Before his promotion this week to a leading role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, 30-year-old Avi Berkowitz filled a number of odd jobs in the West Wing. They have included shepherding distinguished visitors — the likes of Kim Kardashian, Jeff Bezos, Sheldon Adelson — around the White House, and hanging onto Jared Kushner’s phone while Kushner is in meetings, a duty that sometimes had Berkowitz responding to messages on his boss’ behalf.
“There are times when people think they’re texting with Jared, but they’re actually texting with Avi,” said one former White House official, who recalled thinking, “Holy crap” when witnessing Berkowitz reading an incoming message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on Kushner’s phone. (Berkowitz and Kushner dispute this. “I have never texted anyone from Jared’s phone nor do I read his messages,” said Berkowitz. “Anyone who says otherwise is mistaken.”)
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In his new role, Berkowitz will be perceived, more so than his predecessor, as an extension of Kushner, who has employed the young Harvard Law School graduate in various capacities since 2012. In 2017, Trump tapped his son-in-law to develop the administration’s plan to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which the president has called “the ultimate deal.”
But those efforts have foundered as the White House has continually delayed the release of the plan’s details, while both sides of the conflict have dug into entrenched positions.
What scant hopes there were of success evaporated further on Thursday when The New York Times first reported that special envoy for Middle East peace Jason Greenblatt was resigning, and the White House announced that Berkowitz, in conjunction with Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, would be taking on his duties.
White House officials insisted that Greenblatt was stepping down to spend more time with his family after a grueling travel schedule, but his approach to the conflict differed markedly from Kushner’s. Early in his tenure, Greenblatt made efforts to meet with Palestinian leaders, while Kushner slammed them as “hysterical and erratic” in July when they boycotted a conference on economic development in Bahrain.
A friend described once seeing Berkowitz, an avid chess and piano player, perform both activities at the same time. His new duties will also involve multitasking. The White House is still sorting out the details of the shake-up, but Berkowitz will retain some of his current duties while taking on his new role. It is still being determined whether Berkowitz, currently a deputy assistant to the president, will get a new title.
The young aide — widely described as quiet and intelligent — has been steeped in the details of the peace process from the start, and administration officials say he has taken an increasingly substantive role in it over time. But seasoned diplomats greeted news of his elevation with incredulity.
“Avi Berkowitz cannot fulfill Jason Greenblatt’s role in this situation,” said Aaron David Miller, who worked on Bill Clinton’s attempts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict as a top member of the president’s negotiating team. “My takeaway from this is that I’m not sure frankly that anyone on this team, including Avi Berkowitz, believes that this initiative has any chance of actually creating a framework that would allow Israelis and Palestinains to negotiate, let alone reach any type of agreement.”
Martin Indyk, who served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotations under Barack Obama, called the move a “downgrade.”
Some of the naysayers come from within Trump’s own camp. “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,” said an administration official, who noted another of Berkowitz’s duties: handling Kushner’s press relations in the aftermath of former Kushner spokesman Josh Raffel’s departure from the White House early last year.
“He is in the service of Jared, not Trump,” this person said. “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. It’s a big leap.”
“Jared listened to Jason. Jared trusted Jason’s insight into the lay of the land, and also how to negotiate things, and navigate things,” said a former White House official who, by contrast, described the working relationship early on between Kushner and Berkowitz as, “Jared saying, ‘Go get my coffee,’ and Avi saying, ‘I’ll be right back.’”
Top administration officials stress that Berkowitz will not be shouldering Greenblatt’s role on his own, and argue that he is more familiar with the plan than an external hire would be.
“I do think he is qualified to do what’s expected of him, and it will continue to be very much a team approach kind of place. I don’t think that’s going to change,” Greenblatt said. “He’s developed quite a good relationship with the relevant Middle East ambassadors and diplomats. He interacts with them a lot because of his role with Jared and when I’ve seen those interactions, they’ve been very positive.”
Asked by a reporter for The Telegraph whether he had confidence in Berkowitz, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu responded, “Why not?”
Berkowitz met Kushner in 2011 while playing basketball at a Passover celebration in Arizona, and began working for him at Kushner Companies, the family real estate firm, the next year, after graduating from Queens College in New York.
