One of the key architects of the Trump peace plan, my friend Jason Greenblatt, just announced his resignation as America’s chief Middle East negotiator. I heard the shocking news while I was leading a Birthright trip in Israel. Jason is an American and Jewish light unto the nations and his commitment to public service and the State of Israel will be missed by me and other lovers of Israel and the cause of peace.
I have had the good fortune to get to know Jason and found that he is a man of decency, humility, integrity, and total commitment to justice and truth. He has served America nobly through his efforts to engage Israelis and Palestinians in the search for peace while simultaneously spreading the light of American values in the world’s darkest region.
I watched Jason as he slowly assumed a position of incredible global importance. He never changed, always remaining honorable, accessible, and dedicated to the prospects of ending bloodshed and conflict.
Jason and I held approximately eight public discussions about his efforts at peace over the past three years, including this past February in Warsaw and twice with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. Jason always had a phenomenal command of the facts, engaged all audience members with courtesy and respect, inspired his listeners with his incessant optimism about the prospects for peace, and answered questions directly and unflinchingly.
When Jason was first appointed by the president to serve as his envoy, the Palestinians were immediately suspicious because he is an Orthodox Jew. Nevertheless, Jason spared no effort to hear their views. In 2017, he led a listening tour during which he visited representatives from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the leading Arab nations. He achieved worldwide acclaim for the sensitivity he brought to the subject and the courtesy and respect he always showed the Palestinian and Arab leadership.
A year later, he hosted a conference with the goal of addressing the humanitarian challenges in the Gaza Strip. He said he “attended dozens of meetings and conferences” focused on improving conditions. He presented proposals developed by the administration to improve the situation while recognizing the need to ensure “we do not put the security of Israelis and Egyptians at risk – and that we do not inadvertently empower Hamas which bears responsibility for Gaza’s suffering.” He urged participants to “leave all politics at the door” and warned that “inaction not only leads to more suffering for the Palestinians in Gaza, but also creates more security challenges for Israelis and Egyptians and pushes the prospects for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians further and further away.”
Jason consistently balanced America’s interest in improving the lives of Palestinians with protecting Israel’s security. When Israel expressed concerns about the proposal for a highway and railway between the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the administration’s economic plan to aid Palestinian development, Jason assured Israelis, “We are not suggesting any corridor whatsoever that doesn't completely make Israel comfortable that it will not be a danger to Israel.”
The Palestinians often complained about Jason’s efforts because he had the courage to speak the hard truths that previous negotiators avoided. For example, he identified Hamas as a terrorist organization which the Palestinian Authority had to repudiate to advance the peace process. He made clear this is one of several steps the Palestinian leadership needed to take to achieve peace and improve the quality of life for their Palestinian brethren. He recognized, as did President George W. Bush, that “A Palestinian state will never be built on a foundation of violence.”
When the Palestinians decided to boycott the administration, Jason was unfazed. “We aren't going to give them the so-called carrots or, you know, goodies in order to buy them to come to the table, because it's never worked before,” he said. Some in the Palestinian leadership attacked Jason in a degrading and personal way, resorting to juvenile name-calling. Jason never responded with anything but dignity and never allowed the attacks to get personal. He remained focused throughout his nearly three years as President Trump’s chief Middle East envoy on improving the lives of Palestinians. He made it clear that the terrorists of Hamas, who brutalize both the Israelis and the Palestinians, do not represent the Palestinian people and must stop using Gaza as a terror launching pad which just continues and endless cycle of violence.
By contrast with so many peace processors who preceded him, Jason understood that an agreement cannot be imposed by the United States or some other third party; peace can only be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians in direct, bi-lateral talks. He also recognized, unlike diplomats such as John Kerry, that West Bank settlements are not the obstacle to peace. It is Palestinian irredentism and refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland, Israel, that has prevented progress toward coexistence.
In this sense Jason made more progress as America’s lead Middle East negotiator than any of his predecessors, most of whose efforts ended in orgies of violence, as Palestinian terror groups felt empowered by a misguided American attempt at “even-handedness” that equated a democracy like Israel with a terror group like Hamas. Jason was truly the first American Middle East negotiator who told the Palestinians the truth. That Israel is here to stay. That international aid being used for violence would never lead to peace. That the Palestinian people deserve better than the monsters of Hamas claiming to speak for them. And that pretending that Israel’s seat of government is not in Jerusalem – 3000 years after being founded by King David – is an illusion that is best dispelled so that real issues can finally be addressed.
Jason was refreshingly clear-eyed when he spoke about the future. He said the administration’s peace plan would not be based on “fictions of international consensus” or on selective international law that was weighted heavily against Israel. Again, distinguishing himself from his predecessors, he said, “It is true that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority continue to assert that East Jerusalem must be a capital for the Palestinians,” Greenblatt said. “But let’s remember, an aspiration is not a right.” Greenblatt rightly said the word "settlements" was "pejorative" and that it was more appropriate to refer to them as "neighborhoods and cities." Similarly, he more accurately referred to Judea and Samaria in the West Bank as “disputed.” He forthrightly said, “Calling it occupied territory does not help resolve the conflict."
While the world has largely ignored them, Jason also spoke out for the Israeli hostages held by Hamas, especially Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. He told the participants of the conference on the situation on Gaza, “Hamas must return the missing IDF soldiers who were taken by Hamas, as well as the missing Israeli civilians.”
Jason’s resignation is a sad development for Israel and the Palestinians. The cause of peace has lost a great advocate with his departure and America, for the time being, has lost an honorable and noble public servant. Still, I have every confidence that my friend Avi Berkowitz – a brilliant and highly experienced Harvard-educated lawyer who has the trust and confidence of both President Trump and Jared Kushner – will rise to the occasion in advancing the cause of peace.
Jason was a great friend to Israel and, as a Jew serving as a presidential envoy, was an American light to the nations, answering the eternal call of the ancient Jewish prophets to spread peace. He will be missed.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.