Exiting US peace envoy says he tried to change the discourse about the conflict
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Exiting US peace envoy says he tried to change the discourse about the conflict

Jason Greenblatt tells newspaper Israeli-Palestinian strife ‘not the core conflict of the region’; defends unilateral decisions as right for US, even if not helpful to broker deal

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks at a conference in New York City, June 16, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
US Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks at a conference in New York City, June 16, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace said this week that the administration wanted to “change the conversation” around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as part of its push to broker an accord.

“Among my primary responsibilities was to study the conflict, come up with a vision together with my co-workers, educating people about the conflict, and be out there changing the conversation about the conflict, which has been an enormous priority for us,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat, an international Arabic newspaper based in London.

Greenblatt, one of the architects of the White House’s peace proposal, announced last month that he would step down shortly after Israel’s elections to spend time with his family in New Jersey. He told the newspaper that critics who have claimed the timing of his decision signaled a lack of confidence in the success of the plan were off base.

“I’ve heard a lot of theories about my departure since it was announced,” he said in the interview published Wednesday. “Let me dispel those myths. This has very much a family decision. I am a father; I’m a husband. I have responsibilities, and my family deserves to have me more fully in their lives.”

“I originally intended to take this position for around two years,” he added. “It’s very hard on my family to be separated all week.”

Washington had planned to unveil the political component of its plan once a new government was formed. Now, with Israel still in a deadlock, it’s not clear how much longer he will stay in the administration — and whether his proposal will ever see the light of day.

While the administration has kept details of the plan close to its chest, Palestinians and other critics say the administration’s rhetoric and actions to recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — moves that were widely welcomed in Israel — show the proposal will not be even-handed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech before the newly-unveiled sign for the new settlement of “Ramat Trump”, or “Trump Heights” in English, named after the incumbent US President during an official ceremony in the Golan Heights on June 16, 2019. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Those moves were made because they served American interests, Greenblatt said, suggesting a break with previous administrations which regarded recognition as a chip to be used in leverage in future negotiations.

“I think people conflate the issues,” he said. “All those decisions — Jerusalem recognition, the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan — were not made only through a peace process lens. Of course, we consider the potential impact on the peace process, but that’s only one lens that we put on it. We made those decisions because they are the right decisions for the United States.”

Critics of the Trump administration’s approach have argued that it hurt America’s capacity to mediate negotiations. Since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to engage with the Trump team, including Greenblatt.

His departure was hailed by the Palestinians as a sign of the failure of the peace plan, which has been long-delayed by Israeli political instability. He will be replaced in his role by Avi Berkowitz, a senior aide to Kushner who has been present in many of the confidential meetings related to the peace proposal.

Like Greenblatt, who was a real estate lawyer for the Trump Organization before being tapped for the special envoy role, Berkowitz comes into the job without any formal experience negotiating complex international treaties.

Outgoing US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt is seen with successor Avi Berkowitz in an April photo (Twitter)

Greenblatt also defended the White House’s decision to cut aid to the Palestinians, and urged other donor countries to reconsider their giving, too.

“Palestinians are among the largest recipients of donor assistance per capita in the world today,” he said. “Yet despite decades of work, billions of dollars, euros, shekels, and dinars donated, life continues to get worse for Palestinians. The world can’t continue to throw money and resources at this problem in the same way; when they do, we get the same results we’ve gotten for decades, which is just continued suffering for Palestinians.”

He went on, “The United States won’t continue to invest in temporary solutions that only prolong the cycle of suffering and violence. It’s time to help Palestinians live better lives. And in that process, hopefully we will also achieve peace.”

Greenblatt later asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not at the root of Middle East instability.

“It is important to remember that this is not the core conflict of the region,” he said. “It is a conflict that would be better for the region if it’s resolved, but it is not going to resolve all of the other serious threats to the region — most notably, Iran.”

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