WASHINGTON – The first thing that stands out after walking into the office of outgoing-US special envoy Jason Greenblatt is a picture of Avera Mengistu. Greenblatt keeps advocating in international forums for the release of the Israeli citizen who has been held by Hamas for five years, and is in touch with his family.
On one of the side tables in the room, there were two other prominent pictures, side by side: one is a picture of Greenblatt with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The second is of Greenblatt with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Sometime in the next few weeks, Greenblatt will pack up those pictures and take them to his home in New Jersey. One picture that most American mediators have in their office has eluded Greenblatt: a joint scene of the mediator together with the two leaders.
Last week, Greenblatt announced his intention to step down to spend more time with his wife and six kids. Some pundits estimated that the real reason for the resignation is the low chances to promote the “Deal of the Century.” The special envoy has outright rejected this claim.
“It’s just people who really have no idea what they’re talking about,” he tells The Jerusalem Post in his first interview in his office at the White House since he announced he was resigning. “If that was true, I should have left three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago. I still very much believe we are putting forth something that makes sense. I know that I’m leaving it in good hands, but I think if that were true, I wouldn’t have wasted my time over two and a half years.”
Asked if he would have done anything differently, he says he is standing behind the decisions of the peace team and wouldn’t change any of the administration’s significant decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The decisions we made were appropriate for what we are trying to accomplish. They were correct for the United States and its interest.”
While he adds that it could take him weeks to go through all the decisions that the team made during his tenure, he has no doubts about the significant ones. “Certainly, on the major decisions – Jerusalem, the embassy, UNRWA, the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] office, The Golan – I firmly believe [those were] the correct decisions. And I think if we didn’t make those decisions, it would have brought us no closer to peace.
“I don’t characterize anything we’ve done as sticks,” he says regarding the peace team’s approach to the Palestinians. “I think that each decision we’ve made over the last two and a half years has been in the interest of the United States. I know that people characterize some of our decisions as punishments toward the Palestinians. That is not only not true; it never entered into my mind.
“Take the recognition of Jerusalem, for example,” he continues. “That’s a law of the USA from 1995. We respected the will of the American people in a law passed by Congress. The closure of the PLO office was based on a law. On UNRWA, it is not in the interest of the United States to continue funding into that broken system that provides no future for Palestinians living in these refugee camps. I’m surprised how people weaponize these decisions and pretend that they were done for political purposes when, in fact, they were decisions based on either law or what makes sense for the US taxpayer.”
IT WAS a family Shabbat dinner with his wife and children at his home in New Jersey when he raised the possibility of leaving the administration. “It started over many discussions over Shabbat, but it lasted way into the Sunday night barbecue,” he says.
Asked why he wouldn’t stay to try to promote direct negotiations between the sides once the plan is revealed, he says it could take a long time.
“Originally, I planned to stay approximately two years. I’ve stayed close to three years now. I do have an obligation to be a father and a husband. I’ve neglected my family in many ways, and I think the time has come for me to start transitioning out so I could go back to being a father and a husband.”
Some of his kids, he says, told him to keep working on the peace team. “My family has been exceptional. They all have that attitude, which is that I should stay, but I know on their faces that it’s hard. It’s hard on Sunday when we separate until Friday. They’ve been incredibly supportive. I have to say that after last Thursday, after the announcement, we all felt a sense of tremendous relief, knowing that at some point over the coming period – we don’t know if it’s weeks to months, we’ll see – knowing that I’m finally going to be back home.”
He says he still believes that despite the Palestinian refusal to engage with the US peace team, the plan can still succeed.
“I think that we have crafted something that’s different than the past but gives both sides a tremendous hope for the future,” Greenblatt says. “So, I think that if both sides study it and stay away from the political talk and understand that we delivered a realistic plan – one that is actually implementable, not one that just talks in lofty ideals, I think there is a chance that something good could come out of it”
Was there any point during the last three years that you were cautiously optimistic that something could be done?
