump created since being elected about reaching the “ultimate deal” see a small window of opportunity for Trump to improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

The former real estate mogul has generated a mix of good will and fear in the region that can be used as leverage to force parties to do the uncomfortable. But the window won’t stay open long, as decades of hostility and domestic challenges weigh against Trump’s leverage.

The hope is that the Israelis and Palestinians, along with Arab Gulf states, can eventually reach a basic commitment on a U.S.-led process that includes some form Palestinian independence and a comprehensive security agreement between the Arab nations and Israel, the former Israeli official said.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens during a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 3, 2017 Evan Vucci AP

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while the Israelis are looking for better protection from threatening neighbors, including Iran

That’s where the Arab nations come in. They can make the deal a lot more attractive to Israel — and at the same time provide the Palestinians needed resources and political cover to make tough decisions. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are significant financial backers of the Palestinian Authority.

The Arab nations have offered to enter into a strategic alliance to confront Iran if Israel demonstrates a real commitment to making peace with the Palestinians, the former Israeli officials said.

A draft “discussion paper” circulated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and first reported by the Wall Street Journal, describes a range of measures designed to build trust between Israel and the Arab countries, including lifting restrictions on some trade and allowing Israeli planes to fly over Arab airspace. In return, Israeli would make concessions for the Palestinians, such as restricting settlement activities.

The White House has discussed with the Israelis areas in the West Bank that could potentially be transferred one day to the Palestinians. And the White House has pressed the Palestinians to curb payments to families of those convicted by the Israelis of attacks against Israelis.

Any deal would take time and would have to overcome serious challenges, White House officials said. An early example: Just days after Kushner’s return, reports leaked that he had a tense meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the payments.

According to Hebrew- and Arabic-language media, Abbas and his advisers accused the United States of taking Israel’s side and refused a request to stop paying salaries to several hundred prisoners serving time for the most serious crimes.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer pushed back against the negative reports this week, emphasizing that the negotiations were a process and that reaching any deal would take some time.

“It’s not going to get solved in a night,” Spicer said. “And I think they made some good progress overall.”

A White House official said the main goal at this early stage is to build trust with all sides and keep negotiations out of the press.

“A lot of this is about relationship building... and getting to a place where they can sketch out broader-stroke agenda items,” a senior White House official said. “That is the focus of our interaction with the Israel government and the Palestinians.”

At the same time, the official noted there have been some concessions to try to improve the relationship. The Israels have offered economic measures to the Palestinians that Trump requested, and the Palestinians agreed to cut back on “a handful” of payments to prisoners, according to the White House official.

“There has already been some initial give and take,” the White House official said.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after making statements to the press on May 23, 2017, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. Evan Vucci AP

The Trump team has been praised for its work, particularly Greenblatt, who has made up for a lack of diplomatic experience with enthusiasm and willingness to meet with all sides.

During a Middle East visit in March, Greenblatt tweeted repeatedly as he zig-zagged between visits from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Jericho to Bethlehem to Amman. He even stopped at a Palestinian refugee camp.

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Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, sees a three- to six-month window of opportunity for Trump to act quickly to take advantage of the good will he generated from his trip.

He praised Greenblatt for his willingness to meet and listen to a diverse group of Israeli, Palestinians and Arab leaders.

“He’s of course not revealing their strategy, but there are some signs that he’s looking at some creative approaches,” Shapiro said. “So I give him high marks.”

Trump’s unpredictability is an asset. Nimrod Novik, who served as a foreign policy adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, said people in the region don’t want to be on Trump’s bad side.

“I’m not sure it’s doable, but if anybody can do it and if there was a time that it could be done, this is now and this is Trump,” said Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.

I’m not sure it’s doable, but if anybody can do it and if there was a time that it could be done, this is now and this is Trump.”

Nimrod Novik, fellow at the Israel Policy Forum

James Jay Carafano, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, said the reality is peace between the Israelis and Palestinians can only occur when the two sides are ready.

The United States can provide a framework for those discussions and should demonstrate its commitment to peace for the larger region, he said, but the greater focus should be on stability on countering the destabilizing influence of Iran and the Islamic State.

“All of those things make life easier for the Israelis and make peace more likely,” Carafano said. “If Israel feels like it’s threatened on every side, then I think the prospects for Palestinian process go down, not up.”

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez.

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