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Why Trump's Middle East negotiator is beating expectations

 

January 5, 2018

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Jason Greenblatt, in gray shirt, visiting the Nahal Oz military base near the Gaza border, Aug. 30, 2017.

WASHINGTON (JTA)-Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump's chief Israeli-Palestinian negotiator, has an office just around the corner from the White House.

On his computer monitor is a Post-it note, inscribed with a quote from former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo: "At the end of the day, a peace agreement derives its strength from an understanding between peoples, not an accord between governments."

It's an appropriate message for Greenblatt, an affable Orthodox Jew who's been tasked by Trump with leading Israel and the Palestinians toward peaceful pastures. Given that the lawyer had no prior diplomatic experience, Greenblatt was considered an odd choice for the task, according to observers.

However, according to interlocutors and veteran Israeli-Arab negotiators, Greenblatt, who is about 50, has exceeded expectations. Many on all sides praise him for his investment in the people affected by the conflict-especially for his intensive, public engagement with populations largely overlooked by previous negotiators, such as settlers, the haredi Orthodox and Palestinian refugees.

In interviews with more than a dozen people who have met the special representative for international negotiations, one compliment comes up again and again: Greenblatt is a good listener. And that's a skill that may be essential to the job.

"Greenblatt has made a universally positive impression among Israelis and Palestinians as serious, creative, empathetic and dedicated to the cause of peace," said Daniel Shapiro, who was the Obama administration's ambassador to Israel. "They see him as possessing goodwill and a sense of realism about what peace looks like. He deserves the praise he has received for building those relationships of trust in a situation when the parties don't trust each other at all."

Greenblatt is one member of a team led by Trump's top adviser, Jared Kushner, who is married to his daughter, Ivanka. The team also includes David Friedman, the ambassador to Israel, and, until January, Dina Powell, a top National Security Council official who is stepping down. Both Friedman, who also is an Orthodox Jew, and Greenblatt worked for years as lawyers for Trump and the Trump Organization.

Yet despite all the goodwill toward Greenblatt, his seemingly altruistic efforts may wither in absence of an overarching political solution. After Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital earlier this month, the Palestinians have walked away-at least temporarily-from an American-led peace push.

In addition, while Israel applauded the Jerusalem recognition, its officials have expressed trepidation at others aspects of the Trump administration's emerging approach. For example, Greenblatt has welcomed Palestinian Authority attempts to assume control of the Gaza Strip-but Israel's government is concerned that such control will also increase Hamas' influence.

Shapiro, who is now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said that Greenblatt "can only operate within the constraints of the policy he or she is tasked to carry out."

But what the policy is-and what constraints they come with-are not very discernible under the current administration.

"All we know is that the U.S. believes in peace, supports Palestinian economic development, opposes terror and recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital," Shapiro said. "Each of those positions is correct, but without an overarching framework of a policy goal and initiative focused on achieving a two-state solution to end the conflict, nothing ties those threads together, and there is little any envoy can do to advance toward that goal."

A White House official said that Trump's critics were missing the point: Whatever peace plan the administration advances should emerge organically from the people whom it would most affect.

"However the peace agreement shakes out at the end of the day will be in one in which the two societies are connected economically and otherwise," said the official, who requested anonymity in order to speak expansively about the Trump administration's peace efforts. "We can't do this from afar, we have to go there to see interactions, how the economics can work out, how business is conducted on the two sides."

Greenblatt's office did not agree to an interview.

In September, however, speaking at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the grouping of nations that are invested in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Greenblatt put it this way: "Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about their future," he said. "Instead of laying blame for the conflict at the feet of one party or the other, we are focused on implementing existing agreements and unlocking new areas of cooperation which benefit both Palestinians and Israelis."

Greenblatt already scored one success: a deal, signed in July, in which Israel sells water to the Palestinian Authority at reduced rates. The water will reach parched areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas.

The agreement, forged at a time in which Israeli and Palestinian leadership barely speak to one another, earned Greenblatt kudos-from the Israelis, at least-for keeping away from hot-button issues that scuttled previous talks.

