Trump’s son-in-law has no business running the coronavirus response.
Reporting on the White House’s herky-jerky coronavirus response, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has a quotation from Jared Kushner that should make all Americans, and particularly all New Yorkers, dizzy with terror.
According to Sherman, when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that the state would need 30,000 ventilators at the apex of the coronavirus outbreak, Kushner decided that Cuomo was being alarmist. “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity,” Kushner reportedly said. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top expert on infectious diseases, has said he trusts Cuomo’s estimate.)
Even now, it’s hard to believe that someone with as little expertise as Kushner could be so arrogant, but he said something similar on Thursday, when he made his debut at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing: “People who have requests for different products and supplies, a lot of them are doing it based on projections which are not the realistic projections.”
Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was
- born to the right parents,
- married well and
- learned how to influence his father-in-law.
Most of his other endeavors — his
- biggest real estate deal, his
- foray into newspaper ownership, his
- attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians
— have been failures.
Undeterred, he has now arrogated to himself a major role in fighting the epochal health crisis that’s brought America to its knees. “Behind the scenes, Kushner takes charge of coronavirus response,” said a Politico headline on Wednesday. This is dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy.
The journalist Andrea Bernstein looked closely at Kushner’s business record for her recent book “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power,” speaking to people on all sides of his real estate deals as well as those who worked with him at The New York Observer, the weekly newspaper he bought in 2006.
Kushner, Bernstein told me, “really sees himself as a disrupter.” Again and again, she said, people who’d dealt with Kushner told her that whatever he did, he “believed he could do it better than anybody else, and he had supreme confidence in his own abilities and his own judgment even when he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this confidence is unearned. Kushner was a reportedly mediocre student whose billionaire father appears to have bought him a place at Harvard. Taking over the family real estate company after his father was sent to prison, Kushner paid $1.8 billion — a record, at the time — for a Manhattan skyscraper at the very top of the real estate market in 2007. The debt from that project became a crushing burden for the family business. (Kushner was able to restructure the debt in 2011, and in 2018 the project was bailed out by a Canadian asset management company with links to the government of Qatar.) He gutted the once-great New York Observer, then made a failed attempt to create a national network of local politics websites.
His forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for which he boasted of reading a whole 25 books — have left the dream of a two-state solution on life support. Michael Koplow of the centrist Israel Policy Forum described Kushner’s plan for the Palestinian economy as “the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
Now, in our hour of existential horror, Kushner is making life-or-death decisions for all Americans, showing all the wisdom we’ve come to expect from him.
“Mr. Kushner’s early involvement with dealing with the virus was in advising the president that the media’s coverage exaggerated the threat,” reported The Times. It was apparently at Kushner’s urging that Trump announced, falsely, that Google was about to launch a website that would link Americans with coronavirus testing. (As The Atlantic reported, a health insurance company co-founded by Kushner’s brother — which Kushner once owned a stake in — tried to build such a site, before the project was “suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.”)
The president was reportedly furious over the website debacle, but Kushner’s authority hasn’t been curbed. Politico reported that Kushner, “alongside a kitchen cabinet of outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants, has taken charge of the most important challenges facing the federal government,” including the production and distribution of medical supplies and the expansion of testing. Kushner has embedded his own people in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a senior official described them to The Times as “a ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.”
Disaster response requires discipline and adherence to a clear chain of command, not the move-fast-and-break-things approach of start-up culture. Even if Kushner “were the most competent person in the world, which he clearly isn’t, introducing these kind of competing power centers into a crisis response structure is a guaranteed problem,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a former U.S.A.I.D. official who helped manage the response to the Ebola crisis during Barack Obama’s administration, told me. “So you could have Trump and Kushner and Pence and the governors all be the smartest people in the room, but if there are multiple competing power centers trying to drive this response, it’s still going to be chaos.”
Competing power centers are a motif of this administration, and its approach to the pandemic is no exception. As The Washington Post reported, Kushner’s team added “another layer of confusion and conflicting signals within the White House’s disjointed response to the crisis.” Nor does his operation appear to be internally coherent. “Projects are so decentralized that one team often has little idea what others are doing — outside of that they all report up to Kushner,” reported Politico.
On Thursday, Governor Cuomo said that New York would run out of ventilators in six days. Perhaps Kushner’s projections were incorrect. “I don’t think the federal government is in a position to provide ventilators to the extent the nation may need them,” Cuomo said. “Assume you are on your own in life.” If not in life, certainly in this administration.
This isn’t a break with the status quo. It’s the natural culmination of decades of American policy.
