Two top foreign dignitaries visited the region this week, representing contrasting views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both are good news for Israel, relatively speaking.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres advanced the traditional positions of the international community by pushing for a “two-state solution that will end the occupation.” US President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, on the other hand, focused on exploring grassroots efforts to bring the two sides closer together on the ground.
The two men visited many of the same stations: the Prime Minister’s Office, the presidential compound in Ramallah, the Erez Crossing and the homes of Israelis living close to the Gaza Strip. But despite the similar itineraries, the two men, who on Monday briefly met in Jerusalem, came with different goals and different strategies.
Guterres urged immediate steps to bring about peace, while Greenblatt seemed eager to explore ways to bring the two societies closer together to prepare the ground for a reconciliation that would precede peace.
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) August 27, 2017
Greenblatt’s approach to the peace process is certainly more to the liking of Israel’s right-wing government, but it can also feel satisfied with Guterres, who went as far as he could given his position in expressing sympathy for the Jewish state.
To be sure, he said some things Israeli officials could have done without. He reiterated that settlement activity is “illegal under international law,” expressed support for a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and called for an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, describing the Strip’s state as a “dramatic humanitarian crisis.”
And yet, his speeches and gestures here were more positive than Israelis could have expected from the head of an organization that is meant to remain “neutral” but is notorious for its relentless bashing of the Jewish state.
While he sometimes disagreed with the Israeli government, on Monday he declared in Jerusalem that he remains committed to the UN’s “impartiality” — meaning that Israel must not be singled out for undue criticism — and stressed that he considers calls for Israel’s destruction “a form of modern anti-Semitism.” He repeated this idea several times this week.
Israel has “fulfilled the rights and national aspirations of Jews throughout generations,” he said, which is as close as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state as a top UN official has ever come.
After his visit to Nahal Oz, a kibbutz on the border with Gaza, the secretary general praised the residents of the rocket-struck kibbutz for suppressing “what would be natural feeling of anger” and instead sending “an extraordinary message of peace and reconciliation” and offering to help Palestinian civilians in the Hamas-run enclave.
Guterres garnered much praise from Jerusalem and the wider Jewish world. Hosting him in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the UN’s “absurd obsession with Israel” but in the same breath praised its new secretary general for his demonstrated desire “to turn a new page in relations.”
After a private meeting Monday, Israel Council on Foreign Affairs president Dan Meridor said he found Guterres to be “fair-minded.”
The Anti-Defamation League, too, lauded Guterres’s equivalency between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel agitation as “significant.” “These remarks, along with his recognition of the daily security and terror threats faced by Israelis, send a clear message and are an important signal that the Secretary-General understands the challenges Israel faces in the region,” the group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said.
Guterres’s somewhat unexpectedly sympathetic tone when addressing Israelis may have to do with the Trump administration’s ongoing threats to withdraw funding from the UN if it doesn’t rein in anti-Israel bias.
Yad Vashem sends an essential message: remember the Nazi genocide, act against hatred today. Silence abets bigotry. pic.twitter.com/RyXBSOqpCb
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) August 28, 2017
In substance, however, his approach was not new. He espoused the exact same positions on Gaza and the peace process as his predecessors did before him. And that is where his approach fundamentally differs from that of Jason Greenblatt, who remained loyal to the US administration’s policy of refraining from publicly subscribing to any clear-cut policy.
In Tuesday’s meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Guterres mentioned the two-state solution nine times.
Greenblatt, by contrast, has never publicly endorsed the notion of two states for two peoples. Rather than making policy pronouncements, Trump’s envoy met with officials and civil society leaders from both sides and continued his effort to strengthen Israeli-Palestinian coexistence projects.
He visited two crossings into Gaza — where he met with Palestinian businessmen, walked through a Hamas terror tunnel and participated in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over another power purchasing agreement.
At the Ziv Hospital in Safed, he was “extremely impressed” by Israel’s aid to thousands of Syrian refugees. “These are the stories of Israel the world needs to hear and stories like this show how peace in the region can be possible,” he said.
Israeli doctors have saved over 3,500 Syrian lives in 4 yrs. If war can bring the 2 sides together, imagine what could be achieved w/ peace? pic.twitter.com/Qb4LzrUCfA
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) August 29, 2017
Greenblatt also toured the Jalameh (Gilboa) crossing, in the northern West Bank, to learn about Israeli-Palestinian economic and security cooperation and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s regional initiative to extend railroads to connect Israelis and Palestinians to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
Greenblatt visited Rawabi — the first city built for West Bank Palestinians — and met with Palestinian academic leaders to “discuss [the] role of higher education in economic growth and a stronger civil society,” and with a group of Gazans.
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) August 28, 2017
Greenblatt also made time to stop by at a practice of a mixed Arab and Jewish soccer club in Jerusalem suburb Mevasseret Zion. “It’s very important to face racism, to fight discrimination, and I’m very energized by programs like this. I think they’re very important for what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of peace,” he said. “In my mind, a peace agreement will not be successful the day after, until the societies reconnect. And this is a perfect example of societies connecting,” he said of the team.
This nicely sums up Greenblatt’s strategy. In parallel to talks with political leaders in Ramallah in Jerusalem, he is trying to see what civil society can do to help the process.
Careful not to jeopardize his reputation as an honest broker, Trump’s envoy made sure to say nice things about both Israelis and Palestinians, though his praise for the Israelis he met was much more effusive.
More importantly, however, his tour this week underlined once more that the US administration, while keen on clinching the ultimate deal, remains hesitant to impose policies on Jerusalem. Rather, it appears that the White House has come to understand that any attempt to relaunch peace negotiations needs to be bolstered by a serious effort to nourish reconciliation and coexistence.