JERUSALEM – President Donald Trump's son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, made his first solo visit to the region Wednesday, holding separate meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an attempt to restart long-dormant peace talks.
Sitting down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kushner and other U.S. officials discussed "potential next steps" to make progress on Trump's goal of "a genuine and lasting peace" between Israelis and Palestinians, the White House said. The meetings are aimed at laying the groundwork for a resumption of negotiations for the first time in three years.
"The United States officials and Israeli leadership underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
Kushner, whose family has a long relationship with Netanyahu, met with the Israeli leader in Jerusalem for about 3½ hours before heading to the West Bank city of Ramallah for a late-night meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Trump administration faces the same obstacles that have doomed previous attempts by a string of Republican and Democratic administrations: deep disagreements over key issues such as borders, dueling claims to Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
But Kushner enjoys some advantages that could allow him to make at least some progress. Trump made a successful visit to the region last month and appears to have forged a good working relationship with both sides.
The new atmosphere of goodwill, along with concerns of potentially provoking the unpredictable president, could give Trump leverage in extracting concessions from the sides.
Netanyahu's office released a short video showing Kushner, along with envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, arriving at the Israeli premier's office in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu warmly greeted Kushner with a smile and hug. "This is an opportunity to pursue our common goals of security, prosperity and peace," Netanyahu said.
"The president sends his best regards and it's an honor to be here with you," Kushner said.
Reporters were barred from covering the meetings and did not have an opportunity to ask Kushner questions.
Trump has tasked Kushner with the ambitious goal of laying the groundwork for what he calls the "ultimate deal" — but deep divisions remain, clouding chances of a significant breakthrough in one of the longest Mideast crises.
This month marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Mideast war — a seminal event in which Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians claim these territories for their future independent state. Netanyahu opposes a return to the 1967 lines and also rejects any division of Jerusalem. The eastern part of the city, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, is home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.
The White House appeared to play down expectations for a breakthrough ahead of the visit, saying that "forging a historic peace agreement will take time" and that Kushner and Greenblatt will likely make "many visits" to the region.
For now, the United States is expected to pressure each side to make goodwill gestures in hopes of improving the overall climate.
That means putting pressure on Israel to restrain its construction of settlements on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians. It also could mean working with Israel to take new steps to help improve the struggling Palestinian economy, such as easing restrictions to allow more development of West Bank lands.
At a security conference on Tuesday, Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon spoke of the need for economic cooperation and said he was open to promoting Palestinian development as long as it does not threaten Israeli security.
"I personally believe that the most important thing between people is mutual trust," Kahlon said. "The Palestinians can hear me say no and refuse some requests, but whenever daily life can be improved, I am there."
The Palestinians, meanwhile, will come under pressure to halt what Israel sees as incitement to violence in their official media, speeches and social media.
Israel has also demanded that the Palestinians stop making welfare payments to families of militants who are either imprisoned or were killed while committing attacks on Israelis. Israel says the so-called "Martyrs' Fund" provides an incentive for Palestinian violence.
A senior Palestinian official said that a preparatory meeting with Greenblatt on Tuesday had not gone well and became tense over the Martyrs' Fund. He said the Americans "are buying" Netanyahu's complaints about Palestinian incitement, and that Greenblatt was insisting on an end to the welfare payments.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a closed diplomatic meeting, said the Palestinians had rebuffed Greenblatt's pressure and demanded an Israeli settlement freeze. He said a Palestinian delegation would head to Washington next month for further talks.
Even before Kushner's meetings began, there were other signs of trouble.
On the eve of his arrival, Israel broke ground on a new West Bank settlement for residents of an illegally built outpost that was dismantled in February under orders from the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu had vowed to compensate the residents of Amona with the new settlement, built on a nearby site in the northern West Bank.
"The people of Amona really appreciate his efforts and the efforts from his office in fulfilling this commitment that started to come alive to create this new community," said Avichai Boaron, a spokesman for the settlers.
The move has infuriated the Palestinians, who say all settlements are illegal obstacles to peace. The international community also widely opposes the settlements.
"This is the way Netanyahu is meeting Trump's envoys," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian official. "The real question here is will the administration of Trump tell Israel that it is enough and they have to stop immediately all settlement activities, or they will accept this Israeli provocation?"
After arriving early Wednesday, Kushner paid a condolence visit to the grieving family of a young female Israeli police officer who was killed by Palestinian attackers last weekend in Jerusalem. Kushner said Trump asked him to personally convey the condolences of the American people.
Thousands attended Hadas Malka's funeral on Saturday night. Netanyahu visited her grieving family on Sunday and called the 23-year-old woman "everybody's daughter and everybody's hero." He also criticized Abbas for not condemning the attack.
The U.S. Embassy said the visit was private and gave no further details.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.