The Temple Mount crisis ended Trump’s Palestinian honeymoon. The Kushner tape made things worse

In Washington three months ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised US President Donald Trump’s “wisdom,” “courageous stewardship” and “great negotiating ability.” Speaking in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, where he and Trump were addressing the media, Abbas switched from Arabic to English. “Now, Mr. President,” he declared, “with you we have hope.”

Twenty days later, the two men met again, this time in the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem. “Your Excellency,” Abbas told his prominent guest, “meeting you in the White House early this month has given us and our Palestinian people… so much hope and optimism of the possibility to make true a dream, a long-awaited dream and ambition, and that is lasting and justice-based peace.”

But in recent days, the Palestinians’ relationship with the Trump administration, which started off so surprisingly amicably, has soured — largely in the wake of last month’s tensions over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And Ramallah’s mounting frustration with what it increasingly sees as an American pro-Israel bias — underlined by leaked comments from Trump’s Middle East point man, Jared Kushner, in which he seems sympathetic to Israel’s position — could cripple Trump’s ability to be seen as an honest broker.

Although Trump was known as a longtime staunch supporter of Israel, after his election in November, the Palestinians were encouraged by his expressed desire to mediate a final-status peace deal. They were relieved when he slowly but surely walked back some of his previous pro-Israel positions — for instance when he urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” and when he delayed indefinitely the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Palestinians’ strategy seemed to be a mix of magnanimity and flattery. Recognizing that his special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, was going to great lengths to show the administration’s intention to approach the conflict evenhandedly, Ramallah opted to go along with Trump. On his visit to Israel, moreover, Trump openly contradicted Netanyahu’s assertion that Abbas was no peace partner, going off-script in his final speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to assert, “I am telling you… the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace.”

Muslim worshippers pray at an entrance to the Temple Mount at the Lion's Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, July 25, 2017. Muslim worshippers still refused to pray on the Temple Mount following the government's decision remove the metal detectors and instead place more security cameras on the compound. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In that spirit of trying to stay on the administration’s good side, the Palestinians largely kept quiet as Trump became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, and even, subsequently, when the White House allowed Israel to start work on the first new West Bank settlement in decades.

The first clear sign of Palestinian bitterness appeared in early July, when senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi accused Nikki Haley, Trump’s envoy to the United Nations, of an “obsessive and targeted campaign of intimidation and threats” against Palestinians and their supporters.

Since then, the Palestinians appear to have abandoned their initial praise-the-president-and-hope-for-the-best strategy, and increasingly unvarnished criticism of the administration is being expressed.

“The fact the US administration did not declare the final goal of the peace process is to achieve two states on the basis of the 1967 borders, and its silence regarding the intensification of Israeli colonial settlement activities, are interpreted by the Israeli government as an opportunity to destroy the two-state solution and replace it with one state with two systems,” top Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat charged Tuesday.

By tolerating Israel’s policies, the White House would give Israel the green light to erect an “apartheid” system, Erekat charged, urging the president to come out in support of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines.

“We’re not saying that Trump is the most pro-Israel president in history. We’re not blaming him for anything,” a senior official in the Palestinian leadership told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “But if he wants to have a peace process, we need to know what we’re talking about.”

Palestinian chief negotiator and Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Saeb Erekat (R) is greeted by Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi upon his arrival at the Foreign Ministry in the Jordanian capital Amman on May 14, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Khalil MAZRAAWI)

Ramallah was dismayed, and starting to show it, at Washington’s positions during the two-week crisis over the Temple Mount, which started when Israel erected metal detectors at the flashpoint holy site after two Israeli policemen were killed by three Arab Israelis using firearms that been been smuggled into the compound.

Palestinians demanded Israel remove all security measures installed at the Temple Mount following the July 14 shooting. Greenblatt and Trump’s senior adviser (and son-in-law) Kushner made behind-the-scenes efforts to defuse the crisis. The Palestinians argue that the administration backed the Israeli government’s position while dismissing the Palestinian point of view.

“Greenblatt picked a side and represented Netanyahu throughout the crisis,” an unnamed senior Palestinian source told the Al-Monitor website this week.

A senior US official told The Times of Israel last week that throughout the crisis, Netanyahu “acted with a clear sense of responsibility not just for Israel’s security, but also for regional stability.” No such praise, it might be noted, was forthcoming regarding Palestinian leaders.

leaked conversation Kushner had this week with Congressional interns appeared to confirm where his sympathies lay during the Temple Mount tensions.

