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Kushner stares down uncompromising foes in fights over immigration, Middle East peace

Trump says alliance between US and Israel has ‘never been stronger’

President Donald Trump reinforces the close relationship between Israel and the United States during a ceremony at the White House on March 25, 2019 to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
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President Donald Trump reinforces the close relationship between Israel and the United States during a ceremony at the White House on March 25, 2019 to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

As Jared Kushner launches two of his most ambitious policy initiatives in rapid succession, White House officials are privately drawing parallels over the challenges ahead in achieving immigration reform at home and peace between Israelis and Palestinians abroad, according to his aides.

Releasing an immigration package last week and a peace plan next month, Kushner and his team have already internally confronted the possibility they will face short-term setbacks on these two unconnected policy areas while identifying the potential for long-term successes.

It is the inherent risk Kushner runs in trying to tackle two of the country’s most vexing policy challenges. His strategy toward both is to put forward detailed proposals that form the basis of political arguments, targeting voters that will prioritize immigration in the 2020 presidential race as well as Palestinians frustrated with their leadership’s handling of the peace process.

In each case, Kushner sees an opportunity to build political consensus around practical solutions that could garner potent grassroots support over time. That means providing President Donald Trump with an immigration plan he can campaign on next year as both “pro-immigrant” and tough on illegal entrants.

And it means convincing Arab world leaders and the Palestinian people that a better path is in store for the West Bank beyond what the Palestinian Authority is currently prepared to negotiate.

McClatchy has learned that Kushner will personally lead a U.S. delegation to Bahrain with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other top aides in late June to launch the first phase of the peace plan—a roadmap, the administration says, for investment in Palestinian society. Israel will send a large delegation to the conference to be formally announced in the coming days, a source familiar with the matter said on Tuesday, shortly before Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates publicly confirmed their attendance.

It would be a landmark moment for Israel and Bahrain, which have no formal diplomatic ties.

But as the Trump administration embarks on a peace effort without a direct line of communication with one party—the Palestinian Authority, which cut off contact with the White House last year after the Jerusalem embassy move and on Wednesday said it would not attend the Manama workshop—Kushner is grappling with the oft-repeated question of how to define success.

At an event in Washington earlier this month, Kushner remarked that progress could “look like a lot of different things” and acknowledged that “smart money” bets are against the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement.

Success “can look like an agreement, it can look like a discussion, it could lead to closer cooperation, maybe resolve a couple of issues,” Kushner told Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Satloff has frequently warned the administration to consider the consequences of a failed effort and encouraged Trump not to proceed with its launch.

A senior administration official confirmed that Trump was personally involved with conceptualizing the Bahrain workshop and has been fully supportive of the strategic decision to launch the peace plan in phases. The political section of the plan—expected to address the thorniest issues of the conflict, including the status of Jerusalem and sovereignty in the West Bank—will launch at a later date.

“Jared came here with very specific goals, and the USMCA [U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement] and criminal justice reform were among them,” the official told McClatchy, referencing two successful negotiations led by the president’s son-in-law. “But with Middle East peace and immigration, you have two intractable problems that may not be solvable with the parties so far apart.”

“It’s two issues with tremendously strong advocates and positions on both sides, who view compromise as weakness while acknowledging the status quo is not sustainable,” the official continued. “We will show the world a viable pathway forward based on reason and justice, despite whatever may come, on both of these extraordinarily difficult problems.”

Just as Kushner hopes, short of direct negotiations, to build regional political consensus around his peace plan, he similarly acknowledges the difficulty of wrenching Democrats to the table to engage on his immigration proposal.

Democratic lawmakers say the outline of his plan, which reconfigures the immigration process into a merit-based system based off of similar programs in Australia, Canada and Japan, will make it unjustly difficult for legal residents to reunite with their family members and fails to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“The word that they use, ‘merit.’ It is really a condescending word they are saying family is without merit,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said upon the release of Kushner’s package. “Are they saying that most of the people that come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don’t have an engineering degree?”

A handful of Democrats, such as Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, say they are prepared to consider the White House proposal. But Kushner’s team doubts Democrats would cooperate even if DACA were included in the package, and is currently focused on establishing GOP unity on a proposal that could, if victorious in 2020, pass through the House under renewed Republican control.

“We understand the Democrats are against this, but we’re not sure why,” a second senior administration official said. “If the Democrats would like to play politics– should they be unwilling prior the election to discuss it– we have a roadmap post-2020 to make this our legal system.”

“We see it long-term as a positive thing for us, and in the immediate term we’re not stopping our push forward,” the official added. “In the next few weeks we’ll be coming out with very specific proposals.”

Kushner’s aides underscore that his goal remains direct negotiations on both fronts: Between Democrats and Republicans on immigration, and Israelis and Palestinians on peace. But his plans absent those talks secondarily serve as markers for new conversations on alternative paths.

One official that spoke with McClatchy said that Kushner had determined to release his plans knowing their odds of success out of a sense of duty to public service.

“It is easy to say what you stand against,” the official stated, “and hard to say what you’re for.”

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Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.

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