The Neocolonial Arrogance of the Kushner Plan

(Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

“You cannot do without us,” Lord Curzon condescendingly told the Indians over whom he ruled as British imperial viceroy more than a century ago. As the Trump family rubbed shoulders with the Windsors during their recent visit to London, there was no mistaking the difference between the real aristocracy and the trumped-up one. However, Jared Kushner, presidential son-in-law and senior adviser responsible for crafting a Middle East peace plan, does have something in common with Lord Curzon and his colonial ilk.

In an interview with Axios shown on HBO on June 2, shortly before he arrived in the UK, Kushner cast doubt on the feasibility of independent Palestinian self-rule, declaring, “we’ll have to see,” adding, “the hope is that they over time can become capable of governing.” When asked if Palestinians should ever be able to enjoy freedom from “Israeli government or military interference,” he said only that this was “a high bar.” After suggesting that Kushner had consulted few if any Palestinians over the two years during which his peace plan was in the works, his interviewer asked if he understood why the Palestinians did not trust him. Kushner responded curtly, “I’m not here to be trusted.”

[Bahrain Workshop: Business Over Politics]

This was not the first time the Palestinians have been told they cannot govern themselves, that they are obliged to remain under foreign tutelage, and do not warrant being consulted about their national future. In 1919, another British imperialist, Lord Balfour, wrote—in a confidential memo to Curzon himself—“in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

The 1917 declaration associated with Balfour’s name, the basis of the British Mandate that led to the establishment of Israel, excluded the Palestinians—whom Balfour never mentioned by name—from the political and national rights it accorded to Jews. In the Axios interview, Kushner echoed Balfour’s words, repeatedly excluding Palestinians from political and national rights. Kushner and his colleagues, White House adviser Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, have consistently stressed that theirs is essentially an economic development initiative for the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, meant to operate under existing conditions of almost absolute Israeli control. So far, it has no disclosed political element, except the clear indication that Palestinian statehood and sovereignty are ruled out. All the Palestinians deserve, in Kushner’s view, is “the opportunity to live a better life… the opportunity to pay their mortgage,” under Israel rule. 

Understandably, almost universally, Palestinians—along with many international commentators—see such an approach as simply paving the way to a normalization of never-ending occupation and creeping annexation under conditions of extreme legal discrimination between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs: a situation resembling nothing so much as apartheid South Africa.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Historical Landmarks in the Hundred Years’ War on Palestine]

Astonishingly, for someone who is supposedly a successful businessperson, Kushner is apparently ignorant of the economic consensus that describes a Palestinian economy as strangled primarily by the systematic interference of the Israeli military occupation that he advocates maintaining. The Trump administration has added to this economic stranglehold with its decisions to cut both direct US aid to the West Bank and Gaza and its support for UNRWA. Meanwhile, the US continues to support the Israeli blockade of Gaza, aided by Egypt, with disastrous effects on its 1.8 million people, including chronic power and water shortages, minimal sewage treatment, more than 50 percent unemployment, and a complete lack of freedom of movement.

These are only some of the ways that the administration of which Kushner is part has made its contempt for the Palestinians apparent. In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it has unilaterally taken an issue Israel is treaty-bound to negotiate with the Palestinians off the table, and reversed seventy-plus years of US policy, while ignoring an international consensus that the city’s final status would be subject to a mutually acceptable peace agreement. The Trump administration has also explicitly avoided endorsing a two-state solution or any form of Palestinian sovereignty, positions Kushner reiterated in his interview. It closed the Palestinian mission in Washington, D.C., and cut off US aid to the Palestinian Authority. It claimed that, contrary to the status of all other refugees since World War II, the descendants of Palestinians, declared refugees in 1948, are not themselves refugees. Finally, in endorsing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, the Trump administration has cleared the way for the annexation of whatever parts of the West Bank Israel should choose to swallow up.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | The “Right to Have Rights”: Partition and Palestinian Self-Determination]

Indeed, in a recent interview with The New York Times, Ambassador Friedman, who is reportedly a “driving force” in shaping the Trump Administration’s Middle East policy, stated that Israel has the “right” to annex “some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” Friedman then waxed philosophical: asked whether Kushner’s plan includes a Palestinian state, he mused, “What’s a state?” He concluded by ludicrously comparing the indefinite forcible Israeli occupation of Palestinian land to the treaty-based US military presence in Germany, Japan, and Korea. These declarations are the clearest possible indicator of which way the wind is blowing in Washington.

