Trump Keeps Two of Obama Administration’s Top Experts on Israeli-Palestinian Affairs

Yael Lempert is staying on at the White House, while Michael Ratney is still at the State Department though it's not yet clear if this is for the long term.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Representative Greg Walden during a meeting on health care, March 10, 2017.
Reuters / Carlos Barria

Two career diplomats who served in senior positions related to the American policy on Israel and the Middle East under the Obama administration are currently filling an important role establishing the new administration's policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Yael Lempert, who was in charge of Israel and the Palestinians in Obama’s National Security Council, has been asked to remain at the White House for now, despite originally planning to return to the State Department.

>> Get all updates on Israel, Trump and the Palestinians: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

Meanwhile, the State Department has announced that Michael Ratney, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem from 2012 to 2015, is currently in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian file at the department. 

Lempert and Ratney are both professional diplomats who have served at various U.S. missions in the Middle East. They worked together in Jerusalem when Ratney led the consulate there and Lempert was his deputy. The Jerusalem consulate is in charge of contacts with the Palestinian Authority, so both Lempert and Ratney have built strong working relationships with the Palestinian leadership, which is little changed since their postings.

Lempert later moved to the White House, where she worked at the National Security Council as the senior director for the Levant, Israel and Egypt. (Lempert also served at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo almost a decade ago.) In the final months of Obama’s tenure, she took part in the talks on Washington’s defense-aid package to Israel, its largest ever to the country.

>> Analysis: Once a messiah, Trump could turn out to be the Israeli right’s worst nightmare >>

Despite the rocky relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which also included feuds among top aides, Lempert enjoyed a good relationship with the vast majority of Israeli officials she worked with, including Israel’s current ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer  one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers. 

This week, Lempert will accompany President Donald Trump’s senior adviser on international negotiations, Jason Greenblat, on his first working visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The visit will include meetings with Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior officials.

Greenblatt is also scheduled to meet with Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who is responsible for Israel’s security and civilian dialogue with the PA as the coordinator of government activities in the territories. 

In its statement, the State Department said Ratney would work closely with the White House on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Mark Toner, the department spokesman, said Ratney would also continue as the department’s special envoy to the Syrian conflict. 

Like Lempert, Ratney is an expert on the Middle East who has served in a number of countries in the region including Iraq, Lebanon and Qatar. He has also been the spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Palestinian officials said over the weekend, following Trump’s first phone conversation with Abbas, that Ratney’s involvement was seen as a good sign in Ramallah, mainly due to his experience and relationships in the region.

A former senior Israeli official who has worked with both Ratney and Lempert told Haaretz that “their involvement tells you that the administration, at least on this issue, is giving prominence to people who have knowledge and experience. That’s a good sign.”

It is still unclear, however, if Ratney and Lempert’s involvement is temporary mainly a result of staffing difficulties and the administration’s lack of preparedness or a long-term decision to use their expertise to help Trump reach “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Martin Indyk, who served as a peace envoy under Obama and as ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton, said Lempert and Ratney’s involvement “shows that Jason Greenblatt is smart to rely on experienced professionals.”

Indyk added, however, that this doesn’t necessarily increase the chances for peace. “As you know, it’s not up to us Americans,” he said. “It’s up to the Israelis and Palestinians. American willpower alone is not enough to achieve progress.”