Jared Kushner’s Hot Peace Process Between Israel and the Sunni World

  • + Kushner led the change of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
  • + In 2020, Kushner mediated peace plans between Israel and the UAE, Bahrein, Sudan
  • + Kushner’s foreign policy wins loom large in the US presidential elections.

Why is Kushner’s heat level Hot?

Answer: Kushner has led US foreign policy efforts to finalize peace deals between Israel and countries in the Arab World.

Signed on the 15th of September 2020, the Abraham Accord officialized the peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel and Bahrain. The announcement of the UAE’s peace deal with Israel was met with approval from most of the Sunni governments, with Saudi Arabia’s silence translating to unofficial support of the deal. Mediation between the Gulf Monarchies and Israel was carried out by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s Senior Advisor in the White House and the one responsible for the “Middle East peace plan”

Often maligned for his Israeli bias and nepotism, Kushner nonetheless perceived that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through direct dialogue between both sides was nearly impossible in the current geopolitical context. Although he released an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan which was rejected by all parties, Kushner’s diplomatic effort focused on normalizing ties between Israel and Sunni Muslim countries. Indeed, the security interests of the Sunni World (especially Gulf Monarchies) have increasingly converged with those of Israel, notably in opposing the growing geopolitical influence of Shia Iran in the Middle East and combatting Sunni terrorism. 

A new generation of Gulf rulers, led by Mohamed bin-Zayed of the UAE and Mohamed bin-Salman of Saudi Arabia, adopted a more realist approach to foreign relations, seeming increasingly willing to move past the historical and religious divide with Israel. Recognizing the window of opportunity brought by new leadership in the Arabian peninsula, Kushner mediated between Netanyahu and MBZ, helping push them over the line in making formal peace deals and normalizing relations. 

Kushner wagers that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will start with a dialogue between the main Sunni supporters of the Palestinian cause (MBS, MBZ) and Netanyahu, where negotiations will be held between allies rather than foes. Furthermore, dissipating the Israeli feeling of being surrounded by enemies, and thus integrating Israel into regional dynamics alongside willing partners (UAE, Bahrein) will (hopefully) reduce the anti-Palestinian extremism in Israel. As such, normalization of relations between Israel and Sunni countries will provide the diplomatic base for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

The wave of Sunni countries normalizing relations with Israel continued on October 23rd 2020 when Sudan signed a peace deal with the Hebrew nation. Sudan was strong armed by Kushner into peace with Israel. Indeed, the peace deal was a necessary condition for the US to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and to grant debt relief to the African country. Nevertheless, Kushner’s diplomatic efforts led to three Sunni states normalizing relations with Israel, promoting stability in the Middle East. 

The Abraham Accord and Sudan peace deal will set the base for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while strengthening US opposition to Iran through its Middle Eastern allies. The peace deals and looming security partnerships between Israel and Sunni states help the US protect its interests in the Middle East while keeping a minimal ground military presence in the region. Finally, Kushner’s success in bringing all parties to the table and the subsequent peace deals is a major foreign policy win for the Trump administration, a success amplified by the stakes of the US presidential elections. 

What is changing Kushner’s temperature?

Answer: New direction of US foreign policy focusing on facilitating alliances between its allies in the Middle East.

Donald Trump’s substantial withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East over the course of his presidency has weakened the US’s geopolitical influence in the region. This strategic retreat following the failures of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan or mediation in Syria allowed geopolitical competitors to fill the security void left by the US, notably Russia in Syria. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence has grown since the Trump-induced demise of the JCPOA, with Shia militias taking over Iraq, strong Iranian backing of Bashar al-Assad and increasing tensions with Sunni Gulf monarchies in Yemen.

