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The curious case of Jared Kushner and the Israel lobby

Kushner crossed the line from using his First Amendment right to speak freely about government policy into subverting official US foreign policy in favour of Israel

Even before he assumed office, Donald Trump had appointed Jared Kushner to be his point-person on US relations with the Middle East. The latter was specifically charged with forging an Israel-Palestine peace plan, which Trump, in typical flamboyant fashion, called "the ultimate deal".

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Jared Kushner during a ceremony in Riyadh in May 2017 (AFP)
Leaders throughout the region and analysts who’ve devoted much of their lives to pursuing this goal were stunned that the US had charged a young man with no previous experience except negotiating commercial real estate deals with resolving one of the world’s most intractable problems.

Since Kushner, whose family has made significant donations to Israeli settlements, was already known to be heavily pro-Israel in his approach, he determined that the Saudis were the key to unlock the Arab part of the equation. 

So he’s made three visits to the Saudi kingdom in the past year.

He brought his father-in-law on the latter’s first foreign trip as president to visit King Salman and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

This was an astonishing turn in US relations. Although the Saudis are nominal allies, the two countries have had a contentious relationship going all the way back to 9/11

The goal was to flatter and cultivate the Saudi royals, expecting them to “bring along” the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world towards that "ultimate" peace deal. This was an astonishing turn in US relations because, although the Saudis are nominal allies, the two countries have had a contentious relationship going all the way back to 9/11.  

This is in part because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and wealthy Saudi patrons heavily financed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The Trump-Kushner “pivot” toward Saudi Arabia accords with a similar Israeli embrace of the House of Saud due to the two states common enemy: Iran.

In this and other ways, Kushner is placing US Middle East policy in lock-step with Israel. That certainly leaves the Palestinians, among others, out in the cold.

Violating the Logan Act

Many analysts who study the region question whether the US putting all its eggs in the Saudi basket is wise considering the unpopularity of the autocratic-theocratic regime both in the region and the world.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported a new development in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation: did Jared Kushner violate the Logan Act after he lobbied UN Security Council members to sabotage a resolution denouncing Israeli settlements.

The act dates back to the earliest days of the republic. In 1799, America was in its infancy and it was extremely sensitive about foreign meddling in its affairs. The great powers of that day were only too eager to interfere with the domestic and foreign affairs of weaker states if it was in their interest.

For that reason, American legislators passed the Logan Act which prohibited private citizens from becoming agents of foreign states in trying to influence US foreign policy. 

The Act, as it was implemented, became something of a double-edged sword as it enabled the political party in power to target anyone in the opposition who exercised his right to lobby for a particular policy regarding various foreign states.

Eventually, virtually everyone realised that a weapon you used against an opponent could be wielded against you once you were out of power. So the Act fell into limbo. Only one individual was ever charged with violating it and he was never prosecuted.

Harming US interests

But news that Kushner was under suspicion of violating the Act raised interesting issues. Though many US politicians have been accused of being shills for Israel and the Israel lobby holds sway over an enormous number of legislators, and though numerous Americans have been convicted of spying on Israel's behalf, no one has ever been convicted of harming the interests of the US for Israel's sake.

In fact, the rallying cry of the lobby is that there is no difference between Israeli and US interests. In other words, when you work on behalf of Israel's interests, you're also advancing America's. Of course, this is utter nonsense. It turns both countries into awkwardly conjoined Siamese twins.

Kushner is placing US Middle East policy in lock-step with Israel. That certainly leaves the Palestinians, among others, out in the cold

That's certainly what Kushner did in this case: Netanyahu, who initiated the request for Trump's intervention in the UN affair, wanted to fend off the resolution at all costs. It was originally put forward by Egypt.

Palestinians protested at Jared Kushner's visit in Ramallah (AFP)
Because Israel has tremendous leverage over the Egyptian military-led government regarding intelligence-sharing on Sinai Islamists, and because of Israeli attacks in Sinai which have killed militants on Egypt's behalf, the Israeli leader was able to persuade Egyptt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to back off.

But this strategy failed because four other member states stepped forward and sponsored it. Then Netanyahu sought to lobby the Russians and Chinese, who also were unmoved. Running out of cards to play, Netanyahu turned to Trump's right-hand man, Kushner.

Then Trump's camp began working the phones.

Crossing the line

It was clear from Netanyahu on down, and including Trump, that the goal was to destroy the resolution which had the tacit support of the Obama administration.

Though the US in the end abstained, the Obama administration clearly did nothing to stop the resolution - meaning it tacitly supported it. In the past, it had actually vetoed virtually identitcal Security Council proposals.

So, the abstention was quite a bold move for the US. Therefore, Kushner's intervention to kill the resolution crossed the line from using his First Amendment right to speak freely about government policy into subverting official US foreign policy. This is legal ground which has yet to be plowed.

Including the Logan Act in a list of charges against Kushner would not only be novel, it would put the Israel lobby on notice that it had crossed a red line. And that once you cross that line you're actually engaging in criminal behaviour. That would be a first. A shocking shot across the bow that would set the lobby reeling.

However, it is doubtful that Mueller would make the Logan Act a key element of his legal strategy. When you're pursuing a president of the United States, you don't want to dabble in untried or esoteric legal theory.  

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But including a Logan Act violation would be the equivalent of mood music, setting the tone for the overall indictment. In other words, we're talking about high crimes and misdemeanors here, and not run-of-the-mill charges.

Much like a spy who betrays his country, Kushner acted against the best interest of the United States. That's certainly an impeachable offence when and if it comes round to Trump himself.

What Kushner did is to violate a cardinal rule of American life: he showed dual loyalty. This is a canard that anti-Semites used to throw around against Jews. But today, given the eagle-clawed grip the Israel lobby holds over aspects of American politics, dual loyalty is once again a claim raised (and this time validly) against American Jews like Kushner, who put the interests of Israel above those of their native country.

As the guiding force behind the Trump Middle East peace plan, an indictment by the special counsel against Kushner would significantly damage this effort. That might mean that a plan which is already derided by the Palestinians as hopelessly biased in Israel’s favour, might die at birth.

- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner (REUTERS)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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