He defended Israel’s decision to erect metal detectors following the terror attack as “not an irrational thing to do,” noting that two Israelis had been killed with guns brought into the site.

The next thing that happened is that the Palestinians “start inciting” and claiming Israel wanted to change the status quo, said Kushner. “And Israel was saying we don’t want anything to do with that, we just want to make sure people are safe. And that really incited a lot of tension in the streets.”

Israeli security forces take down metal detectors outside the Old City of Jerusalem's Lions Gate on July 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

In his leaked remarks, Kushner went on to bash Palestinian clergymen who told worshipers their prayers wouldn’t be accepted if they passed through the Israeli metal detector gates. He also lamented the “absolutely terrible” killing of three Israeli civilians in the West Bank settlement of Halamish on July 21, mentioning that their murder — by a Palestinian terrorist who stabbed them to death at their Shabbat table — was explicitly committed for the sake of the Temple Mount’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.

But perhaps worst of all, from a Palestinian perspective, Kushner appeared to express sympathy for Netanyahu when he noted that the prime minister “was getting beaten up by the press in Israel, because [finally removing the metal detectors] was very politically unpopular for him to do.”

Kushner “clearly adopted every single Israeli position,” a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Trump’s son-in-law obviously “has a fondness for Israel and Netanyahu, through longstanding family connections and early childhood memories, that outweighs his regard and affection for the Palestinians,” veteran US peace negotiator Aaron David Miller observed in Politico after dissecting the senior Trump’s adviser’s leaked speech.

Kushner’s sympathies for the Jewish state do not necessarily doom the White House’s effort to broker a deal, but he must not allow himself to be seen as Israel’s lawyer, Miller warned. “If he’s not prepared to push both sides hard, he might as well close up for the season.”

Apparently eager to salvage American credibility among Palestinians, the White House has kept mostly quiet as the Temple Mount crisis faded. In private conversations, US officials say the president was involved in the efforts to restore calm and continues to be fully committed to bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, at the White House in Washington, DC, June 19, 2017. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

But given the deep rift that has developed over the last few weeks, some are already predicting the speedy demise of Trump’s much-touted plan to broker the “ultimate deal.”

“As of now, Trump’s peace initiative looks like it is completely bogged down,” a senior Israeli political figure told Al-Monitor.

Kushner, in his leaked speech, did little to inspire hope in Trump’s ability to succeed where all of his predecessors failed.

“So, what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know,” he said. “We’re thinking about what the right end state is, and we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution, but it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on.”

Apparently, Trump’s point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows that his mission might be impossible. But, he admitted, he’s giving it a shot anyway, simply because his father-in-law asked him to.

“My sense is that Kushner realizes that the peace process isn’t ready for prime time, and isn’t quite sure what to do about it,” Miller wrote.

Israel’s perspective

Where does the Israeli government stand regarding the ending of the Palestinian-American honeymoon and Kushner’s quasi-recognition that peace may in fact remain unattainable?

A senior official in Jerusalem on Wednesday declined to discuss Abbas’s strategy, saying only that the Palestinians “are seeking every excuse not to engage in genuine direct peace negotiations.” Discussions between Jerusalem and Washington about key issues of the peace process “haven’t stopped for a moment,” the official said, insisting on anonymity. Israel continues to make its positions clear to the administration, he added.

Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren said Israel was interested in the Americans taking a “highly proactive stance” in the peace process. “But they need to have goals that reflect Middle East realities and not the conventional wisdoms of Washington think tanks and elite universities.”

Kushner’s leaked comments appear to reflect his realization that past efforts to bring peace had failed because they were divorced from the reality on the ground, said Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US.

Arriving in Israel, US President Donald Trump shakes hands with former US ambassador to the US, Deputy minister Michael Oren MK, at Ben-Gurion Airport on May 21, 2017 (Courtesy)

Washington should realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about territory but has “deep religious roots,” Oren told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Furthermore, the administration needs to ask itself whether the Palestinian leadership “has the power to sign and enforce a deal, and if we create a Palestinian state, if it could cohere for more than a few days, or a few hours, before falling to Hamas at best and ISIS at worst.”

Do the Palestinian-American tensions and Kushner’s pessimistic leaked musings mean that the administration will soon drop its bid to broker peace and let Jerusalem do as it pleases in the West Bank?

If he were going to be put off by a tense political climate and the apparent unfeasibility of a final-status deal, you’d think the president would never have announced his intention to give it a shot in the first place. You’d think. But with Trump, you couldn’t be sure.

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