"When you focus on the issues-and not about history or background or personal emotions or other disturbing elements-the common denominator is much bigger than what separates us," Tzachi HaNegbi, the country's minister for regional development, said at the time.

The evidence shows, though, that Greenblatt does focus on emotional and personal elements-but only as a means of advancing commonalities.

Greenblatt's Twitter feed is a constant flow of amity. He posts photos of kosher meals he's received as the guest of the Palestinian Authority or the Saudi kingdom. He ran a series of photos featuring kids from Gaza who visited Washington under a youth exchange program-in one, he thanks the Israeli government for facilitating the group's travel. (The Palestine Liberation Organization envoy, Husam Zomlot, thanked Greenblatt for his intervention.) He wishes Jews, Muslims and Christians happy holidays at the appropriate times.

It's a friendly approach that has attracted investment in the peace process from actors who were wary of it in the past.

"Overall, the sense is, we're being spoken to," said Elie Pieprz, the director of external affairs for the Yesha Council, the umbrella body for West Bank settlements. "The expectation is that for there to be genuine peace, you need to be speaking to people on all sides, not just a couple of leaders you gather in a hotel in Europe."

The Palestinian Authority, at least until the Jerusalem issue arose this month, also enthusiastically embraced Trump's approach, as expressed through Greenblatt, their most frequent interlocutor from the Trump administration.

Zomlot, the PLO envoy, turned down a request for an interview, but in previous briefings for reporters he expressed admiration for the intensity of Greenblatt's involvement. "They have traveled to the region, they have met with all parties, especially Mr. Greenblatt," he said at an August briefing.

"What I'm hearing is that he is primarily in listening mode, respectful of positions trying to understand where they're coming from, but also preparing for what appears to be big moves," said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"He understands the power of weakness of the Palestinian side," said Nimrod Novik, a former top Israeli negotiator under Labor governments and now the Israel Policy Forum's Israel fellow. "Which means once presented with a seemingly impossible position they can easily say no and become domestic heroes." Greenblatt understands, Novik said, that whatever formula emerges it must not be one that Palestinians reflexively reject.

Oded Revivi, the mayor of the settlement of Efrat, which maintains relations with three neighboring Palestinian villages, said Greenblatt was able to extrapolate from the details of that relationship to possible bigger picture solutions. "He's very interested in small details while remembering that he is representing the strongest country in the world, and he needs to think of the global matter and not just a small suburb of Jerusalem," he said.

Still, despite Greenblatt's efforts, there remains considerable frustration-if not anxiety-at the Trump administration's reluctance to outline a deal. At the same August briefing with reporters, Zomlot wondered "where the hell they are going." Around the same time that Greenblatt was saying that Hamas-Palestinian Authority would work, if Hamas adheres to principles including the laying down of arms and recognizing Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fretted that the reconciliation could come at "the expense of our existence."

There may be obstacles closer to home as well. Interlocutors who have spent time with the negotiation team say that Friedman's politics tend to veer to the far right on the Israeli political spectrum. Friedman, speaking this week of Palestinian reaction to Trump's recognition of Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post that the Palestinian reaction to the recognition was "ugly" and "anti-Semitic."

One figure who met with the team notes that Greenblatt spent time at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a West Bank yeshiva noted for leaders who counseled engagement with the Palestinians. A source close to Greenblatt described his year there as "a very meaningful year of growth with great teachers, role models and friends."

Friedman, before becoming ambassador, was a backer of the more hardline Bet El yeshiva.

Kushner is facing legal woes as a special prosecutor investigates the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia. He said in leaked remarks over the summer that he doesn't know if a deal is even possible.

But Kushner, speaking earlier this month at the Brookings Institution annual Saban Forum, which convenes Israeli and U.S. influencers, described a team that works together smoothly. "As this process has gone through, my team in particular, being three Orthodox Jews and a Coptic Egyptian [Powell], has tried very hard to do a lot of listening," he said.

A White House official said that the team is focused on reaching a deal-but the official added that there is also value in Greenblatt's confidence-building measures, in and of themselves.

The official added that Trump, who has had about 10 meetings with the team, was very attentive to progress toward reaching a peace deal.

"He's extremely engaged and interested and dedicated to making this a top priority," the official said.

 

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