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'Fuming' Trump considered backing Gantz in Israel election, Kushner says

In an upcoming book, Jared Kushner, former advisor to Donald Trump, says Netanyahu acted without White House support announcing Israel's plan to annex the West Bank
Left to right: Benjamin Netanyahu, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Sara Netanyahu applaud during the inaugural event of the Abraham Accords Caucus, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on 11 October 2021 (AFP)

Former US President Donald Trump contemplated endorsing then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main political rival, Benny Gantz, ahead of Israel’s March 2020 election, writes Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and then-senior adviser at the White House, in his new book.

Trump grew frustrated with Netanyahu following a speech the Israeli leader made at the White House claiming the US president would recognise Israel’s sovereignty over much of the West Bank, and that as a result, Israel would annex all of the West Bank settlements and take the Jordan Valley, according to excerpts from Kushner’s book, Breaking History: A White House Memoir, set to be published on 23 August.

“Trump was still fuming over Bibi’s speech. In fact, he had asked me whether he should take the unusual step of endorsing the prime minister’s political rival, Benny Gantz,” Kushner writes.

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The White House deal would have essentially stripped East Jerusalem from being the capital of a future Palestinian state (without the right to a military) which would encompass about 70 percent of the West Bank, a handful of neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, most of the besieged Gaza Strip, and some areas of southern Israel. 

In exchange, Israel would annex its settlements in the West Bank and establish sovereignty over the Jordan Valley while having overriding security control west of the Jordan River. The agreement would also have barred Palestinian refugees from re-settling in their ancestral homes in what is today Israel, thus denying the "right of return", a core Palestinian demand.

Kushner says that US recognition of Israel’s claims would have been conditioned on the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Netanyahu scuttled the timeline in his January 2020 speech at the White House.

“In both tone and substance, the speech was way off the mark. It contained nothing magnanimous or conciliatory toward the Palestinians. It was essentially a campaign speech for his domestic political audience, and it misrepresented our plan,” he adds.

Kushner said he was concerned the speech would torpedo his efforts to garner the support of Arab countries for the deal, three of whom sent ambassadors to the event.

“I had walked them through the peace proposal and given them my word that Trump would present a dignified and balanced proposal – one that required compromises on both sides. But that certainly wasn’t the deal Bibi was describing,” he writes.

'I haven't spoken to him since'

Kushner goes on to claim that David Friedman, the then-US ambassador to Israel, took it upon himself to promise Netanyahu that Trump backed his plans to annex large parts of the West Bank, without consulting with the White House.

“As it turned out, Ambassador David Friedman had assured Bibi that he would get the White House to support annexation more immediately. He had not conveyed this to me or anyone on my team,” Kushner writes.

At the ceremony, Friedman told reporters that Israel “does not have to wait at all” on annexation and could begin the process as soon they obtained "internal approvals".

Kushner says he had a heated confrontation with Friedman at the ceremony, who told the president’s son-in-law that the White House should “stay ambiguous and let Bibi say what he wants”.

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“’You haven’t spoken to a single person from a country outside of Is­rael,’ Kushner replied.

"You don’t have to deal with the Brits, you don’t have to deal with the Moroccans, and you don’t have to deal with the Saudis or the Emiratis, who are all trusting my word and putting out statements. I have to deal with the fallout of this. You don’t,’” he writes.

Friedman’s account of the events in his memoir, Sledgehammer, contradicts Kushner’s description of the events.

Yet Trump appeared to indicate at the ceremony that he was open to Israel annexing the West Bank ahead of a deal with the Palestinians.

He called for a joint committee to be formed between the US and Israel “to convert the [peace plan’s] conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition [of Israeli sovereignty] can be immediately achieved”.

Netanyahu and Trump were viewed as close allies during their mutual tenure, particularly after the Israeli leader’s fraught relations with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

But the two appeared to fall out after Trump’s 2020 defeat when Netanyahu congratulated Biden, a close friend, on his victory.

"I haven’t spoken to him since," Trump said of the former Israeli prime minister. "F**k him.”

'Middle East on fire'

Kushner also documents his interactions with other Middle Eastern leaders in the book, including a budding friendship with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

According to a partial review of the book by the WSJ, Kushner forged a relationship with the 36-year-old crown prince as he prepared for Trump’s visit to the kingdom, which was Trump’s first trip overseas as president.

“Everyone here is telling me that I’m a fool for trusting you,” Mr Kushner said he told the crown prince. “They are saying the trip is a terrible idea. If I get to Saudi Arabia, and it’s just a bunch of sand and camels, I’m a dead man.”

Kushner also defends his relationship with Mohammed Bin Salman, following the murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

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“While this situation was terrible, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the reforms that MBS was implementing were having a positive impact on millions of people in the kingdom—especially women.”

But Kushner’s close relations with the crown prince and his work on Israel also put him on a collision course with Trump’s then-secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who opposed moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and accused Kushner of favouring Saudi Arabia in its rift with Qatar.

“You are lighting a match in a dry forest, and the whole Middle East is on fire,” Tillerson said, according to the book. “You might as well go before the Senate for confirmation because you are going to cause a war, and I am not going to be the one to be blamed for it.”

Kushner also reveals that the Qatari leader, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was open to establishing formal relations with Israel and emphasised areas where his country was “cooperating constructively” with Israel, according to Jewish Insider.

“Tamim expressed openness to doing so at the right time,” Kushner wrote.

Those efforts were stymied by a diplomatic standoff Qatar was engaged in with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Kushner says, Al Thani “wanted to solve the blockade with Saudi Arabia first”, before pursuing relations with Israel. 

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