An unlikely negotiator, Jason Greenblatt is pushing ahead by listening up

Though currently blackballed by the PA, the US special envoy is earning plaudits for making everybody feel heard, even as the administration struggles to formulate a peace plan

US special envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) attends the launch of a project to improve access to wastewater treatment and water for Palestinian farmers, on October 15, 2017, in the West Bank city of Jericho. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
US special envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) attends the launch of a project to improve access to wastewater treatment and water for Palestinian farmers, on October 15, 2017, in the West Bank city of Jericho. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s chief Israeli-Palestinian negotiator, has an office just around the corner from the White House.

On his computer monitor is a Post-it note, inscribed with a quote from former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo: “At the end of the day, a peace agreement derives its strength from an understanding between peoples, not an accord between governments.”

It’s an appropriate message for Greenblatt, an affable Orthodox Jew who’s been tasked by Trump with leading Israel and the Palestinians toward peaceful pastures. Given that the lawyer had no prior diplomatic experience, Greenblatt was considered an odd choice for the task, according to observers.

However, according to interlocutors and veteran Israeli-Arab negotiators, Greenblatt, who is about 50, has exceeded expectations. Many on all sides praise him for his investment in the people affected by the conflict — especially for his intensive, public engagement with populations largely overlooked by previous negotiators, such as settlers, the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian refugees.

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog (R) meets with US special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt on March 16, 2017. (Rafi Ben Hinon)

In interviews with more than a dozen people who have met the special representative for international negotiations, one compliment comes up again and again: Greenblatt is a good listener. And that’s a skill that may be essential to the job.

“Greenblatt has made a universally positive impression among Israelis and Palestinians as serious, creative, empathetic and dedicated to the cause of peace,” said Daniel Shapiro, who was the Obama administration’s ambassador to Israel. “They see him as possessing goodwill and a sense of realism about what peace looks like. He deserves the praise he has received for building those relationships of trust in a situation when the parties don’t trust each other at all.”

L-R: Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman meet in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Greenblatt is one member of a team led by Trump’s top adviser, Jared Kushner, who is married to his daughter, Ivanka. The team also includes David Friedman, the ambassador to Israel, and, until January, Dina Powell, a top National Security Council official who is stepping down. Both Friedman, who also is an Orthodox Jew, and Greenblatt worked for years as lawyers for Trump and the Trump Organization.

Yet despite all the goodwill toward Greenblatt, his seemingly altruistic efforts may wither in absence of an overarching political solution. After Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this month, the Palestinians have walked away — at least temporarily — from an American-led peace push.

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the Arab League Summit in Amman, March 28, 2017 (Wafa/Thair Ghnaim)

The Palestinian Authority has assumed a policy of boycotting meetings with US officials, including Greenblatt, essentially putting a highly anticipated peace plan by the administration on hold, according to reports.

Greenblatt was in the region earlier this month as part of a visit originally scheduled to include US Vice President Mike Pence, who delayed his trip for a Senate tax vote, and reportedly did not even attempt a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Greenblatt “knows that no meeting will happen, even if he asks,” Abbas aide Majdi al-Khalidi said at the time.

Greenblatt has also raised some eyebrows among Israeli officials, who while applauding the recognition of Jerusalem as capital, have expressed trepidation at others aspects of the Trump administration’s emerging approach.

For example, Greenblatt has welcomed Palestinian Authority attempts to assume control of the Gaza Strip — but Israel’s government is concerned that such control will also increase Hamas’ influence.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro attends at a fare-well session at the Knesset ahead of his departure from the role on January 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shapiro, who is now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said that Greenblatt “can only operate within the constraints of the policy he or she is tasked to carry out.”

But what the policy is — and what constraints they come with — are not very discernible under the current administration.

“All we know is that the US believes in peace, supports Palestinian economic development, opposes terror and recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” Shapiro said. “Each of those positions is correct, but without an overarching framework of a policy goal and initiative focused on achieving a two-state solution to end the conflict, nothing ties those threads together, and there is little any envoy can do to advance toward that goal.”

A White House official said that Trump’s critics were missing the point: Whatever peace plan the administration advances should emerge organically from the people whom it would most affect.

“However the peace agreement shakes out at the end of the day will be in one in which the two societies are connected economically and otherwise,” said the official, who requested anonymity in order to speak expansively about the Trump administration’s peace efforts. “We can’t do this from afar, we have to go there to see interactions, how the economics can work out, how business is conducted on the two sides.”

Greenblatt’s office did not agree to an interview.

In September, however, speaking at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the grouping of nations that are invested in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Greenblatt made a case for the administration’s more hands-off approach.

“Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about their future,” he said. “Instead of laying blame for the conflict at the feet of one party or the other, we are focused on implementing existing agreements and unlocking new areas of cooperation which benefit both Palestinians and Israelis.”

US Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt (C), sits with Tzachi Hanegbi (L), Israeli Minister of Regional Cooperation, and Palestinian Authority Water head Mazen Ghuneim during a press conference announcing a water agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, July 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Greenblatt already scored one success: a deal, signed in July, in which Israel sells water to the Palestinian Authority at reduced rates. The water will reach parched areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas.

