Trump Mideast Peace Team’s Challenge: Convincing Skeptics Without Revealing Any Details

Ahead of releasing the actual proposal, the U.S. administration is urging everyone from evangelical supporters to a doubting Arab public to ‘remain open-minded.’ Here is how it’s trying to win them over

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner attending at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, February 14, 2019.
Czarek Sokolowski,AP

WASHINGTON — While most of the conversation in Israel has focused on the April 9 election in recent weeks, the White House has been holding meetings with people it hopes to turn into supporters of its Middle East peace plan. The small team working on it is looking at whether it is possible to convince people to support a plan without telling them what’s in it.

The administration’s pre-rollout efforts have included meetings with heads of Arab countries, leaders of American evangelical churches, former U.S. officials who have worked on past peace plans and analysts at different Washington think tanks.

“They’ve been talking to everyone ever since the beginning of this year,” said one person who has had multiple meetings with the administration’s peace team recently. “It looks like this time they are really preparing to put out something.”

There is no date for the plan’s publication, and it could become public anytime after the Israeli election ends.

Last week, the White House hosted evangelical leaders to hear their views on the peace plan and ask them not to judge it before seeing the document. Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical author and analyst who participated in the meeting and also separately spoke with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told Haaretz that participants received assurances that the peace plan will not harm Israel’s security, but “that both sides won’t like some parts of it, and there isn’t going to be movement toward peace without some compromises.”

The administration’s Arab world outreach has included a briefing for journalists from Washington-based Arab media outlets in mid-January and an interview given by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to Sky News Arabic last month. Both occasions were the first of their kind and represented an attempt to not only court the leaders of prominent Arab states, but also try to engage with the public in those countries through the media.

Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special envoy for the Middle East, also visited five Arab countries last month, mostly to present the economic aspects of the peace proposal to their leaders. This week, the two met with Jordanian King Abdullah II, who is visiting Washington, and discussed some of the plan’s content as well as its timeline. Abdullah also met with Pence and Pompeo.

A plea to hold fire

One of the many challenges the administration is facing is a high level of skepticism and doubt toward the plan — especially in D.C., where former officials and experts have been predicting its failure for over a year.

Kushner and Greenblatt are aware of this, but it hasn’t stopped them from initiating conversations with some of the most skeptical voices, particularly since the beginning of 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hug after speaking at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
MANDEL NGAN / AFP

“They’re meeting with people who used to work for George W. Bush’s administration, but also with former officials in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations,” said one source who has participated in discussions with Trump’s advisers.

The same person added that Trump’s advisers “ask a lot of policy questions and disclose very little information of their own. The most they will do in response to criticism about their policy is to ask people to remain open-minded and not tear into the plan before actually seeing it.”

Greenblatt spent two days last month having meetings in the offices of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank considered supportive of Israel and a two-state solution. The top experts on the Israeli-Palestinian issue there include Dennis Ross, who played a key role in peace negotiations under Clinton and Obama; Ghaith al-Omari, a former senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; and David Makovsky, who has spent years outlining potential geographic scenarios for a two-state solution.

Greenblatt has also met with former Obama administration officials Ilan Goldenberg and Hady Amr, who published a comprehensive plan last year for rehabilitating Gaza, and with Martin Indyk, who led Obama’s peace efforts in 2013-2014. These meetings show Greenblatt’s willingness to meet with experts who regularly criticize different aspects of his and Kushner’s work and the administration’s broader Middle East policy, from cutting Palestinian humanitarian aid to pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump supporters’ concerns

At the same time, the administration is reaching out to potential critics from the right — mostly Trump supporters who are nevertheless worried that the peace plan will disappoint them.

Greenblatt met with Daniel Pipes of the right-wing think tank Middle East Forum last month, after Pipes wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “Trump’s plan is a closely held secret, but the signals look worrying for supporters of the Jewish state.” Pipes’ article caused concern in the White House because criticism from within the right wing can hurt Trump’s support among Christian evangelicals.

In the meeting with evangelical leaders last week, the administration officials heard questions that expressed similar concerns to those raised by Pipes. But not everyone within the evangelical world is worried about the plan. Rosenberg says he doesn’t think the Palestinian Authority, under Abbas’ leadership, will accept it, but he added that if the plan will include the right kind of language, it could help in promoting peaceful relations between Israel and Sunni Arab states.

Rosenberg shared that message, which is based on visits he made in recent months to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in his conversations with Trump and Pence.

Another mostly right-wing constituency the administration doesn’t want to alienate is Orthodox American Jews, who, unlike the majority of Jews in the United States, voted in big numbers for Trump in the 2016 election and for his Republican Party in the 2018 midterms.

Greenblatt gave an exclusive interview to the Orthodox magazine Ami last week, in which he said: “We firmly believe that when the Israelis and Palestinians see our plan, despite the compromises it entails, they will see what the future can hold for both of them. We believe that they will both gain more than they give.”

Throughout all of these conversations, public and private, almost no specifics of the plan itself have leaked out. This is mostly a result of the administration’s insistence to share almost no concrete details about the content of the proposal, and instead use the meetings to emphasize its general commitment to Israel’s security and the advancement of a peace plan.

“Those I’ve spoken with in the administration understand there’s a certain balance to releasing details of the plan to the regional stakeholders in a timely fashion, lining up those who will be publicly supportive of the plan in advance of its release, and preventing information from getting out publicly, prematurely and partially,” says Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow at Security Studies Group, a right-wing think tank.

“They’re also aware the plan’s overall initial reception will be determined in no small part by how it is rolled out publicly,” he adds. “They are cautious in attempting to thread that needle.”