President Trump has talked of “the ultimate deal” he’s going to strike, to finally make peace once and for all between Israel and the Palestinians. His son-in-law Jared Kushner has spent the last few months shuttling to and from the region, and speculation has been running high that the U.S. might soon unveil its own proposal for peace, or at least the basic outlines.
Still, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a close ally of the Trump team who has been working closely with them on the plan, says in a new interview for The Global Politico that while he’s an “optimist,” chances are only “moderate to high” of even restarting the dormant peace process over the next year. As for an actual deal, he wouldn’t even speculate.
And the ambassador, Ron Dermer, one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants, confirmed in a rare on-the-record conversation that Trump this week is likely to take a controversial step by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—a move that Palestinians have threatened will blow up any talks even before they start.
Not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a “farce,” Dermer said, characterizing Trump’s likely decision to change that as sending a message to the Palestinians of: “Hey, wake up. Understand that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. You have to deal with that reality.” But Arab leaders have braced for public protest, and several Middle East officials with whom I have spoken in recent days said they had not been formally consulted by Kushner and Trump on the move and worried it would backfire. “It sure would make things a lot harder,” one key administration supporter from the Arab world told me.
If anything, Dermer seemed more adamant about the prospect for a new round of military conflict between Israel and the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah than about the outlook for Kushner’s peace process. “The chances of military confrontation are growing,” he said when I asked about a possible fight in neighboring Syria or Lebanon, and in fact Israeli jets reportedly hit targets inside Syria last week. “I don’t want to tell you by the year or by the month. I’d say even by the week. Because the more they push, we have to enforce our red lines…. So in taking action to defend ourselves, you don’t know what could happen. But I think it’s higher than people think.”
Dermer made news on a variety of subjects, emphasizing how closely the Israelis are now aligned with the Trump administration as it works to craft a Middle East strategy almost a year into the Trump presidency. On the Iran nuclear deal that Trump recently threatened to blow up, for example, Dermer said he believes the president now has a “six to nine months” timetable for seeing if he can get key European allies to press for further Iranian concessions before following through on his threat. “They have to understand is that the president is actually prepared to walk away. So the only choice right now is not to save the deal or to kill the deal. It’s actually to fix it with some package of measures, or the president’s going to walk away,” Dermer said. “And if you ask me, if these fixes are not done in a certain amount of time, that’s what he needs Congress and the Europeans for, to actually fix it—if they decide not to move, not to do anything, then I believe the president will walk away from the deal.”
And he offered his first public comments on a story that underscored the close alliance between the Trump team and the Netanyahu government: the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. In that plea, Flynn admitted, among other things, that he lied about speaking with the Russian ambassador on Israel’s behalf to try to quash a late Obama administration move at the United Nations. Dermer confirmed to me that he personally had consulted with the Trump team in the effort to head off the U.N. Security Council resolution rebuking Israel for its West Bank settlements – and urged them to lobby other foreign governments to kill the measure. Dermer said he was “not sure” whether he had spoken directly with Flynn, but acknowledged, “I definitely spoke to officials” in what would become Trump’s administration.
“We reached out to them in the hope that they would help us avert what would be bad for Israel and bad for the United States,” Dermer said.
Our wide-ranging discussion came at a key moment for President Trump’s dreams of cutting the Middle East peace deal that eluded his predecessors – even as prosecutors appear to be asking ever-more-uncomfortable questions about Kushner, the son-in-law Trump has entrusted with making the deal. Kushner, who reportedly was the “very high level” Trump official who ordered Flynn to make the outreach to the Russians at Israel’s behest, made his first public appearance ever to discuss his peace efforts Sunday at the Saban Forum, an annual gathering here in Washington of the most plugged-in Israel watchers, including senior government officials and politicians from both countries.
But sitting in the audience listening to Kushner politely decline to answer any substantive questions—preferring instead to offer anodyne assurances like “we’ve been very focused on the deal” and “we’ve gone out of our way to do a lot of listening”—underscored the sense that the Trump administration is still far away from any major new breakthrough.
