Argument

Trump’s Israel-Palestine Negotiator Is Perfectly Unqualified

And that might be exactly why he pulls off a peace deal.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI        (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may be an important public step toward restarting a Middle East peace process that has been stalled since 2014. It may even mark the first step toward making “the ultimate deal,” the lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians that Trump has said he wants the chance to secure.

But it’s important to note that the White House meeting won’t mark the first point of contact between the 82-year-old Abbas and the Trump administration. A low-profile but potentially influential White House official by the name of Jason Greenblatt already met with Abbas in Ramallah, in the West Bank, on March 14 as part of a wide-ranging listening tour to Israel and the Palestinian territories — and then met with him a second time at an Arab League summit in Amman, Jordan, later that month. A former Trump Organization chief legal officer, Greenblatt has the official title of the White House’s representative for international negotiations. But unofficially he’s the administration’s Middle East peace envoy. If an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached during the Trump administration, it will be Greenblatt — who earned his new position by virtue of his personal relationship with the president, despite little experience with his new duties — working to bring the parties to the table and keep them there.

Greenblatt has been placed at the very center of the radical political experiment Trump came into office promising. In the president’s view, the entrenched political establishment was one of the primary sources of America’s problems, and the country’s social and political ills could only be remedied if people from outside the alleged Washington “swamp” were finally allowed to have a crack at them. The job performance of people like Rex Tillerson, who became secretary of state after years as an ExxonMobil executive, or school choice activist-turned-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a real-time test of one of the central value propositions of Trump’s presidency: That America is in need of bold new approaches to national governance that only Trump and his team of outsiders can provide.

Greenblatt is one of those outsiders. But unlike most of his colleagues in the West Wing and cabinet, he has been off to a strong start, at least judging by bipartisan accounts from policymakers and observers in the United States and the Middle East.

“What’s impressed me about Mr. Greenblatt’s early forays into Middle East diplomacy is his interest and willingness to listen to a broad range of voices,” said Daniel Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador in Tel Aviv between 2011 and January of this year. “He seems to understand that the success or failure of Middle East peace efforts is not going to depend only on the decisions of the leaders.”

Peace advocates have seen encouraging signs out of Greenblatt as well. “I think we’ve been positively impressed with the foundation that he’s laid,” said Jessica Rosenblum, the vice president of communications for J Street, which describes itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group.

Greenblatt’s success so far reflects well on his own diplomatic abilities, but it may have as much to do with the nature of his assigned task. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems especially primed for a newcomer’s fresh thinking. After all, a quarter century of careful, deliberative, and well-intentioned professional U.S. diplomacy hasn’t resulted in an Israeli-Palestinian agreement or even a clear path toward one.

So far, the former real estate lawyer’s record suggests that the peace process is one area where a fresh approach could actually pay off — assuming Trump has the focus and patience needed to seriously take on one of the world’s most infamously intractable conflicts.

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Greenblatt began working at the Trump Organization in 1997, after a career that included time as a real estate lawyer for a New York-based firm and a short-lived foray into the cappuccino-making business. Over the next two decades, the Yeshiva University and New York University law school graduate would work his way up to executive vice president and chief legal officer at the Trump Organization. As one of the top lawyers in the company, Greenblatt oversaw due diligence, contracting, and other legal dimensions of Trump’s real estate deals — including some of the more controversial ones. Israel never came under Greenblatt’s portfolio for the simple reason that Trump has still never taken on a project in the country and has no documented business interests there.

Greenblatt is an observant Jew and tweeted a photo of his tefillin bag while en route to the Middle East in March. As Greenblatt told me during an interview last July, Trump respected his religious observance and always wished him a restful Shabbat even when a tough negotiation came up against the weekend holiday.

Greenblatt’s career as a Middle East hand began less than a year ago. During the campaign, Greenblatt was one of the co-chairs of candidate Trump’s Israel Advisory Committee, along with David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who is now serving as the U.S. ambassador to Israel. In contrast to the notably outspoken Friedman, who was also a fundraiser for a West Bank settlement, the soft-spoken Greenblatt had never tried to participate in Middle Eastern affairs and had never even publicly commented on the region until the campaign kicked off.

