Last week, US President Donald Trump acknowledged that the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal he hoped to facilitate might not actually come to pass.
Due to Ramallah’s anger over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, negotiations prerequisite to such an agreement may never actually get off the ground, he admitted at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“I don’t know that it ever will take place,” Trump said.
His trusted Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, however, continues to soldier on, traveling the world promoting the president’s stated quest — which some would call quixotic — for the ultimate deal.
Greenblatt loyally and firmly defends the administration’s Jerusalem move, but his work with the parties on the ground appears to take a different tack than Trump.
While the president says Jerusalem is “off the table,” his envoy this week stressed once more that the administration is not taking a position on borders and that the status quo at the holy sites should remain untouched.
Trump last week threatened to dramatically cut financial aid to the uncooperative Palestinian Authority, arguing that those who castigate US policy should not expect generous handouts.
“We give them tremendous amounts, hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That money is on the table,” he said, implying that he is willing to punish the Palestinians where it hurts if they don’t drop their opposition to US-sponsored peace talks. “Because why should we do that as a country if they’re doing nothing for us?”
This approach appears diametrically opposed to Greenblatt’s peacemaking strategy, which seems to be based primarily on improving the Palestinians’ quality of life by funneling more aid dollars to projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
Greenblatt’s job currently has two main components: First, faithfully explaining his boss’s statements and moves. Second, doing the fieldwork to get him closer to that ultimate deal.
“Despite criticism following President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for the most part I have seen a growing receptivity to peace across the region,” Greenblatt said Tuesday at a security conference in Tel Aviv.
“During my travels, I found Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs, young and old alike, secular and religious, Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, to be increasingly inspired by the possibility of peace. President Trump has brought a fresh set of eyes and energy to the task of peacemaking. It is clear that President Trump’s actions and language have changed expectations about what is possible. He has revitalized the discussion and language of peace in the region.”
The current push for peace “reflects the president’s unorthodox approach to the region,” he added.
Previous “well-meaning attempts” to end this conflict have failed, which is why Trump believes “fresh thinking and bold decisions are needed… and we have acted in accordance with that guidance,” Greenblatt said.
America has always been here in advancing the way along a negotiated path. That's been true in the past; it is true in the present; and we will be here in the future. Please watch my remarks at the @INSSIsrael conference #INSS2018 in Tel Aviv: https://t.co/goXAvzsVRH
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) January 31, 2018
Rather than imposing a solution from the outside, Israelis and Palestinians must have “space to make their own decisions about their future,” he went on. “Instead of blaming one party or the other for the failure of talks, “we must focus on unlocking new areas of cooperation which benefit both Palestinians and Israelis.”
The US will therefore support “whatever the two sides can agree on,” Greenblatt declared. “We will not impose a deal on either party. But, we know the desire for peace is real, is powerful, and should be harnessed.”
Turning to what has caused a major hiccup in the administration’s efforts at peacemaking, Greenblatt asserted that Trump’s December 6 decision on Jerusalem did not prejudge any final status, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
It is easy to walk away from the table. But that helps no one, and it reduces or perhaps eliminates the chances of achieving a peace agreement
The American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital neither signals “bias against one side,” nor does it mean the US is abandoning the peace process, he posited.
“The United States is as committed as ever to reaching an agreement that guarantees a peaceful, prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians. That’s why this administration continues to work on developing a peace plan that can bring both parties to the negotiating table.”
Despite the negative reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, “we have remained hard at work and have not deviated for a moment from our efforts with respect to the peace plan,” Greenblatt told participants of the Institute for National Security Studies.
“It is easy to walk away from the table. But that helps no one, and it reduces or perhaps eliminates the chances of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement. And that would be terrible for the Palestinian people.”
While Greenblatt said all that in Tel Aviv, it sounded like he was really addressing a Palestinian audience.
The next day, Greenblatt participated in the extraordinary session of the so-called Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), a group of major donors to the PA, which took place in Brussels.
At the meeting — which was also attended by Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and other Palestinian top officials — Greenblatt repeated verbatim many of the points he made in Tel Aviv.
However, in Brussels he went into much more detail regarding his on-the-ground efforts to advance the peace process by raising the Palestinians’ quality of life.
Now that the #AHLC has concluded, I want to thank President Trump and @Jdgreenblatt45 for their support for all our humanitarian and economic projects in Gaza. If we are going to improve the lives of the people of the region, there is no substitute for American leadership. pic.twitter.com/fp2W8Z0n42
— Tzachi Hanegbi – צחי הנגבי (@Tzachi_Hanegbi) February 1, 2018
He acknowledged that little progress has been made since the AHLC last met, but hailed “marginal” successes, such as last week’s installation of 3G service in the West Bank.
“But there remain many areas where we must do better — much better,” he said, citing, for example, the need to complete deals that would improve the distribution of electricity and water across the Palestinian territories.
“We must use the next year to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Working to increase Palestinian trade with its neighbors would be an important step toward stabilizing the Palestinian economy,” Greenblatt said.
Perhaps most importantly, he added, the humanitarian situation in Gaza needs to be improved. “President Trump truly wants to help,” he asserted.
“The time has come for us to rededicate ourselves to facilitating investments in new infrastructure that will supply the people of Gaza with more power and water,” he said.
The US has been the single largest donor to the Palestinians in history; as such, no one should be lecturing us about our financial assistance
The US is ready to work with Israel, the PA, and others in the international arena to advance several projects increasing Palestinian quality of life, he vowed.
Greenblatt then addressed the elephant in the room: Trump’s repeated threat to cut aid to the Palestinians, a threat that has already partially been implemented with the withholding of some $100 million in funding for the UN’s agency looking after Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
“While we understand that some may disagree with our approach to Jerusalem and our approach to the peace process, no one — no one — can credibly say that we have not honored our financial commitments to the Palestinians,” Greenblatt said.
“The United States has been the single largest donor to the Palestinians in history; as such, no one should be lecturing us about our financial assistance.”
But Trump, aware of his less-than-stellar approval ratings among the Palestinians, evidently considers US aid to Ramallah his main leverage in getting them back to the negotiating table.
“We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support,” the president said last week in Davos, “and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.”
Observers may be tempted to dismiss the president’s unscripted remarks, arguing that they were made on the spur of the moment and do not accurately describe the administration’s foreign policy objectives. In this context one could draw parallels with Trump tweeting last October that his foreign minister, Rex Tillerson, was “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with North Korea.
But on Tuesday, during his carefully crafted State of the Union address, Trump stressed that he is serious about cutting aid to those who stand in the way of his agenda, asking Congress to “ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”
Whether it was a conscious decision or just happened to work out that way, the administration has adopted a good cop/bad cop approach to the Palestinian refusal to play ball. While Trump is brandishing the stick, Greenblatt is promising carrots.
“These different ways of talking to the Palestinians don’t necessarily contradict each other,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University. “Greenblatt is saying that the Palestinians are suffering, and if they come to the table, we’ll help them. Trump is saying, if they don’t come to the table, they will suffer even more. It’s really two sides of the same coin.”
So far, Ramallah has been utterly unresponsive to either approach. But that won’t keep Trump and Greenblatt from trying.