Analysis

On His First Visit to the Middle East, Trump’s Envoy Jason Greenblatt Surprises Everyone

Greenblatt leaped effortlessly from a Palestinian refugee camp to meeting settler leaders, making positive impressions on all, along with a clear message: Trump's serious about peace, and Israel ought to be too.

Jason Greenblatt (L), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister?s Office in Jerusalem March 13, 2017.
Jason Greenblatt (L), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister?s Office in Jerusalem March 13, 2017. HANDOUT/REUTERS

Jason Greenblatt’s Twitter account was the best show in town this week. Anyone following his tweets might have thought he wasn’t the U.S. envoy for the peace process, but the Energizer bunny. 

Greenblatt didn’t rest for a moment during his four days here. He bounced from Jerusalem, to Ramallah, to Jericho, to Bethlehem, to Amman and back to Jerusalem. After every meeting, he tweeted pictures and updates.

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On the eve of his visit, the New York Times published an article describing him scornfully as a man with no diplomatic experience who landed his job almost by chance. But Greenblatt proved this week that even if he lacks the experience of veterans of the peace industry in America, he is blessed with sharp instincts, seriousness, common sense and a great deal of personal charm and emotional intelligence. Everyone on the Israeli side who met with Greenblatt this week, on both the right and the left, as well as everyone on the Palestinian side, had a positive impression.

“Greenblatt is a serious, honest envoy,” tweeted MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) after meeting him. “There’s no doubt President Trump is committed to peace, and that’s good news. It won’t be easy – but there’s hope.”

On his first visit to the region as Trump’s envoy, Greenblatt came mainly to listen and learn. Alongside his meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he held a great many meetings with segments of the population that until now most U.S. envoys had passed over. 

He surprised many on the Palestinian side by meeting with residents of the Jalazun refugee camp near Ramallah, and surprised others on the Israeli side by meeting with two mayors of settlements, Oded Revivi and Yossi Dagan. He met with Palestinian and Israeli students, with residents of the Gaza Strip, with senior Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics.

Wednesday night, Greenblatt took a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City. One stop on the tour was Yeshivat HaKotel, from which he tweeted a picture of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Five minutes later, he visited the house of a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem and tweeted a picture of the same holy sites from a different angle.

“Peace and coexistence are not just possible in this extraordinary city, they exist already and have for centuries,” he added in a follow-up tweet.

The message Greenblatt reiterated against and again, to both Israelis and Palestinians, was that President Donald Trump is very serious when he talks about his desire to make “the ultimate deal” and that Israeli-Palestinian peace is very high on his priority list. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said after meeting with Greenblatt that he got the impression Trump was very committed to this issue and plans to launch a serious diplomatic process. A senior minister in the ruling Likud party got the same impression.

“Trump has made it his goal to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian miracle,” the minister said. “In another six months, he’s capable of putting a deal on the table and forcing the parties to make decisions.”

Anyone who followed the statements put out by the White House after Trump’s telephone call with Abbas last Friday and his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince on Wednesday got the impression that the new U.S. president is no less determined to make progress than his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry. If former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were still in the cabinet, he might declare that Trump, too, was messianic and obsessive.

Missing Obama

For the settler lobby in the media, the Knesset and the cabinet, the events of the past week shouldn’t just be a warning bell, but a full-scale shrieking alarm. Many people on the Israeli right anointed Trump as the Messiah after his electoral victory. Senior cabinet ministers were already fantasizing about an end to the two-state solution, a green light for unlimited building in the settlements, the U.S. embassy’s relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and even annexation of the West Bank. Not only has none of this happened, but the trend appears to be moving in the exact opposite direction.

A senior minister who sits in the diplomatic-security cabinet said he met with Netanyahu this week and found him very worried. The reason wasn’t the spat within the government about a new public broadcasting corporation, but Donald Trump. 

The U.S. president has asked Netanyahu to give him a proposal that would include significant restrictions on settlement construction, the minister said. The prime minister wants with all his heart to avoid a fight with either Trump or settler leaders, the minister continued, and he’s breaking his head over how to square the circle.

“There’s enormous pressure on him over the settlements from Trump,” the minister said. “Trump told Netanyahu, ‘Tell me what your needs are on the settlements, and what you’re willing to do to rein in construction.’ Netanyahu is in a corner that he doesn’t know how to get out of. 

“That’s also why he isn’t going to the AIPAC conference in Washington at the end of the month,” the minister added. “He doesn’t yet have anything to bring to Trump. The feeling I got is that he’s starting to miss Obama.”

The Zambish test

Many critical analyses have been written in both Israel and America about how Obama made a huge mistake by focusing on settlement construction when he began his attempts to restart the peace process. But now, Trump is in the Oval Office and, to everyone’s surprise, he too is beginning his efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by talking with Netanyahu about reining in such construction.

Admittedly, Trump isn’t demanding a complete freeze like Obama did. But Greenblatt’s message in his talks with Netanyahu was that the president wants to find a formula that will allow only a minimum of construction and will mesh with his desire to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. 

A senior Israeli official briefed on the content of those talks said Greenblatt made it clear that Israel must show it’s willing to take steps to rein in settlement construction, and on other issues as well, in order to demonstrate a sincere desire to advance the peace process.

In total, Greenblatt spent eight hours with Netanyahu this week, and the issue of the settlements took up a major portion of that time. By the end of their meeting on Thursday, they still hadn’t managed to reach an agreement on reining in construction. Next week, the talks are expected to continue in Washington, between Greenblatt and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer.

A joint statement issued by Netanyahu and Greenblatt on Thursday said that they “made progress on the issue of Israeli settlement construction, following up on President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu's agreement in Washington last month to work out an approach that reflects both leaders' views. Those discussions are continuing between the White House and the Prime Minister's Office.”

Netanyahu is keeping the content of his talks with Greenblatt secret from most of the ministers in the diplomatic-security cabinet. Topping the list of those kept out of the loop are the heads of the Habayit Hayehudi party, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who are the ones most likely to exert immediate political pressure against any restraints on settlement construction. But one person who was invited to hold preparatory talks with Netanyahu was Zeev Hever, who heads the construction arm of the Yesha Council of settlements.

One Likud minister said that for Netanyahu, what’s important is the “Zambish test,” a reference to Hever’s nickname. Any formula for reining in settlement construction that Zambish can live with will also be acceptable to settlement leaders and allow ministers from both Likud and Habayit Hayehudi to follow suit. 

“It’s too bad Greenblatt wasted time negotiating with Netanyahu instead of speaking directly with Zambish,” one Likud minister said sarcastically.

Netanyahu’s problem is that there’s no guarantee that the maximum Zambish can give on reining in settlement construction will be anywhere near the minimum the Trump Administration is prepared to accept. The prime minister’s opening bid to the Americans was to limit construction to the settlements’ existing areas of jurisdiction, but it was always clear the Americans wouldn’t accept that, and would insist on more.

The question many ministers in Likud and Habayit Hayehudi are asking themselves now is how far Netanyahu will have to go on restraining settlement construction in order to reach an agreement with Trump. Given the current composition of the governing coalition, it’s hard to see how Netanyahu can go very far without sparking a political crisis.