U.S. President Donald Trump is close to a decision on whether to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, his son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner said on Sunday.
Palestinian leaders are lobbying desperately against such a move, which the Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said would boost fanaticism and violence while sinking hopes for peace. But Kushner, the 36-year-old head of a small and tight-knit White House negotiating team, made a rare public appearance to put an optimistic face on his efforts.
“The president’s going to make his decision,” Kushner told the Saban Forum, choosing not to deny reports Trump will declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital on Wednesday. “He’s still looking at a lot of different facts and when he makes his decision he’ll be the one who wants to tell you. So he’ll make sure he does that at the right time.”
On Monday, Trump must decide whether to sign a legal waiver that would delay plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for another six months. Every U.S. president has done this since 1995, judging the time not ripe for such a move, and Trump is expected to begrudgingly do so for a second time this week. But, according to diplomats and observers, he is also now expected to announce in a speech on Wednesday that he supports Israel’s claim on Jerusalem as its capital.
Arab League leader Abul Gheit meanwhile said his organization was closely following the issue and is in contact with the Palestinian authorities and Arab states to coordinate the Arab position if Trump takes the step. “It is unfortunate that some are insisting on carrying out this step without any regard to the dangers it carries to the stability of the Middle East and the whole world,” he told reporters in Cairo on Sunday. “Nothing justifies this act… it will not serve peace or stability, instead it will nourish fanaticism and violence,” said Abul Gheit.
Palestinians have been lobbying regional leaders to oppose the decision and the armed Islamist movement Hamas has threatened to launch a new “intifada.”
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas spoke to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya late Sunday, a Hamas statement said, with the two sides agreeing their opposition to any shift in U.S. policy. The rare call between the two comes as attempts at implementing a reconciliation deal have faltered in recent days.
But Kushner, addressing a sympathetic audience at an annual meeting of Israeli and U.S. policymakers hosted by businessman Haim Saban, sees grounds for optimism. The real estate developer turned presidential adviser is working closely with Israeli officials and has developed ties with the young Saudi and Emirati monarchs. He sees an opportunity for peace if the Sunni Arab countries of the region align themselves with Israel in opposition to the threat of Iran.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares this hope, although he dares hope an accommodation with Arab countries could precede any Palestinian deal.
Kushner, in common with U.S. official thinking under previous administrations, sees an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as coming before any great re-alignment. “You’ve got to focus on solving the big issue,” he told a friendly but frankly skeptical Saban, and an audience of dignitaries and policy experts. “The regional dynamic plays a big role in what we think the opportunities are because… a lot of these countries look and say they all want the same thing. And they look at the regional threats and I think that they see Israel, who is traditionally their foe, is a much more natural ally to them than it was 20 years ago,” Kushner added. “You’ve a lot of people who want to put this together, but you have to overcome this issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order for that to happen.”
Kushner was speaking just two days after Trump’s ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia’s ambassador during the presidential transition. Kushner reportedly directed him to speak with Moscow’s envoy to sway a United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements shortly before Trump took office.
Newsweek reported that Kushner had failed to disclose to the Office of Government Ethics his role as co-director of a foundation that funded an illegal Israeli settlement.
Earlier, Netanyahu also addressed the forum by video link from Israel, and also spoke of the opportunity for reconciliation in the region. But his focus was firmly on the threat of Iran, which he again compared to Nazi Germany in its alleged determination to “murder Jews.”
His address barely touched on the Palestinian issue, but did speak of regional peace, under a longer timeframe than the one Kushner has in mind. “And that’s just one reason why I’m so hopeful about the future. Today Israel is more welcomed by the nations of the world than ever before,” Netanyahu said. “When I look forward 50 and 100 years, I believe Israel will be embraced openly by its Arab neighbors rather than in secret in the way it’s done today.”
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was less optimistic, warning a change in the U.S. stance on Jerusalem would spell disaster. In a statement, he warned the United States would “be disqualifying itself to play any role in any initiative towards achieving a just and lasting peace.”