Who is Avi Berkowitz, Trump's millennial Middle East envoy?
Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz attend the TIME 100 Summit 2019 in New York City [File: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for TIME]
Washington, DC – One of the main architects of US President Donald Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan is resigning and one of the individuals set to take his place is a 30-year-old aide with little to no major foreign policy experience.
US officials announced last week that Jason Greenblatt, US special envoy to the Middle East, will leave the Trump administration after the US peace plan for the Israelis and Palestinians is released, which is expected after the September 17 Israeli elections.
Taking on his duties will be Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, and Avi Berkowitz, a little-known young aide of Jared Kushner who, until his promotion, reportedly handled everything from ushering foreign officials around to attending to his boss’s phone calls while he was in meetings.
Greenblatt’s decision to leave the White House was announced only days ahead of the firing of Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a hawk on Middle East policy. Both of these departures add to the great uncertainty for the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan, often referred to as the “Deal of the Century”.
While the economic portion of the plan reached the public in June – drawing significant criticism from Palestinian officials and analysts as fundamentally unactionable – it is unclear if the rest of the plan, once released, will lead to substantive negotiations.
Regardless, Berkowitz will likely play a significant role after the plan’s release but, with minimal experience beyond attending to Kushner’s day-to-day needs, some analysts argue the young aide’s appointment means very little apart from ensuring that negotiations surrounding Middle East peace remain firmly within the grasp of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.
The Berkowitz-Kushner relationship
Until recently, Berkowitz has remained one of the more discreet members of the Trump entourage. Press reports frequently describe him as a glorified coffee runner, responsible for little else outside of Jared Kushner’s schedule and general comfort.
“Officially a special assistant to the president and assistant to the senior adviser, Berkowitz is Kushner’s right-hand man in the White House,” explained a Business Insider profile in 2017. Quoted in that same article, Hope Hicks, then-White House director of strategic communications, said Berkowitz’s job “was primarily administrative and involved assisting Kushner with daily logistics like getting coffee or coordinating meetings”.
What Berkowitz – who graduated from Harvard Law School only three years ago – lacks in experience and gravitas, he appears to make up for in what counts most for the Trump family: loyalty and close personal ties.
Berkowitz’s relationship with the Trump family began during his undergraduate years at New York City’s Queens College, when he travelled to Phoenix, Arizona, to take part in a Passover celebration, according to Business Insider. There, he met Jared Kushner, soon-to-be Donald Trump’s son-in-law and, reportedly, the two quickly became good friends.
Kushner and Berkowitz appear to have a lot in common. Both were raised in Jewish homes outside New York City, Kushner in New Jersey, and Berkowitz in Long Island. Both have strong lifelong ties to Israel.
Kushner, an Orthodox Jew whose father was a real estate developer and a major donor to pro-Israeli causes, once slept in his family’s basement as a teenager in order to let Benjamin Netanyahu sleep in his bedroom. Berkowitz was also raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, speaks fluent Hebrew, and lived in Israel for two years as a teenager.
As their friendship blossomed, Berkowitz began working for Kushner in various capacities, including writing articles for his newspaper, the New York Observer, between 2013 and 2016.
Berkowitz would go on to work for the Trump campaign, producing “Trump Tower Live” a Facebook live discussion show the New York Times would dismiss as “essentially agitprop presented as news”.
As far as his personal politics go, Berkowitz’s former classmates described him in a Business Insider profile as generally quiet about his views, though his articles at the Observer reveal a preoccupation with political correctness and the threat of liberal values to conservative speech.
From Trump Tower, Berkowitz followed Kushner to the White House as an assistant, a role frequently described as low-level. A member of the Trump administration quoted anonymously by Politico expressed surprise at Berkowitz’s promotion.
“People will walk past his desk and he constantly has the Drudge Report and Twitter up. No one thinks of him as a policy person,” the administration official told a Politico reporter, adding “He is in the service of Jared, not Trump… Some people are scratching their heads to watch this guy go from keeping Jared’s schedule and secrets to brokering peace in the Middle East.”
However, while relatively minor, Berkowitz’s involvement with the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan isn’t without precedent. According to Reuters news agency, Berkowitz is one of few people with access to the unreleased plan and in September 2018, he helped Greenblatt and Kushner organise a private dinner for Jewish leaders in New York to discuss the Israel-Palestine issue.
‘No real interest for just resolution’
Responses to Berkowitz’s appointment have generally underlined his lack of experience.
“If Avi Berkowitz is [Greenblatt’s] replacement it’s a considerable downgrade in the position. He’s Kushner’s 29-year-old assistant. Nice guy but does not have the weight or experience of Trump’s former real estate lawyer,” tweeted Martin Indyk, former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014 and distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Indyk also described Greenblatt as “a well-intentioned person who dedicated himself to an effort that was hopeless from the outset”.
Other analysts see this as another sign the Trump administration is happy to let the Israeli-Palestinian saga unfold completely on the terms of the Israeli far right.
“[This appointment] makes it very clear that the administration has no real interest in seeking a just resolution but are essentially just stepping back and allowing the right-wing fanatical fringe in Israel and the US to dictate what the reality on the ground is for Palestinians,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
Munayyer told Al Jazeera that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a self-described “unapologetic right-wing defender of Israel”, still had the most influence on US policy towards Israel and that, so far, he promoted the views of the Israeli far right, particularly when it came to territorial expansion.
[Berkowitz’s appointment] makes it very clear that the administration has no real interest in seeking a just resolution but are essentially just stepping back and allowing the right-wing fanatical fringe in Israel and the US to dictate what the reality on the ground is for Palestinians.
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights
In a June interview, for instance, Friedman supported Prime Minister Netanyahu’s promise to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a violation of international law and likely a death knell for any sort of peace process. Netanyahu has since doubled-down on the pledge, saying on Tuesday Israel will “apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea immediately” if he wins next week’s snap election.
“I think what we have seen since the outset of this hands-off policy is that the Israeli government has free reign to continue to violate international law, to expand Israeli settlements, to expand its reach in terms of home demolitions and land seizures, and to continue to do all of those things that Palestinians have experienced over many years and at a faster pace than before because there are no breaks whatsoever,” Munayyer said.
Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, said that it was important not to invest Berkowitz’s appointment with any great significance outside of maintaining Kushner’s prominent role on the Israel-Palestine issue.
“Kushner is consolidating the portfolio mostly with him since Berkowitz is essentially his assistant. He’s very young and inexperienced …it does mean that Kushner himself will continue to play a central role,” Sachs told Al Jazeera.
Sachs is sceptical that the peace plan is an attempt to create an avenue for serious mediation between Israelis and Palestinians.
“This is not an attempt to come with an American plan between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said. “It is an attempt to move the goalposts and change the terms of the conversation.”
As evidence, Sachs pointed to Greenblatt’s argument to the UN Security Council in July that international law and consensus were irrelevant to achieving peace in the Middle East.
“That’s a huge break with the past, one that the Israelis would prefer much more than the Palestinians would,” Sachs said.
The White House did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.