Like Kushner, Berkowitz is an Orthodox Jew with close ties to Israel. He is fluent in Hebrew, and in his late teens went to live and study in the country for two years. And like his mentor, Berkowitz is skinny and clean-cut, which has helped him earn the nickname “mini-me.”
After enrolling at Harvard Law School, Berkowitz continued to work for Kushner in the summers, and he began contributing to Kushner’s New York Observer, writing on campus controversies at Harvard — including one in which a student drew charges of anti-Semitism for describing an Israeli official as “smelly” — and the pros and cons of various private jet services.
A law school acquaintance described him as a “quiet, nice kid,” adding, “Nothing surprising or political.”
After graduating from law school in 2016, he went to work for Kushner on the campaign, where he oversaw “Trump Tower Live,” the campaign’s in-house talk show, streamed on Facebook.
His final piece for the Observer, written just before the election, argued the bullish case for Apple’s stock, a prescient and profitable call, given that the stock price has doubled since fall 2016, and financial disclosures show it as Berkowitz’s largest personal holding, worth between $100,000 and $250,000.
During the transition, Kushner dispatched him to receive Sergei Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., who used the occasion to arrange a meeting between Kushner and the head of a sanctioned Russian bank. The episode was scrutinized in the Mueller report.
At the White House, he has continued to bond socially with Kushner while supporting him in a variety of capacities. One official recalled Kushner and Berkowitz beating since-departed aides Johnny McEntee and Keith Schiller in a game of two-on-two basketball on the White House grounds early in Trump’s term.
In a 2017 Business Insider profile, then-White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks described Berkowitz’s role as fetching coffee and performing other administrative tasks. But his portfolio has expanded dramatically as the administration has worn on.
“His role generally has been growing as he learned the material,” said Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who praised Berkowitz for putting in 18-hour days.
“They just did not pick Avi out of the basement in the White House to throw into this job,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Emeritus Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, a staunch Israel supporter and outside legal adviser to Trump, spent two days holed up at the White House in July 2018, reviewing the peace plan with Kushner and Greenblatt.
Dershowitz praised Berkowitz, who also attended the meetings, saying he was immersed in the details of the plan and contributed to the discussion. “Clearly, he was the low man on the totem pole in that room. He was the guy if you had to send him out for something you could send him out,” Dershowitz said. “But his substantive ideas were there.”
Dershowitz declined to discuss the specifics of those talks, but he said Berkowitz was especially attuned to the diplomatic realities of the region. “He was always thinking about not only what would be good in the plan, ideally, but what would be acceptable to the Palestianians, what would be acceptable to the Saudis” and other regional powers, he recalled.
This spring, when Netanyahu found himself unable to assemble a governing coalition, Dershowitz said Berkowitz sought his advice in follow-up phone calls, as the administration weighed delaying the plan’s release in response to Israel’s political turmoil.
The group did decide to push back the release of the as-yet unseen plan, and Greenblatt, who has six children, decided to return to the private sector rather than stay on.
Berkowitz’s promotion is the latest sign that well past the midpoint of Trump’s first term, the White House has grown increasingly reliant on a shrinking group of loyalists.
“Could you pull some Middle East expert out of some university or out of a prior diplomatic role? Sure,” said a former senior administration official. “But that whole team isn’t going to trust them. It’s so sensitive.”
Dennis Ross, who served as Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, interpreted Greenblatt’s departure as a sign that the Trump administration does not expect its forthcoming peace plan — which is set to be released at some unspecified point after Israel’s Sept. 17 elections — to lead even to follow-up negotiations.
A White House official contested this interpretation, saying, “We get criticized all the time by the people who worked on this for a long time and failed.”
But if the plan is in fact dead on arrival, Ross said, Berkowitz will be left with something of a mop-up job, tasked with finding areas for incremental progress and trying to prevent the plan’s release from deepening the conflict.
“His challenge will be in the aftermath of the release of the plan to try to make sure you can manage the situation,” said Ross, who this month published a book, “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” about the Israel-Palestine conflict. “When you have a sense of hopelessness out there, that doesn’t make stability more likely.”
It promises to be a much more daunting task than keeping Kushner caffeinated, which for the record, one White House official disputed was ever part of Berkowitz’s official duties.
“Fetching coffee is not one of Avi’s responsibilities at the White House, nor has it ever been,” the official said. “However, if you’re thirsty, he is always happy to help.”