White House senior advisor to the president Jared Kushner made a public appearance in Washington on Sunday despite being at the center of several overlapping controversies that appear to have widened in recent days. At the Saban Forum, an annual conference on Middle East politics and the U.S.–Israel relationship organized by the Brookings Institution, Kushner studiously avoided saying anything controversial about recent events or anything even slightly newsworthy about his efforts to reach what his father-in-law has called the “ultimate deal.”
The biggest news might have been that Kushner showed up at all. His appearance came one day after former national security adviser Michael Flynn reached a plea agreement that appeared to implicate Kushner in his back-channel contacts with Russia during the transition. It’s been reported that Kushner was the “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team who directed Flynn to contact the ambassador from Russia and other countries about an impending U.N. vote on Israeli settlements last December. Kushner also reportedly played a role in the abortive ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week, which has now apparently been put on hold.
Despite all that, it was clear from the beginning that the onstage interview with the conference’s sponsor, Israeli American media mogul and philanthropist Haim Saban, wasn’t going to be tough sledding for Kushner. Acknowledging that Kushner has “been in the news, the last few days,” Saban thanked his guest for his lobbying on Israel’s behalf during the transition, saying, “as far as I know, there’s nothing illegal there.” This prompted a spattering of light applause from the pro-Israel crowd at the Willard InterContinental Hotel, which included former Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. There was no other mention of the Flynn investigation.
Kushner also declined to comment on reports that President Trump plans to announce next week that he will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy from Tel Aviv, a controversial move that would likely enrage Palestinians and could complicate Kushner’s diplomatic efforts. “He’s still looking at a lot of different facts,” Kushner said. “When he makes his decision, he’ll be the one to tell you, not me.” There was no mention of his widely reported clashes with Tillerson.
Saban, a major Democratic Party donor who supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, was chummy with his guest, telling the story of how they met and pitching softballs about how he and his wife, Ivanka Trump, were adjusting to life in Washington. He did mildly needle Kushner about his team’s qualifications, calling them “real estate lawyers” and “a bunch of orthodox Jews who have no idea about anything,” noting that “there’s not a Middle East macher in this group,” using a Yiddish word for an influential power player.
Kushner conceded that “it’s not a conventional team.” “We’ve gone out of our way to do a lot of listening,” he said. In a room full of peace-process veterans, Kushner made a point to praise past efforts to reach a deal, though he added, “We’ve been very deliberate about not setting time frames, not doing what’s been done before.”
Kushner expressed hope that if the Israeli–Palestinian issue were resolved, Israel could find common ground with other Middle East countries, saying they now see Israel as “a much more natural ally today than 20 years ago” because of common concerns about Iranian influence and ISIS. Acknowledging that the Palestinian issue has been an obstacle to wider regional diplomatic goals may have been the closest thing to a newsworthy statement at the event.
Kushner said that the Israeli–Palestinian issue is “very personal to” his father-in-law. “He’s sees this as very integral to America and to his personal values,” Kushner said. As for the scrutiny he’s received from the media, he said, “I don’t let it bother me. There are people who are good at dealing with the media. My focus is on the objectives.”
The session wrapped up several minutes early without any questions from the crowd or reporters.