How Donald Trump and Jared Kushner Overlooked the Key to Middle East Peace

The Abraham Accords were a useful step—but an insufficient one.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with then-President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords in September 2020.Alex Brandon/AP

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On September 15, 2020, President Donald Trump, sitting next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on a White House balcony, delivered a speech in which he declared they were changing the course of history. Celebrating the signing of normalization agreements between Israel and these two Arab states—known as the Abraham Accords—Trump proclaimed, “Together, these agreements will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region, something which nobody thought was possible, certainly not in this day and age.” In his remarks, Trump never once mentioned the Palestinians.

That morning, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser on Middle East policy, hit the television news shows to hail the accords. He hyped them as the “beginning of the end of the Israel-Arab conflict.” When asked about the unresolved issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kushner, supremely confident, remarked, “Those issues aren’t as complicated as people have made them out to be.”

Oops.

Trump’s grand strategic approach to the Middle East, orchestrated by Kushner, was to focus on state-to-state relations between Israel and Arab nations. Cool down the temperature at that level—encourage trade, commerce tourism, cultural exchanges and other connections between Israel and its neighbors and allow Arab Muslims to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem—and peace will follow. These agreements were commendable and genuine diplomatic advances. But this overall approach essentially kicked the Palestinians and their grievances (the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, its apartheid policies, and its blockade of Gaza, which turned the strip, according to Human Rights Watch, into an “open-air prison”) to the curb. This justifiably angered Palestinians. In Gaza and elsewhere, Palestinians protested the accords for allowing Arab states to normalize relations with Israel absent a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. And the agreements ended up being not that popular in the Arab signatory states. 

After Trump departed the White House, Kushner and other Trumpers insisted that Trump never received sufficient credit for the accords. Last September, at a ceremony marking the two-year anniversary of the agreements (which also came to include Sudan, Kosovo, and Morocco), Kushner griped that “Trump Derangement Syndrome” had prevented the Biden administration from recognizing this historic achievement of the Trump crew. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) called the accords “the most significant peace agreement of the 21st century, and history will always remember the pioneers of this peace deal.”

In March, speaking at a conference in Miami, Kushner again oversold the accords. He claimed that they boosted stability in the Middle East and that  “Arabs and Muslims [are] now able to say nice things about Israel and Jews,”

In a way, Trump and Kushner engaged in trickle-down diplomacy. They concentrated on brokering deals among the leaders of Arab states and Israel that ignored the Palestinians. (Kushner came up with a plan for an Israeli-Palestinian accord, which went nowhere, and he has said he believed it fizzled because Palestinian leaders were corrupt and not “incentivized” to solve the problem.) The Abraham Accords Declaration, a brief document signed on that historic day at the White House, called for “efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity.” It noted that the signers “believe that the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue and that developing friendly relations among States advances the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East and around the world.” It had no direct reference to the Palestinians.

Though the Biden administration rejected using the term “Abraham Accords”—it preferred calling these pacts “normalization” agreements—it recently was seeking a similar deal with Saudi Arabia, which could include a mutual defense pact and US assistance to the Saudis’ civilian nuclear program (which, of course, could also boost any effort by the Kingdom to cook up nuclear weapons). Like the agreements Trump and Kushner brokered, this accord—now presumably on hold or dead—did not appear to do much to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the heinous Hamas attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s counterstrikes on Gaza, Trump misleadingly claimed that he had brought peace to the Middle East when he was president. At a rally in New Hampshire, he asserted, “Less than four years ago we had peace in the Middle East with the historic Abraham Accords. Today, we have an all-out war in Israel and it’s going to spread very quickly. What a difference a president makes.”

Kushner, too, in recent days, has been insisting that Trump and he got it right in the Middle East. (Kushner certainly was generously rewarded for his work on the Middle East, which included arranging a $110 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. Six months after leaving the White House, he secured a $2 billion investment from the kingdom for his new private equity firm.) In a podcast last week, he touted the Abraham Accords and said, “My hope and prayers are that President Trump is reelected and that he’s able to then restore calm and peace and prosperity to the world.”

The peace achieved by the accords was hardly a full peace. It left out the most critical part of the Middle East conflict. Israelis, the Palestinians, and the world are now paying the price for the lack of progress on this front. Cobbling together the Abraham Accords was akin to clearing brush—a useful and important endeavor—but it left in place a massive pile of tinder. A wildfire now rages, and Trump and Kushner’s strategy has gone up in smoke.

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