The sudden resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser has left a leadership void on Middle East issues that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, looks poised to fill.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump met face-to-face Wednesday for the first time since Trump’s inauguration, and both focused on common goals such as combating Iran’s nuclear ambitions in their remarks. But with Flynn out of the picture, Iran is expected to become a bit less of a focus, allowing Kushner to direct the conversation more toward peace.
“In the absence of Flynn it will accentuate in the short term him being a point person early on,” said David Makovsky, a former Obama administration senior adviser on peace talks.
Kushner, who is Jewish, is one of the president’s most trusted advisers. His office is just a couple of doors down from the Oval Office. Despite not having government experience, Kushner, 35, is expected to play a crucial role in pursuing Trump goals to help broker a peace deal, according to the president.
In a startling display of their close relationship, Netanyahu referred to Kushner almost like an uncle on Wednesday. During the joint news conference with Trump in the East Room, Netanyahu brought up his long relationship with Kushner to highlight the strong support he said Israel had received from Trump and his team.
“I’ve known President Trump for many years,” Netanyahu said, before turning to Kushner, seated in the audience. “Can I reveal, Jared, how long I’ve known you? Well, he was never small; he was always big.”
How that familiarity will color U.S.-Israel relations is still to be seen. But Trump’s and Netanyahu’s statements at their news conference show that much remains in flux.
Trump seemed to pull back from decades of U.S. support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying he would accept whatever Israelis and Palestinians agree on, whether it be one state or two.
Can I reveal, Jared, how long we've known you? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
He also did not repeat his campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “We’re looking at it very, very strongly,” Trump said. “We’re looking at it with great care, great care, believe me. And we’ll see what happens.”
Trump told Netanyahu on Wednesday that peace with the Palestinians was important to him and that he would push for a peace deal. But he emphasized the right deal is one that works for both sides and they had to negotiate. He asked the prime minister to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
To accomplish peace, Trump said, the Israelis will have to “show some flexibility,” and the Palestinians will have to acknowledge and reduce some of the “hate” for Israel.
“They’re taught tremendous hate,” Trump said. “I’ve seen what they’re taught. And you can talk about flexibility there, too, but it starts at a very young age and it starts in the schoolroom.”
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and current resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Netanyahu might see the visit as a victory lap after a challenging relationship with former President Barack Obama. But the pendulum swings both ways, and Israel has become a bit of a partisan football. Rubin urged Netanyahu to spend as much, if not more, time with Democrats to repair his relationship with the more liberal wing of Congress.
Makovsky, a senior researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, doesn’t expect any sweeping proposals for new peace talks anytime soon, but he said it was clear Trump wanted to leave his mark on the issue.
“I wouldn’t underestimate him when he says, ‘Look, I really want to do this deal.’ I wouldn’t rule it out; he keeps repeating this over and over again,” Makovsky said.
Kushner is one of Trump’s most trusted advisers and was present when Trump and Netanyahu met, as were Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
But the president has made his son-in-law the point man on an issue where he hopes to succeed where so many other presidents have not.
“The United States will encourage a peace and, really, a great peace deal,” Trump said. “We’ll be working on it very, very diligently. Very important to me also, something we want to do.”