On Tuesday, President Trump released his long-gestating plan for Middle East peace, the so-called “deal of the century.” It calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; for Jerusalem, including its Old City, to be the undivided capital of Israel; and for Israel to annex all settlements, as well as the Jordan Valley — which makes up nearly a fourth of the West Bank, including its eastern border with Jordan — creating a discontiguous Palestinian archipelago state, surrounded by a sea of Israeli territory. Mr. Trump announced that the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over all the territory the plan assigns to Israel, and shortly after, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pledged to annex all settlements and the Jordan Valley beginning on Sunday.
Members of the Israeli right and other opponents of a two-state solution celebrated the deal as the definitive end of the possibility of an independent Palestinian state. The Israeli left, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and other supporters of a two-state solution condemned the plan for the very same reasons, calling it the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
So there was agreement among both supporters and detractors that the proposal marked a momentous break from decades of American and international policy. But is the plan truly the antithesis of the international community’s longstanding approach to the conflict? Or is it in fact that approach’s logical fulfillment?
For over a century, the West has supported Zionist aims in Palestine at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. In 1917, the British government promised to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, where Jews made up less than 8 percent of the population. Thirty years later, the United Nations proposed a plan to partition Palestine: The Jews, who made up less than a third of the population and owned less than 7 percent of the land, were given the majority of the territory. During the ensuing war, Israel conquered more than half the territory allotted to the Arab state; four-fifths of the Palestinians who had lived in what became the new boundaries of Israel were prevented from returning to their homes. The international community did not force Israel to return the territory that it had seized, or to permit the return of refugees.
After the 1967 War, when Israel conquered the remaining 22 percent of Palestine, as well as the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria, Israel illegally established settlements in the territories it occupied and created a regime with separate laws for different groups — Israelis and Palestinians — living in the same territory. In 1980, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem. As with Israel’s settlement activity, there was some international finger wagging and condemnation, but American financial and military backing for Israel only strengthened.
In 1993, the Oslo Accords granted limited autonomy to Palestinians in a scattering of disconnected islets. The accords did not demand the dismantling of Israeli settlements or even a halt to settlement growth. The first American plan for Palestinian statehood was presented by President Bill Clinton in 2000. It stated that large Israeli settlements would be annexed to Israel and that all Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem would also be annexed. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized and contain Israeli military installations as well as international forces in the Jordan Valley that could be withdrawn only with Israel’s consent. As with the “deal of the century,” this plan, which formed the basis of all subsequent ones, gave the Palestinians increased autonomy and called it a state.
There are now more Palestinians than Jews living in the territory under Israel’s control, according to the Israeli military. Whether in Mr. Trump’s vision or Mr. Clinton’s, American plans have confined most of the majority ethnic group into less than a quarter of the territory, with restrictions on Palestinian sovereignty so far-reaching that the outcome should more appropriately be called a one-and-a-half-state solution.
Mr. Trump’s plan has many severe faults: It prioritizes Jewish interests over Palestinian ones. It rewards and even incentivizes settlements and further dispossession of the Palestinians. But none of these qualities represent a fundamental break from the past. The Trump plan merely puts the finishing touches on a house that American lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, spent dozens of years helping to build. During the last several decades, as Israel slowly took over the West Bank, putting more than 600,000 settlers in occupied territory, the United States provided Israel with diplomatic backing, vetoes in the United Nations Security Council, pressure on international courts and investigative bodies not to pursue Israel, and billions of dollars in annual aid.
Some of the Democrats now running for president have spoken of their disapproval of Israeli annexation, even as they propose nothing to stop it. Thus a mainstream Democrat like Senator Amy Klobuchar could declare her opposition to annexation and sign a letter criticizing the Trump plan for its “disregard [of] international law,” when she had also co-sponsored a Senate resolution “expressing grave objection” to a 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution that demanded Israel halt illegal settlement activity. Other Democrats, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, say they would be unwilling to provide American financial support for Israeli annexation. But that is little more than a slick formulation that allows them to sound tough while threatening nothing, since American assistance to Israel would not, in any event, go directly toward the bureaucratic tasks involved, such as transferring the West Bank land registry from the military to the Israeli government.
Aside from vague references to using aid as a lever, no presidential candidate except Senator Bernie Sanders has put forth proposals that would begin to reduce American complicity in Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights. Declarations of opposition to annexation ring hollow when they are not accompanied by plans to prevent or reverse it: banning settlement products; reducing financial assistance to Israel by the amount it spends in the occupied territories; divesting federal and state pension funds from companies operating in illegal settlements; and suspending military aid until Israel ends the collective punishment of two million people confined in Gaza and provides Palestinians in the West Bank the same civil rights given to Jews living beside them.
The Trump plan, much like the decades-long peace process that it crowns, gives Israel cover to perpetuate what is known as the status quo: Israel as the sole sovereign controlling the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,
- depriving millions of stateless people of basic civil rights,
- restricting their movement, criminalizing speech that may harm “public order,”
- jailing them in indefinite “administrative detention” without trial or charge, and
- dispossessing them of their land —
all while congressional leaders, the European Union and much of the rest of the world applaud and encourage this charade, solemnly expressing their commitment to the resumption of “meaningful negotiations.”
