Greenblatt vs. Friedman: Do Trump's Top Advisers Still Share the Same Israel Policy?

Before the election, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman penned a joint position paper putting Trump far to the right on Israel and the Palestinians. Now they seem to be dragging the administration in different directions

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Left to right, Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Left to right, Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO, Olivier Douliery/AFP, Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

On November 2, 2016, six days before the U.S. elections, Donald Trump's campaign released a document summarizing the Republican candidate's policy on Israel. The 1,200-word long document was attributed to "Jason Dov Greenblatt and David Friedman, co-chairmen of the Israel Advisory Committee to Donald J. Trump." In it, the soon-to-be-president's two senior advisers on Israel included a number of hardline positions affiliated with the Israeli right wing and the settlement movement. 

A two-state solution, they wrote, was impossible to achieve at the moment. The Palestinians were not genuine partners for peace. No pressure should be applied on Israel as part of peace negotiations. And on top of it all, they argued, it was time to immediately recognize "undivided Jerusalem" as Israel's capital and move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the holy city.

Half a year after the publication of that document, and just days ahead of Trump's first presidential visit to Israel, the text that Greenblatt and Friedman wrote has been forgotten. Earlier this month, President Trump warmly welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House and praised him for his commitment to peace and security coordination with Israel. The Trump administration has been constantly delaying any decision on moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and just last week, Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, spoke for the first time about the President's support for "Palestinian self-determination."

All of that in itself isn't such a big surprise. Every American president in the last two decades has treated the Israeli-Palestinian issue differently on the campaign trail and in the White House. A more interesting story is the process that Greenblatt and Friedman have gone through in the last six months, ever since Trump's election victory. Back in November, they put out a policy paper that both of them signed without hesitation. Today, according to sources in contact with the two, it's not so clear that it would be possible for them to write an Israel-Palestine policy paper together.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman visits the Western Wall, May 15, 2017.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Friedman arrived in Israel on Monday to fulfill his post as the American ambassador to the country. He presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin, prayed at the Western Wall and had a friendly meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Greenblatt, meanwhile, has been busy preparing the ground for Trump's visit next week as part of his responsibilities as the president's special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The two distinct roles that Friedman and Greenblatt have taken upon themselves in the Trump administration have led to the creation of two very different perceptions of them, both in the media and among the small circle of officials who work with them. 

Friedman is seen as one of the most right-wing voices within the administration. He is the first ambassador to Israel in the history of the United States to be rejected by nearly half of the Senate,  winning confirmation almost strictly along party lines. He was warmly welcomed in Israel this week, but still needs to prove that he will be able to work with all parts of Israeli society – not just the religious right-wing sectors that he identifies with. 

Friedman's first public comments after he began his term as ambassador were in an interview with Israel Hayom, the daily newspaper owned by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, which serves as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu. In it, he said it's difficult to tell whether Israel "will ever have to make concessions" for a peace agreement. He added that he has advised President Trump in favor of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Nothing in the interview was different than what he would have said a few months ago, when he was still a campaign adviser, but his tone was more diplomatic and he refrained from insulting or degrading those who disagree with him. 

Greenblatt has not given any interviews since he began working as Trump's special peace envoy in January, but he has spoken publicly on a number of occasions. Each time he spoke in terms distinct from those of Friedman, his former co-chair of the campaign's advisory committee. Earlier this month, for instance, when addressing the annual gathering of countries that donate to the Palestinian Authority, he made clear that Trump has asked both Netanyahu and Abbas to "be ready to make the compromises we all know are necessary" in order to reach a peace agreement.

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.Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

Greenblatt did not go into specific details – so far, no one in the Trump administration has when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians – but the very discussion of compromises from both sides already makes a difference. He added that Trump also asked Netanyahu and Abbas "to take steps to create a climate in which peace can take root." This is the kind of language that American mediators have been using in negotiations for decades, and it clearly contrasts Friedman's "no demands from Israel" approach.

