10 takeaways from Kushner’s appearance at Saban Forum

The most anticipated session on the schedule for this past weekend’s Saban Forum featured White House senior advisor Jared Kushner in conversation with Haim Saban. The appearance was Kushner’s first opportunity to publicly discuss the Trump admin’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As can often be the case with overhyped events, some attendees were underwhelmed with the lack of news that Kushner made. However, those paying close attention were able to pick up some takeaways. Here were a few key moments.

1. Why did he show up? Kushner was clearly not interested in making much news. Given the recent developments regarding former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s plea with lying to the FBI, Kushner’s strategy seemed to be one of projecting extreme confidence that everything is ok. Of note, Kushner’s attorney Abbe Lowell was seen in attendance. Although sources claimed to Politico’s Annie Karni that his presence was “simply in Lowell’s off-the-clock capacity as a longtime figure in Washington’s power Jewish community, not as a legal representative.”

2. Making amends with the experts: Back in August, a recording of Kushner addressing Congressional interns was leaked. Yesterday, at the Saban Forum, the President’s son-in-law appeared eager to make up for those comments in which he criticized the Middle East experts who had preceded him. “We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books,” Kushner said at the time. At the forum yesterday, Kushner was overly respectful of the Middle East experts and former diplomats in the room, stressing a number of times, including in his brief opening remarks, “It’s really an honor to be able to talk about this topic with so many people who I respect so much, who have given so much to this issue.” 

3. … that strategy took away a potential talking point: Given that Kushner had a clear objective to show respect for the experts gathered, when he was later pressed by Saban on his team’s lack of experience, instead of noting how the ‘so-called experts’ have failed until now, Kushner declared “it’s a perfectly qualified team.”

REPEAT THAT, WILL YA — Saban: “I don’t know how you’ve lasted eight months with this lineup, and it’s impressive that it’s still going. There’s not a Middle East macher in this group. I mean, how do you operate with people who basically — you know, with all due respect, are a bunch of Orthodox Jews who have no idea about anything? What are you guys doing? Seriously I don’t understand this.” Kushner: “I’ll definitely say it’s not a conventional team.” Saban: “Oh, you can say that again, yeah absolutely.” Kushner: “That’s what I said.” Saban: “Well, say it again.” Kushner: “Okay. It’s a perfectly qualified team in the way Haim sees it.” Saban: “How is that?” Kushner: “No, no, I was joking.” [Video]  

4. Beating expectations in one area: The 36-year-old senior advisor even deployed some humor, at one point pretending to pull the administration’s secret peace plan out of his jacket pocket. “We know what’s in plan, the Palestinians know what discussions we’ve had with them, the Israelis know what discussions we’ve had with them,” Kushner stated until Saban interrupted him: ‘So, you can tell us.’ “Okay, so let me start,” Kushner said with a serious face and reaching out to his pocket. He then added with a smile, “We are not going to disclose that today.”

5. Unique recollections on how Kushner and Saban met: During the 33-minute conversation, Saban recalled how he first met Kushner. “We have a guy who runs our foundation, and one day he calls me up and he says, ‘I am putting some documents in storage and there’s a letter from Jared Kushner – from 2010 – praising you.’ I said, ‘Praising me? I don’t know who the guy is. I never answered that letter.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it was about an article — which I hated – in the New Yorker – they shredded me to pieces — and he loved it.’ … And I said, ‘Oops, here we go.’ So I called Jared, and he was very gracious… This is how we met, and and I’m glad I did so. We became friends and we exchange ideas on an ongoing basis.”

Kushner decided to give his version and, in the eyes of some attendees, might have suggested that perhaps Saban wasn’t as confident that Hillary Clinton would win and therefore sought a relationship with the Trump son-in-law. “We were in the middle of a presidential campaign, and needless to say we were on slightly different sides. And then I got a call from Haim Saban, and I said, “What the hell is going on here?’” Kushner recounted. “You said to me, ‘I am very concerned [about the US-Israel relationship]. I don’t know much about Trump and I don’t know what this means for Israel.’ I remember saying that you should hope that Trump wins if you care about the U.S.-Israel relationship because there’d be no better president who could strengthen the relationship and try to cause change in the region if Trump wins, and so I’m not going to put you on the spot at the forum and ask you if in retrospect you’re happy with the outcome or not.” 

6. Not just the Middle East: Kushner made sure to mention his work in strengthening the U.S. – Mexican relationship and noted that it was another issue he and Saban care deeply about. 

7. Is MBS focused on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict? Kushner claimed that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) cares deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. “The Saudis care a lot about the Palestinian people, they believe the Palestinian people need to have hope and opportunity, and this has been a big priority for the King and the Crown Prince,” he said. In a panel earlier in the day at the Saban Forum, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman disputed the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ranks high on the Crown Prince’s list of concerns. “When I first started going to Saudi Arabia in the 90s, you know, you couldn’t go to a private home and the first thing on the table wasn’t Israelis and Palestinians. Today, you can’t go to private home and the first question isn’t ‘red wine or white wine?’ Okay?” Friedman said. “I was there for three days (last month), I didn’t hear the Israel-Palestine thing come up at all, and I tried to engage [MBS] on that; he wouldn’t bite.”

8. Bringing Linkage Back: Kushner also appeared to revitalize the “linkage” theory that peace is key to solving the broader problems of the Middle East. “I think that if we’re going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole, this issue has to be solved,” he asserted. 

9. What will happen with the Embassy? On the eve of another deadline on the Jerusalem Embassy Act, Kushner said that Trump is still deliberating whether to announce the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. “The president will make his decision. He is still looking at a lot of different facts. He’ll make sure he does that at the right time.”

10. The White House’s approach to other “issues” getting in the way of the ultimate deal: “We’ve been very focused on the deal.. You see a lot of reasons why this deal can go south very quickly, and there’s a ton of distractions that come up. My team deals every month with maybe three or four different issues that that’ll come up, and everyone says this is the end of it, if it doesn’t work, and I tell my guys – we’re not chasing rabbits. And they will say, ‘These aren’t rabbits, these are elephants. These are big deals.’ I say that means they’re slower, we’ll get to them after. But a lot of the issues that come up on a daily basis are because of not having a final-status agreement. We try to stay focused on solving the bigger issues.” Question on our mind: Which issues was Kushner referring to? Is it the Taylor Force Act or moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or reconciliation with Hamas?

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