Kushner's foreign policy gamble fuels Tillerson feud

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Story highlights

  • Kushner's gamble is dividing the administration
  • Tillerson is especially fearful about what he sees as a dangerous strategy

Washington (CNN)Jared Kushner is betting that his relationship with Saudi Arabia's new crown prince is the key to brokering a Middle East peace deal and tamping down any Arab uprising that results from controversial moves in Israel the Trump administration could announce as early as this week, according to multiple sources familiar with the White House senior adviser's strategy.

It's a gamble that's dividing the administration at a time when President Donald Trump is staring down multiple foreign policy crises, including the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who would typically take the lead on such a major foreign policy initiative, is especially fearful about what he sees as a dangerous strategy being advocated by Kushner to pursue a Middle East peace agreement with Saudi support that results in the creation of a Palestinian state and normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors in exchange for US acquiescence for the crown prince's ambitious plans to reform his country and counter Iran in the region.
    Trump tapped Kushner, his 36-year-old son-in-law and senior adviser, to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which the President has called the "ultimate deal."
    During rare remarks on the issue Sunday at the annual Saban Forum convening Israeli and US policymakers, scholars and influencers, Kushner said a peace deal was a prerequisite to achieving stability in the volatile region.
    "If we're going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole, you have to solve this issue," Kushner said.
    Jared Kushner gets personal
    Jared Kushner personal Saban forum bts_00000000

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      Jared Kushner gets personal

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    Jared Kushner gets personal 01:25
    US officials have said the White House is drafting plans for a peace deal to submit to the parties early next year. Kushner, according to several sources familiar with his thinking, is confident Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the heir to the throne, can convene the Palestinians to accept the administration's proposals and stop Sunnis throughout the region from revolting.

    Kushner's first test

    Kushner's strategy will face its first test as soon as Tuesday when Trump is expected to announce that the US will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but will hold off -- for now -- on moving the American embassy there. The declaration could trigger waves of protest throughout the Arab community.
    Kushner would only say Sunday that Trump will make an announcement about Jerusalem "at the right time." White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders told CNN in a statement that Trump is "very pleased with the engagement and progress being made by his team managing the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio and is supportive of their efforts, including travel to the region and ongoing discussions with counterparts."
    Bloomberg News reported Friday that Kushner has been leaving Tillerson and the State Department in the dark on his diplomatic discussions. Several State Department officials confirm that Kushner has been tight-lipped about his strategy, but other administration officials say he briefs Tillerson regularly. Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Kushner is running a "transparent interagency process."
    The dispute over how to approach the region is the latest example of Kushner and Tillerson vying for influence over US foreign policy and comes at a perilous moment for both men.
    Reports surfaced last week that the White House is planning to replace Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the current director of the CIA, which Tillerson and Trump later denied. Tillerson supporters believe the speculation about his future was fueled by Kushner's allies. Several White House officials said Kushner had nothing to do with the reports and was unaware of any plan to oust Tillerson.
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    Kushner, meanwhile, is becoming ensnared in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Multiple sources tell CNN that Kushner is the "very senior member" of Trump's transition team who directed incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn to contact the Russian ambassador to the United States and other countries about a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements. An attorney for Kushner didn't respond to a request for comment on that development.

    Kushner and bin Salman

    As the administration turns its attention to the Middle East this week, Kushner's close relationship with bin Salman is at the heart of the tension with Tillerson, multiple sources said.
    Tillerson is worried that bin Salman is trying to use his country's political cooperation and economic support for the peace process to obtain a blank check from the White House to confront Iran and make bold reforms in the kingdom.
    Shortly after a quiet visit to Saudi Arabia last month, during which Kushner was holed up with the young prince for hours, bin Salman summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh, where he resigned his post in what he said was an effort to highlight Iranian intervention in Lebanon. He has since postponed the decision after returning to Beirut.
    That same day, dozens of Saudi princes, ministers and businessmen were arrested as part of what bin Salman has called a campaign to root out corruption. The White House said Kushner did not get any advance warning of the crown prince's moves, but hours later Trump tweeted his support for bin Salman and his father, the king.
    Kushner and Tillerson have also clashed over the White House's support for Saudi Arabia's campaign against Qatar, which the Gulf states accuse of hosting terrorists. While Kushner has sided with bin Salman in the feud, Tillerson is defending Qatar, which hosts a massive US military base, and warning Riyadh and other Gulf countries against pursuing regime change.
    During a meeting last week with the crown prince of Bahrain, Tillerson was said to be particularly tough in calling out Gulf countries, including Bahrain, for funding anti-Qatari propaganda, according to several State Department officials familiar with the discussions. Tillerson bluntly warned the crown prince that the US would defend Qatar if the country was attacked.
    Jason Greenblatt, an international negotiator appointed by Trump, denied the administration is pursuing a "grand bargain" deal in the Middle East.
    "While we have obviously discussed economic support for a potential peace deal from many countries, not just Saudi Arabia, we have never discussed specific numbers with other countries and we have not linked a deal to Qatar," he said in a statement to CNN.

    In over his head?

    More broadly, several sources familiar with Tillerson's thinking say he simply thinks Kushner is in over his head and does not understand the complexity of the Middle East.
    "He doesn't believe that Jared understands the tinder box that is the Middle East," one senior aide said. "These are people who have been waiting around for a weak link to manipulate."
    Another senior administration official said Tillerson's opposition is less about working with Saudi Arabia and more about the abilities and bold ambitions of the 32-year-old crown prince, who is sometimes referred to as MBS.
    "He thinks Jared is moving too fast and that MBS is too young," the official said. "You can't begrudge a guy of that age and experience for thinking that way. He is cautious."
    The same official said Kushner is attracted to bin Salman because he views the crown prince as a reformer. Kushner worked closely with bin Salman on Trump's May visit to Saudi Arabia, helped broker an arms deal to Saudi Arabia worth nearly $100 million and traveled to the kingdom several times.
    "It's a gamble and it's not going to be pretty," the senior administration official said. "But the President supports this gamble. He has been to Riyadh and backed his support for MBS. There are going to be some disagreements about how this is all implemented."
    Dan Shapiro, a top Mideast adviser and US ambassador to Israel under former President Barack Obama, said Kushner may be too optimistic about whether the crown prince will be able to deliver the regional agreement Kushner is pushing for.
    "MBS is trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern world and is leading an energetic foreign policy that we have long wanted from Saudi leaders," said Shapiro, who is now at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv-based think tank. "There is something attractive about that. But it is very early in this experiment to know if he can successfully overcome the opposition at home, deliver the Palestinians or make Saudi Arabia effective on the various battlefields they face."

    Gaining confidence

    Others say that, despite his relative lack of foreign policy experience, Kushner isn't necessarily brokering a bad deal. Kushner and Greenblatt have gained the confidence of all the players in the region by consulting with leaders throughout the Middle East. Some Arab diplomats argue Tillerson, in contrast, has been less involved.
    One diplomat said Kushner is deftly juggling competing interests, including the US allegiance to Israel, Trump's promises to his base on moving the US embassy and relationships with the Gulf. He has to do this, the diplomat said, without alienating the Palestinians in a way that jeopardizes efforts at a lasting peace deal. And Kushner is doing all this with an eye toward helping Trump win re-election in 2020.
    "The guy has been given a mission and it's a challenge," the diplomat said. "It's easy to say he isn't experienced, but he is a smart kid. He knows how to analyze the situation."