Pessimism as Kushner holds Israeli-Palestinian talks

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JERUSALEM: White House aide Jared Kushner held talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Thursday with the aim of restarting long-stalled peace efforts, but pessimism was high over US President Donald Trump’s pledge to reach the “ultimate deal.”

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The visit came with neither Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a position to make major concessions, analysts said.

No details have emerged of how Trump’s team would overcome that.

Trump meanwhile faces a range of foreign policy crises and controversies at home that may make it hard for him to focus on the complexities of a major Israeli-Palestinian peace push.

Netanyahu, meeting Kushner in Tel Aviv, said they had “a lot of things to talk about — how to advance peace, stability and security in our region, prosperity too.”

“I think all of them are within our reach,” he added.

Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law, said: “The president is very committed to achieving a solution here that will be able to bring prosperity and peace to all people in this area.”

Netanyahu’s office later described the talks as “constructive and substantive”, without giving further details.

“The prime minister looks forward to continuing those discussions in the weeks ahead,” it said.

Abbas, who met the US visitors in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday evening, said the delegation “is working towards peace.”

“We know it is difficult and complicated, but it is not impossible,” the official Palestinian news agency Wafa quoted him as saying.

A US official said Trump “remains optimistic that progress toward a deal can be achieved.”

Palestinian frustration

The visit is part of a regional tour by Kushner, Trump aide Jason Greenblatt and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell.

They have also held talks with Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati, Qatari and Jordanian officials.

“I think (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) clearly remains important, important enough that senior officials continue to engage on it, including Jared Kushner,” Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, told journalists this week.

“But given the very poor prospects of a significant political breakthrough, I’d be surprised it if warrants a major investment by the president.”

Palestinian leaders have grown frustrated with the White House after initially holding out hope that Trump could bring a fresh approach to peace efforts despite his pledges of staunch support for Israel.

Trump aides have held a series of meetings with both sides, portraying them as hearing out concerns before deciding on a way forward. The US president himself visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in May.

But Palestinian leaders note the White House has not even clearly committed to a two-state solution to the conflict, in contrast to longstanding US policy.

The two-state solution envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and has been the focus of international diplomacy since at least the early 1990s.

When Trump met Netanyahu at the White House in February, he said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting right-wing Israelis who want to annex most of the West Bank, but raising deep concern among Palestinians.

Signalling their frustration, some Palestinian leaders have spoken of taking a harder line in recent days.

Dissolve the PA?

Ahmed Majdalani, a senior Palestinian Liberation Organisation official who is close to Abbas, told AFP on Thursday that one option if no progress is reached would be to dissolve the Palestinian Authority — not the first such threat.

That would in theory leave Israel in charge of governing and providing services to Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank.

But Majdalani also said leaders could also unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood.

He said that option was under consideration because “the American administration has not presented any initiative until now, while the Israelis continue with their settlement activities and refuse to abide by obligations they signed up to.”

Netanyahu, for his part, is under pressure from his rightwing base not to make concessions to the Palestinians but to continue Jewish settlement building. There is little incentive at present for him to change course, analysts say.

He is also facing a graft investigation that limits his political options, Shapiro noted.

Shapiro, now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies think-tank in Tel Aviv, said the focus should be on short-term goals such as improving the Palestinian economy in order to keep the possibility of a two-state solution alive.

“I believe (Trump’s) leverage has declined considerably, at least from the point of view of getting major concessions or a commitment to a major programme toward two states from the leaders, so that’s why I think the shift should come to the more practical on-the-ground steps,” he said. AFP

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