"They are playing very different roles in this administration, which explains why they don't sound exactly the same," says Nathan Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization in the United States. Diament, who knows both men personally (and has family ties to Friedman), told Haaretz that "Jason's job is to try to set up a peace process between the two sides. He meets with both Israelis and Palestinians, and also with others in the region, and hears many points of view." Conversely, he says, Friedman "is the ambassador to Israel. His job is to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and reassure the Israeli leadership and public that they have the support and backing of the United States." 

Diament says that it is "a point of pride" for the American Orthodox community to have two of its members appointed to such senior positions in the Trump administration, "just as it was when Jack Lew became President Obama's chief of staff." Friedman and Greenblatt come from two well-known Orthodox communities in the New York area: The ambassador was a resident of the Five Towns region in New York's Long Island, while the special envoy comes from Teaneck, a suburb in New Jersey.

Both have ties to yeshivas in the West Bank, but this part of their biographies also helps explain some of the differences between them. For years, Friedman has supported the isolated settlement of Beit El, located right outside the Palestinian city of Ramallah and considered one of the most ideological right-wing settlements. He helped raise tens of millions of dollars for Beit El over the last few decades. 

As a young man, Greenblatt studied for one year at the Har Etzion yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. As Haaretz's Judy Maltz noted in a profile of Greenblatt published in late 2016, "Among settlement yeshivas, Har Etzion is considered to be among the more moderate. It was founded by the late Yehuda Amital, a rabbi who ultimately came to support territorial compromise and a two-state solution. Amital was one of the founders of Meimad, a pro-peace religious party that eventually merged with Labor."

Diament says that "the fact that Jason studied at Har Etzion doesn't necessarily mean he is a supporter of Meimad, but it's true that this yeshiva is considered more moderate, and is definitely a place where different opinions are presented on the conflict, and also on other important issues facing Israel and the Jewish people."

A number of people, including Diament, say that despite knowing Greenblatt personally for a long time, they have no idea of his exact positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – something that probably contributes to his success so far in his role as special envoy.

"Everything I have seen and heard since January indicates that Greenblatt is doing a terrific job," says Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that works to advance a two-state solution. "He has approached this in a way that indicates that he knows he does not have all the answers." Koplow adds that Greenblatt seems more interested in "finding the contours of what is politically and practically possible than he is to hewing to ideological positions." 

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York-based Jewish Week, interviewed both Friedman and Greenblatt last summer during the election campaign. "Both men spoke proudly of their work in removing references to a two-state solution from the Republican Party platform," he told Haaretz this week. And yet, in retrospect, some differences in their approaches were visible already back then."

"Friedman was forthright that Trump would not hold back in favoring Israel over the Palestinians. He was firm in questioning the logic of a two-state solution," said Rosenblatt. Greenblatt, however, "is softer around the edges, though he may share the same convictions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said. "He was more businesslike and less ideological in our interview, and expressed full loyalty to Trump as a longtime key employee, saying Trump was misunderstood. He was critical of media coverage [of Trump] as one-sided and biased." 

A leading right-wing pro-Israel activist echoed Rosenblatt's differentiation between Friedman's ideological stance and Greenblatt's businesslike approach. "David has been involved in pro-Israel work for decades; Jason loves Israel but he was never as involved as David," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing access to the administration. "Jason is first and foremost a lawyer who is very loyal to his client, and that client is Donald Trump. Have no mistakes about that." 

That loyalty landed him his current position as the man in charge of Trump's peace efforts. Now, however, with Trump heading for his first visit to the Jewish state and Friedman at the start of his term as ambassador, the stakes are about to get even higher. For instance, Friedman tried to persuade Trump to follow through on his election promise and move the embassy - a step that would probably put an early end to Greenblatt's peace efforts.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a few months from today, the two of them will be having some kind of internal power struggle over the administration's Israel-Palestine policy," said the pro-Israel activist. "In fact, who knows? Maybe it's already happening right now."