Optimism, obstacles on Kushner's M-E trip

Mr Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the US President, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt. Both men gave no public hint of bilateral discord as they grinned and shook hands for the media.
Mr Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the US President, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt. Both men gave no public hint of bilateral discord as they grinned and shook hands for the media.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • In his first solo trip to the broader Middle East as United States President Donald Trump's designated peacemaker, Mr Jared Kushner has found both cause for optimism and reminders of just what a daunting task his father-in-law has given him.

Over the course of two days, he met leaders from several influential Arab countries and emerged encouraged by their stated eagerness to help him bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

But his meeting on Wednesday with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt showed how other issues can easily complicate the initiative as both sides sought to paper over a dispute over US aid.

Just a day earlier, the US cut or delayed nearly US$300 million (S$409 million) in aid to Egypt, a symbolic blow to a strategic relationship that has been a pillar of US policy in the Middle East for almost four decades. It was also a sign of growing impatience on the part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who does not share Mr Trump's affinity for Mr el-Sissi.

The Egyptian leader and Mr Kushner gave no public hint of discord as they grinned and shook hands for the benefit of news photographers; Mr el-Sissi's office later issued a lengthy statement praising ties between the two nations.

Mr Tillerson tightened the purse strings to signal displeasure with Mr el-Sissi for several reasons. One was a harsh law enacted by Mr el-Sissi in May, making it virtually impossible for some non-governmental organisations to operate freely in Egypt. The other was Egypt's close relationship with North Korea, which stretches back to the 1970s but has become a serious irritant amid the recent surge in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

But this was Mr Kushner's first trip to see leaders from Arab states he considers critical to resolving the generations-old conflict in the Middle East. In addition to Mr el-Sissi, Mr Kushner met King Abdullah II of Jordan, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Accompanied by Mr Jason Greenblatt, the President's special representative, and Ms Dina Powell, the President's deputy national security adviser, Mr Kushner arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday in advance of meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

In their meetings with Mr Kushner, Arab leaders signalled readiness to cooperate, forgoing the usual grievances against Israel and instead, focusing on their common interests, according to officials from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline 'Optimism, obstacles on Kushner's M-E trip'. Print Edition | Subscribe