Thursday, December 14, 2017
Nation & World

Team led by Kushner working on ‘ultimate deal’ for Middle East

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his advisers have begun developing their own concrete blueprint to end the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a plan intended to go beyond previous frameworks offered by the U.S. government in pursuit of what the president calls "the ultimate deal."

After 10 months of educating themselves on the complexities of the world’s most intractable dispute, White House officials said, Trump’s team of relative newcomers to Middle East peacemaking has moved into a new phase of its venture in hopes of transforming what it has learned into tangible steps to end a stalemate that has frustrated even presidents with more experience in the region.

The prospects for peace are caught up in a web of other issues consuming the region, as demonstrated in recent days by Saudi Arabia’s growing confrontation with Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is likewise worried about Hezbollah as well as efforts by Iran to establish a land corridor across southern Syria. If a war with Hezbollah broke out, it could scuttle any initiative with the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Trump’s team has collected "nonpapers" exploring various issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and officials said they expected to address such perennial dividing points as the status of Jerusalem and settlements in the occupied West Bank. Although Trump has not committed to a Palestinian state, analysts said they anticipated that the plan will have to be built around the so-called two-state solution that has been the core of peacemaking efforts for years.

"We have spent a lot of time listening to and engaging with the Israelis, Palestinians and key regional leaders over the past few months to help reach an enduring peace deal," said Jason D. Greenblatt, the president’s chief negotiator. "We are not going to put an artificial timeline on the development or presentation of any specific ideas and will also never impose a deal. Our goal is to facilitate, not dictate, a lasting peace agreement to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians and security across the region."

Trump, who considers himself a dealmaker, decided to adopt the challenge when he took office in January, intrigued at the idea of succeeding where other presidents failed, and he assigned the effort to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser.

Trump’s team sees the convergence of factors that make the moment ripe, including an increased willingness by Arab states to finally solve the issue to refocus attention on Iran, which they consider the bigger threat. With that in mind, Egypt is brokering a reconciliation between President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who presides in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, a deal that would cement the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people. Saudi Arabia has summoned Abbas to Riyadh to reinforce the importance of a deal.

Still, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel nor Abbas is in a strong position to negotiate. Netanyahu faces corruption investigations and pressure from the right in his narrow coalition not to make concessions, while Abbas is aging and endures strong opposition among his own constituents.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a State Department official under Obama, said both Israeli and Palestinian leaders "are heavily constrained" not only by their own governing coalitions but also by suspicious and risk-averse publics. "It’s hard even for willing political leaders to make major concessions under those circumstances," she said.

The core four-member team drafting the plan includes Kushner, Greenblatt, Dina H. Powell, a deputy national security adviser, and David M. Friedman, the ambassador to Israel. They are consulting with Donald Blome, the consul general in Jerusalem, and others from the State Department and National Security Council. Officials said the effort may take until early next year.

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