WASHINGTON – Seasoned diplomats and ambitious politicians from the Left and Right have tried and failed spectacularly in their efforts to forge peace in the Middle East, one following the other, promising a fresh approach to peacemaking and to rid Israelis and Palestinians of stale thinking and faint hearts.
Trump's envoy Jason Greenblatt meets Netanyahu (credit: REUTERS)
Never did Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer from New York, think he would be among this esteemed group of frustrated deal-makers.
He enters the fray, as President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, armed with a critical trait: sincere humility, for the privilege to work toward peace in a region he cares deeply for and in service of a man he believes has the capacity to deliver.
As with Jared Kushner, Trump’s Orthodox son-in-law and senior adviser to whom he will report, Greenblatt brings no diplomatic or governmental experience to the table. But that is what Trump represents, and the experiment that America has chosen to try in electing him.
And so that experiment is now applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis and Palestinians are hopeful his lack of conventional experience will lead Greenblatt to approach the world’s most intractable conflict with an open mind and genuinely fresh ideas.
Despite his atypical background, Greenblatt does enter the job with some fixed opinions and a vision for what America’s role should be in any peace talks.
“In order to make a deal – whether it’s a business deal or a peace agreement that lasts – both sides need to be leaving the table satisfied,” Greenblatt told me in our first interview together at Trump Tower last June. “They may not be happy with each aspect, but they both have to leave saying this deal is going to work for us. We weren’t forced into it – there are items on it perhaps we’re not happy with, but we traded them ourselves. We made all of the decisions.
“That’s very different than talk that has existed for many years in various camps about trying to force the sides into a peace,” he continued. “[Trump] doesn’t believe forcing the sides works – he thinks it’s an unrealistic thing. Maybe it could be achieved, and then it would just break apart.”
This was Greenblatt’s position at a moment when he was advising an underdog presidential candidate. But his approach has proven consistent as he has started his job at the White House, based on Trump’s recent comments on the conflict, in which the president distanced himself from prejudging the outcome of negotiations.
“I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like,” Trump told a joint news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month. “I can live with either one.”
Greenblatt’s visit to the region this week was an “orientation,” according to State Department officials who worked with National Security Council aides to coordinate the trip. Greenblatt plans to return several times in order to quietly build relationships and trust, before ultimately jump-starting a formal US-led peace process.
Greenblatt did “a lot of listening, discussing the views of the leadership in the region,” said Mark Toner, acting spokesman for the State Department.
Greenblatt hoped to “create a climate” for fresh peace talks in “the first of what will become many visits,” he said.
But over the summer, Greenblatt suggested it was the Palestinians – not the Israelis – who were actively avoiding the negotiating table.
“I think the Palestinians need to come to the table,” he said at the time. “They have avoided this for too long now. It is time for them to sit and have a realistic discussion for the benefit of their people.”
Greenblatt is no longer using this sort of language in public, now that he is uniquely responsible for rebooting peace talks. Indeed, he is trying to shed any image of himself that may be interpreted as biased toward one side or another: An Orthodox man, he chose to remove his yarmulke before entering meetings this week with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
For all the hope that has been placed in Greenblatt and Kushner, because of, or in spite of, their lack of conventional experience, they do not seem intent – at least thus far – on engaging with their predecessors for guidance and advice.
Career US diplomats who have worked on this portfolio for years are not being consulted; State Department officials were not present on the trip, according to several officials, and their role in the trip was organizational.
Nevertheless, Washington experts have thus far heard generally positive things of Greenblatt and Kushner, several have told The Jerusalem Post.
While Kushner in particular has been inundated with other, unrelated commitments, both have reportedly demonstrated deep interest in learning the policy machinations that have made the Israeli- Palestinian conflict so difficult to end.
They both also have strong relations with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who has respected their desire to rebuild trust after several publicly contentious years between his government and the Obama administration.
They have achieved this by leaking to the press virtually nothing of substance of their conversations.
Their desire to keep disagreements behind closed doors is remarkably similar to plans for the US-Israel relationship that Hillary Clinton’s aides outlined to the Post, plans that were to be followed should she have won the presidency: It is not that disagreements would not persist, but simply that we, the public, won’t know about them.
Israel’s cultivation of both men will not take them far from where they started, as men politically sympathetic to the Jewish world and the Zionist cause. The question remains whether Greenblatt and Kushner will succeed in securing the trust of Palestinian leadership, and whether those relationships will be enough to achieve what Barack Obama and John Kerry never could: direct negotiations that forge the deal of all deals.