Israel’s defenders like to say that Israel is being singled out, and they are right. Israel is the only state perpetuating a permanent military occupation, with discriminatory laws for separate groups living in the same territory, that self-identified liberals around the world go out of their way to justify, defend and even fund. In the absence of advocating policies with actual teeth, the Democratic critics of the Trump plan are not much better than the president. They are, not in words but in deeds, supporters of annexation and subjugation, too.
His conference in Bahrain hears of big dream plans divorced from reality.
The slick promotional publication, titled “Peace to Prosperity,” described a $50 billion investment surge in the Palestinian economy over the next decade, like a fantastical New York real estate promotion. Palestinians certainly could use the investment and jobs in their economically depressed communities, where unemployment last year was 31 percent.
The publication touted what was supposed to be an economic foundation for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, presented at a conference in Bahrain this week by Jared Kushner, presidential son-in-law, senior adviser and, formerly, New York real estate developer.
Mr. Kushner invited participants to “imagine a new reality in the Middle East.”
But except for its patronizing tone, there’s little new about the plan, which relies heavily on the construction of much-needed infrastructure projects that are retreads of proposals the World Bank, the United States and others made in previous failed peace efforts.
The most ambitious undertaking would be a $5 billion transportation corridor from the West Bank to Gaza that could link the two Palestinian territories with a major road and possibly a modern rail line. To facilitate the flow of Palestinian people and goods with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and other countries in the region, facilities at key border crossings would be upgraded, new cargo terminals would be built, old ones would be refurbished and new security technology would be installed.
Although it deals only in generalities, the plan also envisions investing in upgrades to Palestinian electric grids, the Gaza Power Plant and renewable energy facilities. In an effort to double the water supply in five years, new desalinization and wastewater treatment facilities, wells and distribution networks would be built. Financial incentives would encourage private Palestinian businesses to expand the limited existing digital capabilities by developing high-speed telecommunications services.
Other proposals focus on expanding educational opportunities, jobs, housing, tourism and the rule of law.
While tantalizing, the plan as it stands is, to be gentle, unrealistic.
Israel controls the economic life of the Palestinian territories, meaning none of the proposals are possible without its concurrence. Yet the plan makes no demands on Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Gulf states, along with European nations and private investors, are expected to help finance the plan, but there have been no actual commitments, and the idea that the Arabs would bankroll a peace plan that sidesteps a Palestinian state is unlikely.
Making the whole initiative even more surreal, it arrives after the administration in which Mr. Kushner serves sharply cut funds for programs that support Palestinian schools and health care.
The fact that officials of the Israeli and the Palestinian governments, whose futures are most at stake, were absent from the two-day conference in Bahrain, and that many Arab and European countries sent only lower-level representatives, underscores the broad international discomfort with Mr. Kushner’s economic proposals and the promised plan for resolving Israel-Palestinian political issues that is supposed to follow it.
Team Trump is betting that dangling lucrative investments will cause Palestinians to abandon their aspirations for an independent state, a goal the United States supported as part of a negotiated peace since 2002, until President Trump voiced a more fluid view. If it were that easy it would have happened years ago.
Palestinian leaders, who halted contact with Washington months ago, rejected Mr. Kushner’s economic blueprint out of hand. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies with Israel against Iran, were supportive but made clear that the plan needed to be combined with a political solution.
The one truly enthusiastic cadre appeared to be billionaire investors who, seemingly for the first time, were seeing economic potential in a long-ignored part of the world. Many of them expressed such eagerness about eventually underwriting projects promoted by the plan that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “It’s going to be like a hot I.P.O.”
Mr. Kushner is right when he says the “old way hasn’t really worked.” However, by presenting a plan that ignores Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood and their demands for ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, he is making success even less likely. “If we are going to fail,” he has said, “we don’t want to fail doing it the same way it’s been done in the past.”
What happens next is anybody’s guess. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted in a recent closed-door meeting with Jewish leaders that the plan may be “unexecutable.” But if Mr. Kushner can mobilize powerful investors and international businesses as cheerleaders for Mideast peace, he could make a real contribution.
It is hard to imagine how this would coax the Palestinians to offer more concessions in a negotiation with Israel. What they see is that the United States under Mr. Trump has embraced the views of Israeli right-wing nationalists and tried to take two of their most important negotiating issues — the status of Jerusalem, which Mr. Trump undermined by announcing late last year that the United States embassy would be moved to Jerusalem, and now the right of return — off the table.
Through all the decades of peace negotiations, the Palestinians had believed that the United States, dedicated to Israel’s security, was the only power that could fairly mediate with Israel on their behalf. Mr. Trump has abdicated this leadership role, risking a humanitarian disaster and renewed violence.