The agreement, forged at a time in which Israeli and Palestinian leadership barely speak to one another, earned Greenblatt kudos — from the Israelis, at least — for keeping away from hot-button issues that scuttled previous talks.

“When you focus on the issues — and not about history or background or personal emotions or other disturbing elements — the common denominator is much bigger than what separates us,” Tzachi Hanegbi, the country’s minister for regional development, said at the time.

Jason greenblatt, second right, speaks to resident of Nahal Oz on August 30, 2017. (The Israel Project)
Jason greenblatt, second right, speaks to resident of Nahal Oz on August 30, 2017. (The Israel Project)

The evidence shows, though, that Greenblatt does focus on emotional and personal elements — but only as a means of advancing commonalities.

Greenblatt’s Twitter feed is a constant flow of amity. He posts photos of kosher meals he’s received as the guest of the Palestinian Authority or the Saudi kingdom. He ran a series of photos featuring kids from Gaza who visited Washington under a youth exchange program — in one, he thanks the Israeli government for facilitating the group’s travel. (The Palestine Liberation Organization envoy, Husam Zomlot,thanked Greenblatt for his intervention.) He wishes Jews, Muslims and Christians happy holidays at the appropriate times.

It’s a friendly approach that has attracted investment in the peace process from actors who were wary of it in the past.

“Overall, the sense is, we’re being spoken to,” said Elie Pieprz, the director of external affairs for the Yesha Council, the umbrella body for West Bank settlements. “The expectation is that for there to be genuine peace, you need to be speaking to people on all sides, not just a couple of leaders you gather in a hotel in Europe.”

The Palestinian Authority, at least until the Jerusalem issue arose this month, also enthusiastically embraced Trump’s approach, as expressed through Greenblatt, their most frequent interlocutor from the Trump administration.

Husam Zomlot, the PLO envoy to Washington, speaks to reporters in Washington, DC, Aug. 17, 2017. (Ron Kampeas)

Zomlot, the PLO envoy, turned down a request for an interview, but in previous briefings for reporters he expressed admiration for the intensity of Greenblatt’s involvement. “They have traveled to the region, they have met with all parties, especially Mr. Greenblatt,” he said at an August briefing.

“What I’m hearing is that he is primarily in listening mode, respectful of positions trying to understand where they’re coming from, but also preparing for what appears to be big moves,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“He understands the power of weakness of the Palestinian side,” said Nimrod Novik, a former top Israeli negotiator under Labor governments. “Which means once presented with a seemingly impossible position they can easily say no and become domestic heroes.” Greenblatt understands, Novik said, that whatever formula emerges it must not be one that Palestinians reflexively reject.

Regional council chairman Oded Revivi (L) tours with Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem (2nd-R) tours in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on November 8, 2016. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Oded Revivi, the mayor of the settlement of Efrat, which maintains relations with three neighboring Palestinian villages, said Greenblatt was able to extrapolate from the details of that relationship to possible bigger picture solutions. “He’s very interested in small details while remembering that he is representing the strongest country in the world, and he needs to think of the global matter and not just a small suburb of Jerusalem,” he said.

Still, despite Greenblatt’s efforts, there remains considerable frustration — if not anxiety — at the Trump administration’s reluctance to outline a deal. At the same August briefing with reporters, Zomlot wondered “where the hell they are going.” Around the same time that Greenblatt was saying that Hamas-Palestinian Authority would work, if Hamas adheres to principles including the laying down of arms and recognizing Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fretted that the reconciliation could come at “the expense of our existence.”

American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a meeting of the lobby for Israel–United States relations at the Knesset, July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There may be obstacles closer to home as well. Interlocutors who have spent time with the negotiation team say that Friedman is dominant among the group, and his politics tend to veer to the far right on the Israeli political spectrum. Friedman is believed to have been behind Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, and this week told The Jerusalem Post that the Palestinian reaction to the recognition was “ugly” and “anti-Semitic.”

One figure who met with the team notes that Greenblatt spent time at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a West Bank yeshiva noted for leaders who counseled engagement with the Palestinians. A source close to Greenblatt described his year there as “a very meaningful year of growth with great teachers, role models and friends.”

Friedman, before becoming ambassador, was a backer of the more hardline Bet El yeshiva.

Kushner — who is facing legal woes as a special prosecutor investigates the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia — seems less engaged when it comes to getting to a peace agreement. Moreover, he said in leaked remarks over the summer that he doesn’t know if a deal is even possible.

Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on August 24, 2017. (courtesy, WAFA)

However, a White House official said that the team is focused on reaching a deal — but the official added that there is also value in Greenblatt’s confidence-building measures, in and of themselves.

The official added that Trump, who has had about 10 meetings with the team, was very attentive to progress toward reaching a peace deal.

“He’s extremely engaged and interested and dedicated to making this a top priority,” the official said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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