There was a time when we all went along with the myth that American peacemaking in the Middle East was even-handed, neutral, uninfluenced by the religion or political background or business activities of the peacemakers. Even when, during the Clinton administration, the four principle US “peacemakers” were all Jewish Americans – their lead negotiator, Dennis Ross, a former prominent staff member of the most powerful Israeli lobby group, Aipac (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) – the Western press scarcely mentioned this. Only in Israel was it news, where the Maariv newspaper called them “the mission of four Jews”.
The Israeli writer and activist, Meron Benvenisti, wrote in Ha’aretz newspaper that while the ethnic origin of the four US diplomats may be irrelevant, “it is hard to ignore the fact that manipulation of the peace process was entrusted by the US in the first place to American Jews, and that at least one member of the State Department team was selected for the task because he represented the view of the American Jewish establishment. The tremendous influence of the Jewish establishment on the Clinton administration found its clearest manifestation in redefining the ‘occupied territories’ as ‘territories in dispute’.
But lest they be accused of antisemitism, said Benvenisti, the Palestinians “cannot, God forbid, talk about Clinton’s ‘Jewish connection’...” Still slandered as “antisemitic” for merely condemning Israel’s brutality and occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the same fear still eats away at the courage of the Palestinian Authority. When Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner became the disgraceful President’s peace “envoy”, the Palestinians, well aware that he supported the continued – and internationally illegal – colonisation of Arab land, even politely welcomed his sudden exaltation as peacemaker. It was the Israeli media that first pointed out how little he knew – and how few people he knew – in the real Middle East.
But Dennis Ross, the ex-Aipac man whose bias towards Israel was criticised by Jewish colleagues as well as Arabs, hugely supported Kushner when he was appointed Trump’s special envoy. As for Trump, here is the official record of his thoughts on the prowess of Jared Kushner: “Ya know what, Jared is such a good kid, and he’ll make a deal with Israel [sic] that no one else can. He’s a natural, he’s a great deal, he’s a natural – ya know what I was talking about, natural – he’s a natural dealmaker. Everyone likes him.”
As a real estate investor, Kushner may indeed be a “natural dealmaker”. But no one expected to discover – as they did in the New York Times a few days ago – that shortly before Kushner accompanied Trump on his first diplomatic trip to Israel in May, his family real estate company received about $30m (£22m) in investments from Menora Mivtachim, one of Israel’s largest insurers and financial institutions. The agreement was – surprise, surprise – not publicised. There’s no evidence that Kushner was directly involved in the deal and it doesn’t seem to have violated federal ethics laws, according to the New York Times.
But as the paper said, quite apart from Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Kushner arrangement “could undermine the ability of the United States to be seen as an independent broker in the region”. Tut tut. How could this be? Doesn’t the New York Times accept that Kushner “takes the ethics rules very seriously” (this from a White House press secretary) and that while Kushner Companies cannot be stopped from doing business with a foreign company just because Kushner works for the US administration; it “does no business with foreign sovereigns or governments”.
Kushner remains a beneficiary of trusts that have stakes in Kushner Companies, even though he resigned as chief executive in January of last year. My favourite quotation came from one of Kushner’s lawyers, Abbe D Lowell, who said that “connecting any of his well-publicised trips to the Middle East to anything to do with Kushner Companies or its businesses is nonsensical and is a stretch to write a story where none actually exists”.
So that’s OK, then. And if a future member of a principal US Middle East peace-negotiating team happened – just by chance, mind you – to be a Muslim (his ethnic origins as irrelevant as we must regard Kushner’s) and, while working for the US President, was a beneficiary of trusts in a company that was doing business with, let us say, companies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or – even, heaven spare us – in Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank, that would be above board, hunky-dory and acceptable practice for a chap whose only desire in life was to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians. And if those Arab companies were investing in that particular peace-negotiator’s real estate company, no one would turn a hair or suggest that anything was just a bit remiss or – let us not use the word “unethical” for a moment – not really quite the appropriate thing to do.
After all, elected American officials have always been a bit sceptical about Arab financial “help” to the US, even when the aid has come free of charge and with no interest attached. Take Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal – one of the world’s richest men, currently residing on a mattress in the Riyadh Ritz Hotel as an unwilling guest of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman – who in 2001 offered a $10m donation to the Twin Towers Fund, for the families and victims of the 9/11 attack. He also mentioned the Palestinian cause because, he said, “reporters have since the attack repeatedly asked how to eradicate terrorism”. America had to understand, he said, that “if it wants to extract the roots of this ridiculous and terrible act, this issue has to be solved”.
Whoops! This self-evident truth was far too much for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, who promptly told Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal to keep his cheque. You can’t offer cash and talk politics at the same time. But it did show how sensitive can be the connection between money – even donations from an Arab – and politics in the Middle East-US axis. No such problems, however, seem to attend Jared Kushner – who obviously approved of his father-in-law’s grotesque decision to accept Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, thus cutting the Palestinians out of the “natural deal” which Trump claimed he could secure. And most surely, Kushner’s real estate company’s relationship with Israeli financial institutions have nothing to do with that.