President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will jet off to the Middle East this week for one last parting bid for peace before Joe Biden likely takes up residence in the White House next year. Kushner likely has two objectives: encouraging Saudi Arabia to finalize a history-making pact with Israel and negotiating an agreement between Qatar and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf.
The Trump administration has achieved several monumental diplomatic breakthroughs with Israel in the region, thanks in large part to Kushner’s negotiations. Yet Biden threatens to reverse much of that progress by teaming up with the Palestinians and restoring the disastrous Iran nuclear deal.
Kushner’s Middle East visit this week suggests that the Trump administration is working overtime to finish strong on these issues. (While the Trump campaign is challenging the results of the 2020 election, a Biden win is still more likely than a Trump upset.)
Kushner will fly to Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week, The Wall Street Journal reported. According to U.S. and Gulf officials, Kushner will focus on resolving the three-year-old rift between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, including Riyadh. Among others, the president’s son-in-law will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), with whom Kushner has a close personal relationship.
The Kushner-MBS relationship, based on a shared desire to counter Iran and to tighten relations between Israel and the Arab world, helped reshape the Middle East, allowing Trump to broker deals connecting Israel with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with MBS in the first known meeting between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have no official diplomatic relations. U.S. officials have expressed hope that the meeting would lead to a breakthrough in relations between the two countries. Yet Saudi officials have expressed skepticism, noting Biden’s likely accession to the Oval Office.
Official relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh would mark a historic accomplishment, as Saudi Arabia contains the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina and Israel claims parts of Jerusalem that Muslims also hold sacred. While Kushner is likely to encourage such a deal, a rapprochement between Qatar and Riyadh is far more likely.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt abruptly severed ties with Qatar and accused Doha of supporting U.S.-designated terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. The Saudis led the other nations in a blockade of Qatar, severing land, air, and sea routes to Qatar.
The U.S. and Kuwait have attempted to mediate the controversy to no avail. While the Saudis and their allies initially made 13 demands, including a call for Qatar to scale back its diplomatic ties with Iran and to shut down Al Jazeera, the four countries have dialed back these demands in recent weeks.
Kushner will meet with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, a Trump administration official told WSJ. The talks will focus on resolving the dispute over Qatari flights over Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Earlier this year, Qatar sued Riyadh and its allies for $5 billion for blocking Qatar from its airspace. This lawsuit has given Qatar key leverage in the dispute.
Saudi officials have expressed a willingness to compromise on airspace and the UAE aims to ensure that Qatar drops its lawsuits as part of any deal.
An increasingly desperate Iran plays a key role in all Middle East negotiations. Since President Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, the mullahs have grown increasingly weak. The assassination of Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani early this year weakened the Islamic republic’s ability to exert force in the Middle East, and the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic has hit Iran hard.
Last week, someone assassinated one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists, further hobbling the mullahs’ regime. Iran has accused Israel of perpetrating the assassination, although Israel has remained silent about the attack. If Israel did indeed carry out the hit, it seems likely the Jewish state intends to cripple Iran as much as possible before Biden can bail out the Islamic republic.
Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia suggested that Biden’s likely election victory may not have doomed Israel’s attempts to formalize a relationship with Riyadh. Should the Trump administration emerge with an official peace deal before Biden takes office in January, it will mark a crowning achievement that Biden will find difficult to undermine.
In the Abraham Accords, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) normalized relations with Israel. Shortly before the Abraham Accords, Trump brought Muslim-majority Kosovo and Christian-majority Serbia together for a historic agreement that included promises to set up embassies in Jerusalem. Last month, Sudan — which recently ousted a dictator who had supported terrorism for decades — normalized relations with Israel.
Before the Abraham Accords, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia announced they would open their skies to Israeli flights to the UAE. As part of its rapprochement with Israel, the UAE agreed to order hotels to serve Kosher foods in Abu Dhabi, delivering a powerful symbol of Jewish acceptance in a notoriously anti-Semitic part of the world.
These historic diplomatic successes have brought Trump multiple Nobel Prize nominations, but Saudi Arabia would be the jewel in the Trump administration’s Middle East policy crown.
Kushner’s trip may represent the final shot at that historic effort.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.