Jason Greenblatt, the US administration’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations, on Thursday met with senior Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Jerusalem, reportedly calling the meeting “the most important” of his visit.
Greenblatt — a close confidant of US President Donald Trump — hosted the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land at the US Consulate-General in Jerusalem just before he met for a second time this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to one participant, Greenblatt said the 90-minute encounter, attended by both Israeli chief rabbis and the chief justice of the Palestinian Authority’s Sharia court, was the most important meeting of his weeklong tour through the region.
“The leaders agreed that the search for peace must be governed by respect for life and human dignity for all people; to work together for peace, reconciliation, and a just solution; and to reject all incitement to violence,” said a statement released by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.
On his Twitter account, Greenblatt said the clergymen were “promoting tolerance.”
He said Thursday’s meeting was the first time the council had gathered since 2013, though one member, Rabbi David Rosen, said this was incorrect.
At the same time, Rosen, and interfaith advisor to the Chief Rabbinate, said Greenblatt’s initiative to meet with the council was “historic” in that it marked the first time in recent memory that a senior US administration official engaged in peacemaking efforts asked to meet with the religious leaders.
“This was the first time that a presidential emissary to the Middle East has taken the initiative to meet with the Council. From that point of view it’s very historic, because the impression previous administrations’ peace initiatives have given is that religion has not been considered an important factor in trying to resolve the conflict,” Rosen told The Times of Israel shortly after the meeting concluded. “Jason Greenblatt has give precisely the reverse message.”
It was “really very strange” that former US secretary of state John Kerry, who made strident efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, ignored the religious dimension of the conflict, Rosen said.
Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, told Rosen that his talks with Netanyahu, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah were all very meaningful, but that the gathering with the religious leaders to him was “the most important meeting at all,” Rosen said.
Rosen said he told Greenblatt that would-be peacemakers in the Middle East often believe that religion is the source of the problem and therefore choose to entirely ignore it. But that’s a fallacy, warned the British-born rabbi, who also serves as the AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.
“If you don’t want religion to be part of the problem you have to make it part of solution,” Rosen went on. “That doesn’t mean religious leaders should replace politicians — that would be a disaster. But you have to engage with them.”
Bishop Munib Younan, who heads the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land and presides over the Lutheran World Federation, told Greenblatt that while religious leaders cannot make peace in the Middle East, it is impossible to make peace without them, according to Rosen.
The meeting, which was scheduled to last for an hour but ended up running half an hour late, was marked by some heated discussions between Muslim and Israel clergymen over who is responsible for incitement, Rosen said.
“But all agreed that they must work together to combat incitement,” he said. “Everyone agreed that promoting values of sanctity of life, dignity of the human person, religious freedom and the protection of holy sites is something that they must all stand together for.”
Rosen, a veteran promoter of interfaith understanding, said he could not tell whether Greenblatt’s initiative to foster an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will have more success than previous such efforts.
“We certainly had enough disappointments here over last decades to warrant a certain amount of skepticism,” he said. “But if we don’t support every possible initiative to bring an end to the conflict, we have our children and grandchildren to answer to.”
The Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, founded in 2005, is the “first consultative body representing the highest official religious authorities in the Holy Land (Judaism, Christianity and Islam),” according to its website.
Members includes both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, the heads of the PA’s sharia courts and various local Christian groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Latin Patriarchate, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Anglican-Episcopal Church and several others.
Greenblatt has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah for the past few days, meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas and other Israeli and Palestinian top officials.
Greenblatt also met with civilian leaders from both sides. He visited, for instance, Yeshivat Hakotel, a Talmudic seminary in Jerusalem’s Old City. He also spoke to Palestinian youth leaders in the Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah “to understand their daily experiences,” as he wrote on his Twitter account.
He also met with a “cross section of folks from Gaza” who gave him “hope we can find solutions to humanitarian challenges while meeting Israel’s security needs,” he tweeted.