Indeed, the best argument Kushner was able to muster for why this administration’s peace bid would turn out any differently was that Trump had bucked the odds before by getting elected in the first place.
Off stage, I spoke with several well-placed U.S., Arab and Israeli officials who told me they did not think Trump’s personal intervention this upcoming week in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would make things any easier for Kushner.
Dermer’s comments amounted to the clearest on-the-record indication yet that the president seems intent on making a declaration about Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when he gives a speech on the matter this Wednesday – even as he once again appears prepared to sign a waiver to put off moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Several of those I spoke with told me their conversations with administration officials had confirmed this appears to be the current state of play – though with key details remaining unclear, such as what and how exactly Trump would define Jerusalem.
“I don’t think it’s going to undermine the peace process at all,” Dermer told me, pointing out that any final-status peace agreement was always certain to include Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But few of those I spoke with over the weekend thought this announcement from Trump now would be helpful to Kushner, and in fact several officials said they now believed the details of Kushner’s closely held emerging plan for the region were unlikely to be revealed until well into 2018 – despite expectations as recently as a few weeks ago that it could be unveiled later this year or early in the new year.
I found the conversation with Dermer, however, to be a helpful guide to what the Netanyahu government – and by extension its close partner the Trump White House – is thinking about the emerging plan. Throughout the interview, Dermer made it clear that Israel’s theory of the case on peace talks rests as much as with “the window of opportunity” to engage Israel’s Arab neighbors – and in particular the young, shake-things-up crown prince of Saudi Arabia – as with the Palestinians, about whom he was far more skeptical.
“Will the Palestinian leadership cross this historical Rubicon to accept the permanence and legitimacy of a Jewish state? I think that’s a big question mark. I think that many of the governments in the region are prepared to cross that Rubicon. Whether the Palestinians are prepared to do that, I don’t know,” Dermer said.
Later, he added, “But it might be that the chances of them crossing the Rubicon will go up if maybe they see, hey, everybody else is moving toward reconciliation with Israel, that there’s a process going on, then maybe they’ll understand if the train’s leaving the station, maybe they have to get on board.”
But as striking as what Dermer said was what he didn’t: He never mentioned the “two-state solution” that at least in theory is the policy supported by both the Israeli government and by all U.S. governments going back decades. Notably, neither did Kushner in his Saban Forum appearance, though he did assert that at least peace now is back on the table in a way it was not at the end of the Obama administration.
I’ve spent hours discussing the Trump administration’s nascent peace efforts with senior Israeli, Arab and American officials, current and former, over the last few months, and virtually all of them start out with amazement and skepticism that the fate of the Arab-Israeli conflict now appears to be in the hands of two inexperienced thirysomething novices, Kushner and the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
In our interview, Dermer praised MBS, as he is known, and said he should be applauded for his “boldness” in carrying out domestic reforms, but the ambassador highlighted another factor that is also putting peace talks back on the agenda: the enemy-of-my-enemy common ground between the Saudis and the Israelis when it comes to their shared regional foe, Iran.
“I see right now a window of opportunity that didn’t exist before. And the window of opportunity, the change is because of the change that is happening in the broader Arab world and their view of Israel. Many countries that formerly saw Israel as an enemy now see Israel as a potential partner in addressing their primary security challenges,” he said.
Still, Dermer allowed that the Trump team has yet to fully translate that hawkish rhetoric on Iran into a new set of policies toward Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Yemen, as well as how to deal with the all-but-accomplished victory of Iran-supported Bashar al-Assad next door to Israel in Syria. “Now, the question is how do you translate that policy into specific actions?” Dermer said, pointing to unresolved policy debates over whether and how to pressure Iran’s elite paramilitary force, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, with additional economic sanctions, or what to do in active conflicts like Syria and Yemen. Still, he said, “there is a completely different view of Iran that this administration has. And right now we are in the process of working with them on how to translate this view into practical policies on the ground.”
But the theory of the case behind the Middle East policy Dermer is pushing—and it’s clearly one with which his allies in the Trump administration closely agree—is already fairly evident.
“The Iranians,” he told me, “want Riyadh for breakfast and Jerusalem for lunch, and they want New York for dinner.”