Opinion

A Secret Message for Jason Greenblatt, Trump's Mideast Envoy

You've got to be cautious - but also forceful. If the U.S. won't crack heads for Mideast peace, if President Trump won't use real leverage, and if you really think America shouldn't 'impose a deal on anyone' – then you better stay home

Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, visits Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel. August 30, 2017
\ AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Dear Jason,

I am turning to you in your capacity as President Trump’s Special Mideast Envoy, following reports that you will soon be presenting a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

I am a fervent, but concerned, Israeli supporter of peace. The peace process is already on life-support: some argue that it died long ago, but in any case, it certainly does not have much longer to go.

Since you are closely familiar with Israel, I will write in the very open and frank style that is customary here. Full disclosure: I am not a fan of the president’s. 

President Donald Trump speaks to the media at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, on Thanksgiving in Palm Beach, Fla. Nov. 23, 2017
Alex Brandon/AP

I believe Donald Trump is probably the most ill-suited president ever elected in American history, glaringly incompetent, a danger to the American people and to the world. I disagree with both his domestic and foreign policy and I find everything he stands for, including his values and lifestyle, abhorrent.

I am also concerned that anyone who served him for so many years in the real estate business (like yourself) cannot but have been touched by his shortcomings.

Nevertheless, Jason, you are said to be a wise and fair-minded man. If the Trump administration, with your professional guidance, is the one that ends up bringing peace to our region, I promise to bow down on my knees in front of the Trump Tower in New York and pray to the tycoon-god who ruleth from its heavenly floors above. As your boss says, it will be "amazing".

Let me make clear at the outset, that even for those of us who are as staunchly and proudly secular as I, the Land of Israel is not like New York real estate.

We are willing and even determined to divide the Land, but it is still the land of our forefathers, from which we have no choice but to separate in order to save the entire Zionist enterprise. We have been fighting for our right to maintain a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state in Israel for the last 120 years and will continue to do so or as long as necessary.

Trump's special envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt meet PM Benjamin Netanyahu, with Ron Dermer and David Friedman, in Jerusalem. June 21, 2017.
Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

Nevertheless, Jason, time is pressing. The window of opportunity for a two-state solution may shut during your administration’s term in office, especially if the president is reelected. There is not that much time before the emerging reality in the West Bank truly becomes irreversible.

The good news is that most of the growth in settlers in the last decades has taken place in the so-called “settlement blocs”, which will probably remain a part of Israel in any event, and which does not, therefore, affect the demographic balance. Conversely, a few thousand people each year do settle outside of the blocs, the numbers add up and, eventually, separation from the Palestinians will no longer be possible.

The next few years will thus be critical and may constitute a final opportunity to reach a settlement before we become a binational state, something which an overwhelming majority of the Israeli public strongly opposes. This is the only existential threat we face, not Iran, nor Hezbollah. Somehow, we will find a way to deal with them. The question is whether we can find a way to deal with the Palestinians – and ourselves.

What then, if anything, is new, and should give us hope that this round of peacemaking will be more successful than past ones, other than Trump’s monumental ego?

The prime minister of Israel, much like the president, is now under the cloud of various investigations, has never demonstrated diplomatic courage, or the willingness to make difficult compromises and, in any event, even assuming that he does wish to go forward today, is tied down, by a hardline government. The Palestinians are led by an aging leader, near the end of his term, who has similarly never demonstrated the courage needed to reach a deal and even managed to fritter away Ehud Olmert’s dramatic peace proposal in 2008.

US President's envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt meets with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 25, 2017.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

The only thing that may, possibly, have changed for the better, is that the Arab fear of Iran has created shared interests with Israel and - an as yet unproven - willingness to adopt more moderate positions towards it.

You, reportedly, are pursuing a "regional agreement", in which the Arab states are supposed to bring the Palestinians to the table and get them to make compromises. I am skeptical.

The Arab states have never truly stepped up to the plate, at the moment of truth, and have never been willing to normalize relations with Israel without a prior peace agreement with the Palestinians, or even to exert the kind of pressure that might have gotten them to reach an agreement.

Nonetheless, dramatic events are underway today in Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of a young crown prince, whose attention span may not be much longer than the president’s, and a change in their policies towards Israel may be possible. Inshallah, as they say in Arabic.

Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in Riyadh on November 26, 2017.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

You recently declared that "we will never impose an agreement”. Nice. Noble. Both sides, however, will have to make extraordinarily difficult, heart-rending compromises, if agreement is to be reached.

Israel will have to agree to withdraw from virtually all of the territory, other than limited swaps, earmarked for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to divide Jerusalem. The Palestinians will have to agree to restrict the so-called "right of return" solely to the Palestinian state, recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and compromise on Jerusalem. Without these concessions, there simply won't be an agreement.

My dear Jason, as someone who is very interested in your success, allow me to make a few suggestions.

Weigh, carefully, the timing of your initiative. The best and the brightest have already tried and failed, even though they devoted even more time and thought than that required to send a tweet. Imagine that. So be cautious.

Both we Israelis and the Palestinians have had more than enough failures and another one is even worse than not trying to begin with. It will harm whatever residual hope and goodwill exist, undermine the prospects for a future breakthrough, when the appropriate circumstances arise, and may lead to the outbreak of renewed violence.

Don't rely and vague promises by the Saudis and other Arab leaders regarding a "regional agreement". That would be too dangerous. Make sure to close an ironclad deal with them in advance, so you do not find yourself alone on the playing field. To put it in football terms that the president will be familiar with: make sure that you don't turn out to be a quarterback without any other players on the field.

Also, be skeptical, Jason, about what both Bibi and Abbas will try to sell you. You may be a shrewd real estate lawyer, but these two gentlemen are in a league of their own when it comes to thwarting unwanted diplomatic initiatives. Remember, in the end, when your mission is over, you will return home, hopefully as a hero, but they will remain here. Netanyahu’s legal and political difficulties are forcing him further to the right. Abbas, who is in the midst of a difficult reconciliation with Hamas, is in a similar situation.

Most importantly, if you decide to jump in, do so at full force, to close a deal. If you don't intend to place the full weight of the United States behind pushing for the necessary concessions, to use all of your levers of influence, to confront both sides and "crack heads", don't do it. Stay home. The president has enough troubles of his own.

Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, is a former Israeli deputy national security advisor. He is the author of the forthcoming Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change (Oxford Press, March 2018)