"I don't think our thought process has changed. We studied this from the beginning, understanding that this is an extraordinarily complicated conflict. I think it took us the better part of a year to two years to really understand not only the conflict itself, but where both sides were. I don't think you could be in this business, whether it's at the State Department or White House or in foreign diplomacy without at least feeling hopeful. Otherwise you're wasting your time. But I don't think it's been a disappointment to me how this has unfolded. The real test is going to be what's in the plan and how the people react to the plan."
It’s been nearly three years with this administration, and it has yet to reveal its Middle East policy. Asked if he thinks that period is too long to reveal basic information, such as where the administration is standing regarding the two-state solution, Greenblatt responds that a different approach was necessary.
“I think one of the things we decided after studying the conflict is that those high level principle talking points actually hurt rather than help the process. People have used that terminology for many years. It never led to anything. And it confuses people because different people see the phrase two state solution differently. So we do not think that peace has been helped, nor would our mission be helped, by using those high level principles. And when people see the plan, they'll understand our thinking on it. But every step of the way we've avoided just trying to distill this incredibly complex conflict into three words or soundbites.”
Speaking about the highlights of his tenure, he says the two most satisfying moments for him were standing by the president when he made his announcement about Jerusalem and attending the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. “I’ve worked for the president for 23 years. I know that he’s a man who tries always to keep his word,” Greenblatt says. “I know he made multiple promises during the campaign to do that. Others did the same when they ran [for office]. But I believed in my heart before he became president that he would do it.”
He recalls a few frustrating moments as well.
"It happened multiple times over two and a half years – being blocked on a political basis by the Palestinian leadership when we tried to improve the Palestinian economy while trying to seek peace. There is a mindset that the life improvement will come after a peace deal. I often argued that we can improve lives and still seek peace and everybody's better off. But I failed in that. It was also deeply frustrating that no matter how much we want to help the two million Palestinians in Gaza, we can’t because of the vicious activity of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad."
When President Donald Trump took office, he vowed to try to bring peace to the Middle East. But in recent months, it seems like he’s occupied with China, North Korea, Iran and even the Taliban. Maybe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not at the top of his priorities right now?
"I'd frame it differently. It is still very much among one of our top priorities. However, over two and a half years, what we have managed to do is properly contextualize the conflict. When we started, everybody would say that this is the core conflict of the Middle East. And if we solve this conflict, all of a sudden the Middle East will be an oasis of peace. That is absolutely untrue. And I think most people now understand that. You will still have the occasional group of people who still make that statement, but nobody believes it."
"I also think that what he's accomplished under his leadership, and it's not just him, it's the prime minister of Israel, the Arab leaders, in connecting Israel and its Arab neighbors on a deeper and more public level. When I started here, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors was under the table. Nobody wanted to talk about it out loud."
"Here we are two and a half years later, and you've seen remarkable advances between Israel and its neighbors. That's not intended to leave the Palestinians behind. We very much believe that those connections can only enhance the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And there may be a limit for how far the Arab neighbors will go. I recognize that. But I think he has done quite a bit in making those connections. President Trump has done quite a bit in deepening those connections and he has also managed to focus the attention on the real problem in the region, which is Iran. There's a unity around Iran. He may not have been the first to point the spotlight at Iran, but the prior administration treated Iran completely different than this president and now the region is united again around the president because they recognize that he is trying to stabilize the Middle East by calling out who really is the country that creates problems in the Middle East. And I think he is completely respected by all of those leaders in the region who are threatened by Iran."
The Palestinian Authority celebrated your departure, and they said on many occasions that you are not a fair mediator. How did you feel watching that?
"Hamas certainly celebrated my departure. I view that very positively. I would say that there’s a big difference between messages I'm getting from the many Palestinians who I deal with and a few talking heads who don’t help anyone with their remarks."
And you are known as a strong supporter of Israel. Are we going to see you active on social media even after your departure?
“I'd like to. I certainly hope so. It depends on what I do next in my career. I don’t yet know what that will be.”