Kushner’s security downgrade will hinder but not halt his Mideast peace role

The United States’ efforts to broker an elusive peace to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict are now being led by a White House official who has been stripped of his access to top secret information.

The access of President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner to top secret and sensitive compartmented information was — for now, temporarily — revoked amid a series of reforms to the security clearance process led by the White House chief of staff.

But five former top US officials who have tackled Middle East peace before Kushner told CNN they believe he will be able to continue overseeing the US peace efforts and to engage in direct negotiations — even if it makes his task more difficult.

“Honestly, over the years in all the negotiations I did, I found that the intelligence is not as important as the direct meetings. The intelligence was not a big factor when it came to doing the negotiations themselves,” said Dennis Ross, who served as a US envoy to the peace process under Republican and Democratic administrations. “It’s not to say it wouldn’t help him.”

Ross’ assessment was generally shared by four other former US envoys and ambassadors to the region who have sought to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the officials also agreed that it was unusual — if not unprecedented — for the US official spearheading the peace negotiations to not have a top-level security clearance.

White House chief of staff John Kelly also says Kushner will be able to perform the task, saying he has “full confidence in (Kushner’s) ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio, including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.”

Lost access

Still, with his security clearance status downgraded, Kushner will no longer be able to access a host of classified information that could enhance his understanding of the security conditions and sensitive US and foreign activities in the delicate Middle East. And he can no longer be present for discussions about information classified as top secret or sensitive compartmented information, and foreign officials could be unwilling to discuss highly classified intelligence they have collected.

A key first test of Kushner’s ability to oversee the peace process in spite of the changes could come Monday, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House for discussions with Trump.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who tackled peace negotiations during the Clinton and Obama administrations, said Kushner’s lost access will make his job “more difficult” but that it’s “not a critical setback.”

“What matters to the actors out in the region more than whether he has the confidence of the intelligence community is whether he has the confidence of the President. The fact that he is the son-in-law of the President gives him a lot of cachet in the region,” Indyk said. “I have no doubt that he can still do his job — and of course his aides will have access.”

Elliott Abrams, who was a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, said in an email he believes Kushner “will be fully capable of continuing to oversee American involvement in the peace process” because his secret-level clearance will allow him “to see 100% of the diplomatic reporting.”

A disadvantage

Kushner, alongside Trump’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt, has spent the last year meeting with key actors in the region and formulating a peace proposal the US plans to soon present to Israeli and Palestinian officials.

But before launching into that endeavor, Kushner had never before served in government nor had tackled Middle East peace negotiations in any other capacity — a relatively fledgling status that Aaron David Miller, a former US negotiator on Middle East peace, said makes Kushner’s loss of access to classified information a particularly troublesome blow.

“You can develop a real feel for how Israelis and Palestinians are going to respond, but that takes years of immersion. For a guy who is just coming into this cold, the classified intel can be important,” Miller said. “The Israeli-Palestinian negotiation isn’t going to play out in a vacuum.”

Miller said he worried that Kushner’s diminished access to classified information will put him at a disadvantage in speaking with Israeli and Arab officials with the latest classified intelligence — and in his ability to critically assess that foreign intelligence.

But Kushner’s downgraded access may not be a problem in the short term.

The White House has said Kushner and Greenblatt are in the process of “finalizing” their peace plan but have yet to present it to Israeli and Palestinian officials — meaning detailed negotiations are still a long way off, if they ever take place.

“In any negotiation, the devil’s going to be in the details at the end of the day. The President doesn’t need to know all those details, but your negotiator does because the other parties do know them,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a career US diplomat who served as US ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.

For now, though, the issue is theoretical. Experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have little hope that the latest US effort to broker peace will gain traction.

In the wake of the US decision late last year to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinian officials have rejected the US’ role as an honest broker in the peace process. And the US in return has begun to withhold millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians. In Israel, meanwhile, the prime minister’s political fate is uncertain after Israeli police said there was “sufficient evidence” to indict him on criminal corruption charges.

And the gaps in the Israeli and Palestinian positions on key issues related to the peace process appear as wide as ever.

“Whether Jared Kushner has access to classified information or not is not going to bring him any closer to solving the mission impossible. What it will do is allow him, presumably, to be credible, to be seen to be knowledgeable, to know what he doesn’t know and to be professional about this,” Miller said. “This is going to make mission impossible even harder.”