Analysis

The ‘Road Not Taken’: The Dilemma Facing Trump’s Mideast Peace Team

Jason Greenblatt’s departure from the Trump administration may mean the peace plan is released soon — but judging by those now leading the process, its real target is not Israel or the Palestinians

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeting Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and then-Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt in Jerusalem, May 30, 2019.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Jason Greenblatt’s decision to leave the Trump administration after two and a half years as special envoy for the Middle East will likely have no impact on the White House’s peace plan, which Greenblatt worked on for most of his time in D.C.

Officially, the administration is still saying that, regardless of Greenblatt’s departure, the plan will be released after the September 17 Israeli election. Israeli officials also believe the plan is still on track and will be published shortly after Election Day.

The contents of the plan aren’t going to change at this point and its economic chapter was already released three months ago. The political chapter’s release still doesn’t have a publication date, but despite growing skepticism of it ever seeing the light of day (some experts and analysts in Washington think it doesn’t even exist), the administration insists that its intention is to put it out within weeks. When exactly? That decision will only be made after next week’s election.

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After the previous Israeli election ended in deadlock five months ago, the administration’s peace team faced a dilemma. Their plan was ready for publication, having already sat in a drawer in Jared Kushner’s office for several months. The dilemma was whether to publish it immediately after the April 9 vote, or wait several weeks until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who was prematurely crowned the election winner by the Israeli and international media — had finished setting up his governing coalition.

Greenblatt spoke with several people outside the administration during that period — mostly former officials who had worked on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — to seek their advice. Some thought the correct move would be to release the plan in the midst of coalition negotiations. In April, the right-wing bloc won a majority of 65 Knesset seats, but as coalition talks began a fissure appeared between the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, which won five seats, and the religious parties, which won 21.

The advocates for publishing the peace plan during the coalition talks told Greenblatt and Kushner that a purely right-wing coalition, in which the religious parties would hold a third of the seats, would probably reject any proposal that included even the most minimal Israeli concessions for peace. They also believed that the centrist Kahol Lavan party, which won the same number of seats as Likud (35), could use the peace plan — if published at the right time — as an excuse to break its election promise not to sit with Netanyahu in a unity government.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood taking part in a sit-in near the U.S. Embassy in Amman, against Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner's visit to Jordan, May 28, 2019.
\ Muhammad Hamed/ REUTERS

According to this view, the U.S. peace plan could thus become the “bridge” for a center-right coalition government in Israel, one that would be much more receptive to the plan’s contents.

Greenblatt and Kushner didn’t accept this advice. Instead, they chose to wait until after Netanyahu would finish forming his religious/right-wing coalition, and only then publish their plan. They scheduled a trip to Israel and neighboring countries in May, expecting to find a government in Jerusalem by then, thus allowing them to start moving ahead with the plan’s publication. But upon arrival they met a humiliated Netanyahu who had failed to form a coalition. Netanyahu forced Israel into a new election, in order to prevent any other politician from receiving a chance at forming a coalition, and the Kushner plan went back into hibernation.

This caused the Kushner team to change course. Instead of putting out the entire document at once, the team decided to release only its economic chapter in June. The Americans then convened an international conference on the future of the Palestinian economy in Bahrain, which was not attended by any Palestinian or Israeli officials.

The option of publishing the entire plan during the Israeli coalition talks, thus increasing the likelihood of a unity government, became the Trump peace team’s “road not taken.”

Yet now, a week before Israelis return to the polling stations, the same dilemma is once again approaching — and the White House hasn’t made a decision if this time it will indeed release the plan before a new government is assembled, or if it will again wait for the declared winner, whoever it is, to succeed in forming a coalition.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaking at the Peace to Prosperity conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

Two key parties

One possible hint related to this question appeared in the explanations released by the U.S. administration last Thursday regarding Greenblatt’s departure. According to the White House, Greenblatt will remain involved until the release of the plan, and will officially leave his post only after it’s published. If that’s the case, an early publication date seems more likely this time.

Israeli officials believe the plan will indeed drop on their doorstep shortly after the election. Netanyahu said so on several occasions recently, and other officials — including people not involved in the political system — are repeating that assessment in private conversations.

The plan will almost certainly be rejected by the Palestinian Authority, which views the Trump team as completely biased toward Israel and fully aligned with the Israeli right. The Palestinians expect the plan to represent the political interests of Netanyahu and Israel’s settler movement, and to fall short of all previous American peace plans — including those accepted by previous Israeli governments — in terms of what will be offered to them. “If you want to understand why we think this plan was written by Netanyahu himself,” one Palestinian official told Haaretz last week, “just look at Greenblatt’s Twitter feed.”

Yet even if the plan is rejected by the Palestinian leadership, the Trump team still wants to see it accepted by two other relevant parties: the Israeli government and at least some Arab governments. Full word-for-word acceptance by the Arab side is practically impossible and the administration is aware of that. But it hopes the plan won’t be fully rejected by at least some Arab governments, and that those governments will agree to describe it as a reasonable basis for future negotiations.

For the administration, the peace plan is not so much about Israeli-Palestinian peace — even if that is the stated goal. It has more to do with finding the right formula to increase diplomatic cooperation between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, as part of a regional alliance against Iran. That’s why the administration, when announcing Greenblatt’s departure, emphasized that one of the two people taking over his responsibilities will be Brian Hook, a State Department official whose main field of responsibility is the Islamic Republic.

Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, June 27, 2019.
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/REUTERS

The goal of getting a “yes” from both Israel and the Arab world is less likely to be achieved if Netanyahu forms a narrow right-wing government after the election, and that should be obvious by now to the Trump team. Netanyahu’s goal is that Likud and all the religious parties to its right will together hold a narrow majority of 61 seats in the next Knesset. However, recent polls suggest he is anywhere from three to six seats short of achieving that.

In such a coalition, any single lawmaker could potentially bring down the entire government. This means that even if the Kushner plan is basically a “copy paste” of Netanyahu’s speeches — as its critics from the left assume — it still won’t be good enough for the far-right elements Netanyahu is counting on in his bid for an “immunity coalition” that will protect him from his corruption charges.

One member of the Trump peace team, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, is fully aligned with the religious right-wing forces in Israeli politics, and some of the positions he has expressed over the years regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are closer to those of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners than to the premier’s own statements. But that’s not necessarily the case with the other people working on the plan: Greenblatt, Kushner, Hook and Kushner’s aide, Avi Berkowitz.

In the weeks leading up to the previous Israeli election, the Trump administration gave Netanyahu several “election gifts” that helped his reelection campaign. Netanyahu is currently trying to get a similar gift from the administration ahead of next week’s vote. But in the do-over election, perhaps the biggest help he will receive from the Trump team will come only after the election — when the peace plan could help put an end to another political impasse in Jerusalem.