Jared Kushner (left) and Tarek Masoud.

Jared Kushner (left) and Tarek Masoud.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Kushner speaks from Middle East experience in Kennedy School forum

Ex-Trump adviser criticizes Biden’s pre-Oct. 7 engagement in the region, defends Israel’s actions in Gaza

4 min read

As he planned the Kennedy School’s spring semester Middle East Dialogues, Tarek Masoud, director of the School’s Middle East Initiative, had in mind people with “varied and vital perspectives” on how to bring prosperity and peace to the region. First on his list was Jared Kushner ’03.

“That’s because he was the architect of the Abraham Accords, which I personally believe to be one of the most significant developments in the Middle East in recent memory,” Masoud, also the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance, said Thursday before a conversation with Kushner at the Kennedy School.

“And he’s just generally a dealmaker par excellence. And if there’s any part of the world that I think needs really excellent dealmakers right now, I think it’s the Middle East.”

Kushner served as a senior adviser to his father-in-law, former President Donald Trump, from 2017 to 2021 and is credited with brokering the 2020 Abraham Accords — six landmark agreements between Israel and Arab nations. The Trump administration’s success in the Middle East followed “a decade and a half of massive mismanagement” in the region, he said.

“We inherited a really, really bad hand,” Kushner told Masoud. The foreign policy of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations “did not achieve great results and made the world a lot less safe.”

Kushner said that by the time he left Washington, in January 2021, the Middle East was “calm and had momentum,” both from the accords and resolution of a 2017 blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Addressing the conflict in Gaza, he said that Israel has “a right to defend itself” and had “no choice” but to invade the territory after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 Israelis. Pushing back on criticism of assaults that have killed nearly 30,000 people since the start of the war, he said that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been “smart to move slowly and deliberately” in Gaza.

A small group of pro-Palestinian protestors briefly disrupted the event.

“I think Israel’s gone way more out of their way than a lot of other countries would to try to protect civilians from casualties,” Kushner added, saying the country has long been “used as a scapegoat” by leaders in the region “to deflect from their own shortcomings at home.”

He called a future Palestinian state “a worthy objective,” but said the Biden administration squandered momentum for a resolution built up during the Trump years by failing to put enough energy into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the Oct. 7 massacre.

Kushner, who counts Netanyahu as a family friend, was asked by Masoud about the tension between his own view of the prime minister as a “catalyst for change” and that of critics who have called him an obstacle to peace.

“I understood his complications, I understood his flaws, and I understood his brilliance,” and was comfortable working with difficult people so he was able “to get the best out of him” in order to accomplish what was in America’s best interests, Kushner said.

Kushner was an executive in his family’s New Jersey real estate firm before joining his father-in-law’s administration in part to oversee U.S. relations with the Middle East. Critics noted his lack of foreign policy experience, which Kushner conceded was a hindrance when he first arrived in Washington. But being so green also helped him see Middle East dynamics with “fresh eyes,” he said. He cited his deal-making skills and business background as key to spurring consensus.

Asked to explain his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who put $2 billion in Kushner’s new investment fund shortly after he left the White House in 2021, Kushner described him as “a friend” who is pushing ambitious reforms in order to realize the kingdom’s full economic potential and to inspire a new generation of Saudis.

The 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence said bin Salman ordered, a claim he denies, was “an absolutely terrible situation,” Kushner said, one the U.S. media became “fixated on” at the expense of covering dramatic changes that have taken place in Saudi Arabia over the last five years.

“American journalists are not paying attention to what’s happening there,” he said. “And it’s one of the most exciting transformations in the world.”