The entire Middle East, from Palestine to Yemen, appears set to burst into flames after this week. The region was already teetering on the edge, but recent events have only made things worse. And while the mayhem should be apparent to any casual observer, what’s less obvious is Jared Kushner’s role in the chaos.
Kushner is, of course, the US president’s senior advisor and son-in-law. The 36-year-old is a Harvard graduate who seems to have a hard time filling in forms correctly.
He repeatedly failed to mention his meetings with foreign officials on his security clearance and neglected to report to US government officials that he was co-director of a foundation that raised money for Israeli settlements, considered illegal under international law. (He is also said to have told Michael Flynn last December to call UN security council members to get a resolution condemning Israeli settlements quashed. Flynn called Russia.)
In his role as the president’s special advisor, Kushner seems to have decided he can remake the entire Middle East, and he is wreaking his havoc with his new best friend, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old who burst on to the international scene by jailing many members of his country’s ruling elite, including from his own family, on corruption charges.
Days before Salman’s unprecedented move, Kushner was with the crown prince in Riyadh on an unannounced trip. The men are reported to have stayed up late, planning strategy while swapping stories. We don’t know what exactly the two were plotting, but Donald Trump later tweeted his “great confidence” in Salman.
But the Kushner-Salman alliance moves far beyond Riyadh. The Saudis and Americans are now privately pushing a new “peace” deal to various Palestinian and Arab leaders that is more lop-sided toward Israel than ever before.
Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian parliamentarian in the Israeli Knesset, explained the basic contours of the deal to the New York Times: no full statehood for Palestinians, only “moral sovereignty.” Control over disconnected segments of the occupied territories only. No capital in East Jerusalem. No right of return for Palestinian refugees.
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This is, of course, not a deal at all. It’s an insult to the Palestinian people. Another Arab official cited in the Times story explained that the proposal came from someone lacking experience but attempting to flatter the family of the American president. In other words, it’s as if Mohammed bin Salman is trying to gift Palestine to Jared Kushner, Palestinians be damned.
Next came Donald Trump throwing both caution and international law to the wind by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
But it’s not just Israel, either. Yemen is on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster largely because the country is being blockaded by Saudi Arabia. Trump finally spoke out against the Saudi measure this week, but both the state department and the Pentagon are said to have been privately urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ease their campaign against Yemen (and Lebanon and Qatar) for some time and to little impact. Why? Because Saudi and Emirati officials believe they “have tacit approval from the White House for their hardline actions, in particular from Donald Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner,” journalist Laura Rozen reported.
The Kushner-Salman alliance has particularly irked secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Kushner reportedly leaves the state department completely out of his Middle Eastern plans. Of special concern to Tillerson, according to Bloomberg News, is Kushner’s talks with Salman regarding military action by Saudi Arabia against Qatar. The state department is worried of all the unforeseen consequences such a radical course of action would bring, including heightened conflict with Turkey and Russia and perhaps even a military response from Iran or an attack on Israel by Hezbollah.
Here’s where state department diplomacy should kick in. The US ambassador to Qatar could relay messages between the feuding parties to find a solution to the stand-off. So what does the ambassador to Qatar have to say about the Kushner-Salman alliance? Nothing, since there still is no confirmed ambassador to Qatar.
What about the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia? That seat’s also vacant. And the US ambassador to Jordan, Morocco, Egypt? Vacant, vacant, and vacant. What about assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, a chief strategic post to establish US policy in the region? No one’s been nominated. Deputy assistant secretary for press and public diplomacy? Vacant.
It’s partly this vacuum of leadership by Tillerson that has enabled Kushner to forge his powerful alliance with Salman, much to the detriment of the region. And in their zeal to isolate Iran, Kushner and Salman are leaving a wake of destruction around them.
The war in Yemen is only intensifying. Qatar is closer to Iran than ever. A final status deal between Israel and the Palestinians seems all but impossible now. The Lebanese prime minister went back on his resignation. And the Saudi state must be paying the Ritz-Carlton a small fortune to jail key members of the ruling family over allegations of corruption.
There’s a long history of American politicians deciding they know what’s best for the Middle East while buttressing their autocratic allies and at the expense of the region’s ordinary people. (The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has traditionally provided the rationale for America and its allies in the region, and his recent sycophantic portrayal of Salman certainly didn’t disappoint!)
But the Kushner-Salman alliance also represents something else. Both the US and Saudi Arabia are concentrating power into fewer and fewer hands. And with fewer people in the room, who will be around to tell these men that their ideas are so damaging? Who will dare explain to them how they already have failed?
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America
This opinion piece first appeared in the Guardian Newspaper