WASHINGTON - Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s outgoing special envoy to the Middle East, met Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz on Monday, the man who could become Israel's next prime minister.
According to an official statement, Greenblatt, Friedman and Gantz discussed different topics of importance to Israel-U.S. relations, security challenges in the region and attempts to promote the peace process.
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The meeting marked the first time in this busy electoral year that Greenblatt met one-on-one, and openly, with Netanyahu’s chief political rival. For Gantz, the meeting will serve as an opportunity to appear “prime-ministerial,” and to convince Israelis that he can preserve the strong relationship that Netanyahu has cultivated with the Trump administration.
For the Trump envoy, it will mostly be an opportunity to meet the man who could, potentially, replace Netanyahu in the coming months. Last week, Haaretz reported that the White House is treating Greenblatt’s visit as an intelligence gathering mission, rather than part of preparations for the release of the Middle East peace - not expected any time soon.
In the last two and a half years since taking up his post, Greenblatt's visits consistently made national headlines, with journalists closely watching and dissecting each and every one of his meetings. This trip, however, is mostly a side-note to the country’s larger political drama unfolding since the election on Tuesday.
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Before the election, the Trump administration was seriously considering releasing the peace plan shortly after the result would become public. The last polls before Election Day showed a very close race, predicting that Netanyahu and his partners in the right-wing religious bloc would fall just one or two seats short of a Knesset majority.
Under such circumstances, the peace plan could have been the deciding factor in the tie-break between Netanyahu and Gantz, a powerful incentive to build a joint, center-right unity government in the name of advancing peace, and not missing a “historic opportunity” for regional cooperation.
But the results that came in on Tuesday have made things more complicated, with Kahol Lavan beating Likud by two seats, and Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc falling a considerable six seats short of a majority. This has thrown Israel into uncertain political territory.
Netanyahu’s reaction has been to deepen his reliance on the smaller religious parties to his right, ahead of coalition negotiations that could last months. Jared Kushner and his team must now fear a scenario in which the release of the plan would not be enough to push towards a unity government, and thus hang in the air without official approval from Israel. Such a situation would kill any chance to build momentum for the plan – and possibly the plan itself.
Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and the peace plan's architect, has remained totally silent since the election. Greenblatt had originally intended to stay in his role until the release of the plan, but his visit to Israel, like his meeting with President Rivlin on Sunday, is consistently presented as a farewell mission.
The final decision on whether or not to release the peace plan will eventually be up to Trump. He himself gave his administration's careful line about the election results, delivering a windy and almost uncharacteristically non-committal statement that “our relationship is with Israel,” which made headlines all over Israeli media. Right now, there is no sign of when, if at all, he will decide what to do next.