Kushner upbeat, undeterred in first public remarks on Middle East peace process
Shorter Jared Kushner: I’m still here.
On Sunday, the president’s son-in-law used his first-ever public remarks on the Middle East peace process to make a case for his own continued relevance in the Trump White House — even as the Russia probe and the more stringent reign of chief of staff John Kelly have seemingly pushed him to the margins.
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“We do think it’s achievable,” Kushner said of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. His comments came during a 30-minute question-and-answer session with Haim Saban, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest pro-Israel donors, at the annual Saban Forum, held at the Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel.
Kushner’s much-anticipated appearance came amid new scrutiny of his role as the “very senior” transition official who instructed then-incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn to contact the Russian ambassador in late 2016 about a United Nations resolution concerning Israel. And it came days after The New York Times reported that Kelly has considered a West Wing reorganization that includes Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, leaving the administration altogether by the year’s end.
But his relaxed appearance — a blue blazer over a black sweater, with no tie — sent a clear message that Kushner is soldiering on, undeterred. His criminal attorney, Abbe Lowell, who is representing him in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of potential Russian interference in the 2016 election, was in the audience for Kushner’s talk on Sunday. But other attendees said it was simply in Lowell’s off-the-clock capacity as a longtime figure in Washington’s power Jewish community, not as a legal representative.
Overseeing the Middle East peace process over the past year has been one of Kushner’s most ambitious portfolios — and one he has purposefully conducted quietly, without announcing any timeline for a deal, and even making secret, unannounced trips to countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia.
Experts in the region eagerly awaited any updates during the public remarks from the seen-but-rarely-heard son-in-law of President Donald Trump. Kushner offered assurances that there was a concrete plan in the works but added little in terms of details. “We’ve been deliberate about not setting time frames,” he said.
“The president has a very long career of accomplishing things that a lot of people say weren’t possible,” Kushner told Saban during a skeptical grilling about how Trump could achieve a deal that has eluded all of his predecessors. “The most recent example of that was the election.”
That Trump shouldn’t be underestimated because he proved the skeptics wrong during the 2016 race was perhaps the most concrete reason Kushner articulated for his confidence in the Middle East peace project. He added that he saw a peace deal as key to larger regional conflicts, such as Iran’s growing nuclear ambitions and the threat of Islamic State militants, and he said “Israel is a much more natural ally today than they were 20 years ago because of Iran and ISIS extremism.”
“If we’re going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole, you have to solve this issue,” he said.
Saban, who was one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest campaign donors, thanked Kushner for his efforts to prompt Russia to intervene last year over a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. The Obama administration abstained from the vote, infuriating Israel. That intervention now has Kushner on Mueller’s hot seat after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about it.
“You and your team were taking steps to try and get the United Nations Security Council to not go along with what ended up being an abstention,” Saban said. “As far as I know, there is nothing illegal there.”
Saban introduced Kushner as “a 36-year-old successful businessman who left it all behind to be of service to his country.” But later, he also expressed skepticism about the Kushner-led process.