Early in the general election, Greenblatt’s elevation to the height of the Middle Eastern policy firmament appeared to be just another example of Trump’s reliance on dubiously qualified people who were already within his orbit — in April 2016, The Forward ran a Jewish Telegraphic Agency profile of Greenblatt with the headline “No Experience Necessary.” When I interviewed him last July, Greenblatt candidly admitted just how much he still had to learn about his subject area and acknowledged that he wouldn’t even have been involved in politics if his longtime boss weren’t running for president.

Today, Greenblatt’s closeness to Trump and his lack of previous diplomatic experience are actually starting to look like assets. Greenblatt’s listening tour in March took him to places that few other people in his position have been — like the Jalazone refugee camp, outside of Ramallah, where he met with local youth leaders. No American Middle East envoy had visited a West Bank refugee camp since the early 1990s. Greenblatt met with a range of political and civil society figures in the West Bank, as well as a “cross section of folks from Gaza,” which is currently under the control of the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. Later that month, he attended an Arab League summit in Amman, a relative rarity for a senior American official. At the summit, he had a second meeting with Abbas, whom he has reportedly impressed, and sat down with a number of Arab foreign ministers.

Greenblatt’s visits with Israelis displayed a similar broad-mindedness. He met with settlers, generals, and students and tweeted a picture with Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, one of the most respected religious academies in Orthodox Judaism. Someone more conscious of diplomatic convention, working for a more cautious or traditional administration, might have veered away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s thornier territory during a first official visit to the region. And a more traditional diplomat might not have seen the public diplomacy value in dropping by the Ponevezh fresh off a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp — or of visiting either place at all.

Trump’s envoy approached the region with fresh eyes and won fans on both sides of the Green Line as a result. Greenblatt “conveyed a very good impression that he is curious, that he wants to understand different people, their take on the situation, their aspirations, and their aspirations and their concerns,” said Nimrod Novik, a former foreign-policy advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.

Greenblatt is only in the world of Middle East diplomacy because his longtime boss was elected president, but in the context of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, the appearance of favoritism might actually help him. As Novik explains, both the Israelis and Palestinians are adept at gaming the negotiating process and at exploiting any perceived distance between an envoy and the administration back in Washington. It’s harder to stall an envoy, or to go behind the envoy’s back and appeal to other, friendlier administration officials or congressional allies, when the sides believe that the mediator is a direct extension of the president. “When the parties know that the envoy speaks for the president and directly with the president, they are very careful not to play games,” Novik said.

That isn’t always the case. Shapiro said both the Israelis and Palestinians tried to come between Middle East envoy George Mitchell and the White House during Obama’s first term. “The Israelis looked for other channels besides Senator Mitchell, and even at a certain point the Palestinians weren’t certain if he was the authority they should be speaking to.” During Obama’s second term, Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged peace efforts suffered from the perception on both sides of the Green Line that he cared about reaching a Middle East settlement more than his boss did.

Greenblatt is about as personally close to the president as someone in his position could be. And Trump has been remarkably and even uncharacteristically consistent on Israeli-Palestinian peace, repeatedly saying he wants to be the one to broker “the ultimate deal.” Closeness with an engaged president is a powerful tool for an envoy — as long as there’s a policy vision and a sustained commitment from the Oval Office underlying his work.

It’s far from obvious that that’s currently the case. Trump’s policies on the peace process have been broadly in line with previous U.S. administrations, and the new president publicly put his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, on notice about settlement construction during a joint press conference after their meeting on Feb. 15, telling the prime minister he’d like to see him “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” But that hasn’t yet translated into the kind of clear-cut U.S.-Israeli understanding on settlement construction that will need to be reached before Trump can really attempt to relaunch the peace process. Trump would also need to reassure an ever skeptical and often recalcitrant Abbas that entering into negotiations with Israel really is in his best interest — an objective Trump could advance by explicitly endorsing the U.S. government’s official preference to date for a two-state outcome to the conflict. The president hasn’t done that yet, though this week’s meeting presents an ideal opportunity to change course.

Inevitably, the measure of Greenblatt’s work is whether it actually brings the sides back to the negotiating table, creating space for the kind of diplomatic breakthrough that can change the dynamics of a now-static process. The Trump administration is up against the same challenges as its predecessors, obstacles like Israeli settlement construction, Palestinian terrorism and incitement, and a regionwide security vacuum. Traditional diplomacy hasn’t had the answers to any of these problems. As to whether a Trump-style alternative will fare any better, a lot depends on the president’s notoriously fickle intentions and commitment — regardless of how admirably his envoy performs.

Photo credit: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

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