U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jason Greenblatt, asked Israeli officials and Arab foreign ministers in recent weeks to promote substantial steps for improving the severe economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza, as part of his efforts to renew peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
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Israeli and American sources who have spoken to Greenblatt told Haaretz this issue is a top priority for him, but that he also made it clear to all sides that it is not a substitute for diplomatic negotiations, but a supporting element.
Greenblatt raised the conditions in Gaza during his first meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last month, and once again three weeks ago when a delegation of Netanyahu’s senior advisers visited the White House. Last week Greenblatt met in Washington with Deputy Minister Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the U.S. who is responsible for coordinating Gaza reconstruction efforts with the international community on Netanyahu’s behalf. Prior to that, Greenblatt brought up Gaza’s plight in his meetings with a number of Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League summit in Jordan.
During his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Greenblatt met with a group of citizens from Gaza. After the meeting, which was held in Bethlehem, Greenblatt wrote on his Twitter account: “Met cross section of folks from Gaza – gave me hope we can find solutions to humanitarian challenges while meeting Israel’s security needs.”
One subject that was raised in that meeting, and seemed to have a strong influence on Greenblatt, was the hardships facing Gazans who suffer from cancer and other terminal illnesses, and need to receive medical treatment in Israel or neighboring countries. Greenblatt raised the issue in his meeting with Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
He raised it later again in consultations with the professional rank in Washington. “This issue really touched him,” a person who spoke to Greenblatt told Haaretz. “He is a compassionate person who cares about human beings, and the stories he heard from the Gaza residents influenced him.”
Mordechai, like Oren, encouraged Greenblatt to work with Israel and Arab countries on steps to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who is involved in the talks with Greenblatt on confidence-building measures that Israel could offer the Palestinians, has also told Greenblatt that Israel wants first of all to improve conditions in Gaza.
During Greenblatt’s visit to Israel last month, he also met with Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, who presented him his plan to create an artificial island off the Gazan coast, where a seaport would be built along with other infrastructure to serve Gaza’s population. Katz told reporters on Wednesday that Greenblatt expressed his willingness to promote the plan.
An Israeli official said Greenblatt has shown interest in promoting steps that would improve the economy and living conditions in Gaza in the short term, but also infrastructure projects that would help stabilize it over time. The official, who met with Greenblatt, added that the U.S. envoy believes such steps would also lower Hamas’ motivation to enter a new round of hostilities with Israel.
Ever since taking on the role of Trump’s envoy to the region, Greenblatt has brought up the issue of the Palestinian economy in almost every meeting he held with Israel, Palestinian and Arab officials. The issue also appeared in many of the Trump administration’s press releases. One of Greenblatt’s very first meetings on the job was a dialogue with a group of Palestinian business executives who visited Washington a few days after Trump’s inauguration to open communication channels with the new administration. The economic situation was also a main topic in Greenblatt’s meeting in Washington with Education Minister Naftali Bennett two weeks ago.
Despite all that, however, an Israeli official who met with Greenblatt told Haaretz that the American envoy has made it clear to all sides that economic improvement was not a substitute to serious negotiations in an attempt to reach a peace agreement.
Another economic issue that has been raised in Greenblatt’s talks with Israel is the new Palestinian city Rawabi, which is being built to the north of Ramallah. The American envoy asked Israeli officials to look into Palestinian complaints that Israel was stalling the construction of a new access road to Rawabi that would suit the city’s future transportation needs, once it becomes home to thousands of residents.
Among the small staff working for Greenblatt in the White House and the State Department there is a constant fear of leaks that could hurt his efforts, and also possibly renew pressure from right-wing groups on the White House to remove Yael Lempert and Michael Ratney, two career diplomats who dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian issue under the Obama administration, and have remained in their positions since Trump became president.