In exchange for these derogations of Palestinian rights, the Palestinians are to be offered money, collected from the Gulf monarchies, an offer that is presumably to be formalized at a conference in late June in Bahrain. Kushner’s proposal to buy off Palestinian opposition to a plan that obviates a negotiated political settlement is not just arrogant and crass—which is fully in keeping with the track record of his family and his in-laws. It is also no more than a reheated version of similar plans for “economic peace” in lieu of Palestinian rights peddled by Israeli leaders from Shimon Peres to Netanyahu. 

Since the time of the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, Peres, who was committed to the denial of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty, floated various ideas for “economic peace.” The same theme was sounded by Benjamin Netanyahu, starting with the 2009 election, and with growing emphasis ever since, as he has come out increasingly against Palestinian statehood. For Netanyahu and ultranationalist supporters of extremist settlers such as his recent cabinet colleague Naftali Bennett, an economic sweetener for the bitter pill the Palestinians are meant to swallow has become an essential plank in their explicitly annexationist approach. 

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | The Jewish Nation-State Law]

It is no secret that the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government are marching in lockstep, both regarding Palestine and a confrontation with Iran, but what is startling is how much of the White House’s Middle East policy, including the Kushner plan itself, has effectively been outsourced to Netanyahu and his allies in Israel and the US. The Trump administration’s Middle East “initiatives” so far have virtually all come pre-packaged from the Israeli extreme right’s storehouse of ideas, including moving the Jerusalem embassy, recognizing the annexation of the Golan, airily dispensing with the Palestinian refugee issue, trying to liquidate UNRWA, and withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran. There remain a few items on the Netanyahu wish list, including annexation of much of the West Bank, formal American rejection of Palestinian statehood, the creation of a completely tame Palestinian Quisling leadership, and other deplorable ways of coercing the Palestinians to accept that they are a defeated people. 

What Kushner and his colleagues are saying is that the Palestinians have no justified grievances, and no legitimate rights, except the right to whatever prosperity can be achieved with Gulf money under a permanent Israeli military occupation of their land. However, the Kushner plan’s notion of throwing other people’s money at the issue will not make it go away; not when it involves the national, political, civil, and human rights of an estimated 12 million people. As should be clear from political and civil society activism like the international BDS movement, and other forms of resistance in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, among Palestinians inside Israel, and in the Palestinian diaspora, the Palestinian people are not about to be bought off.

The Trump administration has made it clear that while the Israelis are to have ample input into deciding what happens in Palestine, the Palestinians themselves do not deserve to be consulted on their future: in their arrogance, Kushner, Friedman, Greenblatt, and their right-wing Israeli mentors know better. The tired routine of depriving Palestinians of agency, as Kushner’s plan does in a pointed and disrespectful way, has been tried for over a century. It did not work under the British Mandate, it did not work between 1948 and the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s as the Arab regimes tried to impose their tutelage on them, and it has not worked under Israel’s military rule. All that the Palestinians have been allowed by their Israeli overlords, from Menachem Begin in 1977 until Benjamin Netanyahu today, are severely constrained and largely cosmetic degrees of “self-rule” under the Israeli thumb. This is manifestly all Kushner is willing to offer.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Taking the Land without the People: The 1967 Story as Told by the Law]  

The status quo of military occupation and colonization that Kushner proposes to extend indefinitely is entirely at odds with decades of stated US policy, and with every principle of freedom, justice and equity the United States is supposed to stand for. It brings the United States into disrepute to allow its policy to be framed by such a trifling figure, acting under the influence of the retrograde ideas of the Israeli right. 

While Jared Kushner’s hobnobbing with royalty in London may have turned his head, whether he knows it or not, the days of Lord Curzon and Lord Balfour are long gone, the colonial era is over. With the neocolonial plans they have concocted for the Palestinians, he and his Israeli allies are swimming against the tide of history.

This article first appeared in the New York Review of Books.

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About Rashid Khalidi 11 Articles
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, is the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He is the author of several journal articles and books, most recently Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.