The US’ military influence on the ground in the region further eroded when Trump abandoned his Kurdish allies after ISIS’ territorial defeat in 2018, leaving them vulnerable to Turkish attacks. However, the US still has important interests to defend in the Middle East, as described by Pentagon official James Anderson: “ensure the region is not a safe haven for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and contributes to a stable global energy market.” Thus, the significant change of American ground presence in Middle Eastern conflicts under the Trump presidency has brought a re-orientation of US Foreign Policy

To preserve its Middle Eastern interests with far less military manpower on the ground, Trump turned to Special Advisor Jared Kushner to elaborate a different US foreign policy in the region. Kushner saw clearly that the main US military allies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel) had converging security interests, notably in pushing back against spreading Iranian influence in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq. However, these countries were working unilaterally to push back against Iran, notably due to the Arab world’s long aversion to Israel. In 2020, Iran is a far bigger geopolitical threat to the Gulf Monarchies than Israel as Shias and Sunnis are increasingly competing for influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Thus, Kushner sought to push the Gulf monarchies to make peace with Israel, laying the foundation for future security cooperation against Iran. This would allow the Americans to unite their Middle Eastern allies in creating common regional security objectives, centered around opposing Iran and Sunni terrorism. Such an alliance between Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia would greatly further American interests in the Middle East with limited American intervention. 

The UAE-Israel link has already been acted through the Abraham Accord, and talks on the extent of security cooperation now loom. Saudi Arabia is highly unlikely to make a formal peace deal with Israel, however, cooperation through its Emirati allies (and lack of opposition to UAE-Israel peace deal) shows MBS’s recognition that his anti-Iranian interests align with Israel’s. Thus, through diplomacy and strengthening regional alliances, Kushner is setting the framework for the protection of American Middle Eastern interests.

In the meantime, the Senior Advisor has significantly advanced peace in the Middle East by formerly bringing competing factions together (the Sunni Arab States and Israel), while moving past the historical and religious differences which have fueled the Israeli-Arab wars in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the move to create a united front against Iran, backed by the US, points to the consolidation of two competing blocs in the Middle East amongst sectarian lines: the Iranian backed Shias against the Saudi/Emirati backed Sunnis with their Israeli allies. 

What is driving Kushner?

Answer: The necessity to push back against Iranian influence while providing foreign policy wins amidst the US presidential elections.

Kushner is driven by a mix of security and diplomatic imperatives in the Middle East while needing to deliver strong foreign policy victories for his father-in-law, Donald Trump. 

Indeed, Kushner and the Trump administration consider that curtailing Iranian influence and terrorist groups in the Middle East is key to maintaining American security and stable global order. To ensure that these interests are protected with limited US intervention, Kushner has laid the groundwork for an alliance between Sunni states and Israel. Nonetheless, separating the Middle East amongst two competing Shia and Sunni blocks could equally lead to an intensification or multiplication of smaller sized conflicts. Kushner’s attempt to solidify the Sunni alliance against Iran reinforces divisions along sectarian lines, potentially leading to a major confrontation between the Sunni and Shia blocs. 

Whatever the geopolitical consequences of the Abraham Accord and Sudan peace deal, these foreign policy moves are a major victory for the Trump Administration amidst the 2020 American presidential elections. Indeed, Trump can continue to advertise himself as a great deal maker, and as a US president who managed to unlock the diplomatic status quo between Israel and the Arab world. This move will re-invigorate his support from the Jewish electorate in the US, while comparisons with Obama’s track record on foreign policy could loom large.

Kushner’s success also validates the president’s much-critiqued decision to name his stepson as the special diplomatic envoy to the Middle East. Finally, Kushner positioned himself as a key middleman between Israel and Arabic countries willing to normalize relations in light of Iran’s increased aggression. From personal vindication to a strong US foreign policy achievement, Kushner’s Middle East policy is successfully transitioning US diplomacy into a post-Iraq/Afghanistan era. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The US is altering its Middle Eastern policy, promoting peace plans and representing its interests through diplomacy.

Concretely, the Israeli peace deals with UAE, Bahrain and Sudan will open diplomatic relations, increase regional trade, and potentially create new security cooperation in the Middle East. You will now be able to fly directly from Dubai to Jerusalem, or Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, setting up direct businesses between both countries. Kushner is banking on creating a strong alliance between Sunni states, backed by Israel, to push back against Iran and protect key American interests.

However, such a direct split in Middle Eastern geopolitics between Sunni and Shia blocs could lead to an intensification of regional proxy wars, or even set the stage for a large-scale conflict between both sectarian blocs. Nevertheless, the Abraham Accords and Sudan peace deal have pacified an old, running conflict between Israel and parts of the Arab World. These new relations could open the door for a common solution to the Palestinian question in the future. Kushner displayed that the US is far more efficient in stabilizing the Middle East through diplomacy than hard power, perhaps leading to a more diplomacy-centered US foreign policy in the coming decade. 

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief