Trump’s departing peace envoy hails ‘huge shift’ in neighbors’ ties with Israel
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Farewell interviewQuotes 'Hotel California' to say he'll never leave peace bid

Trump’s departing peace envoy hails ‘huge shift’ in neighbors’ ties with Israel

Jason Greenblatt acknowledges forthcoming peace plan may not be embraced immediately; stresses US is not judge or jury, ‘and we are not going to force anything on either party’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (R) speaks with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, during the Arab Summit in the Jordanian Dead Sea resort of Sweimeh on March 29, 2017. (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (R) speaks with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, during the Arab Summit in the Jordanian Dead Sea resort of Sweimeh on March 29, 2017. (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)

Jason Greenblatt is formally leaving his position as the White House point man for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking at the end of this week, but he plans to stay involved in efforts to solve this intractable conflict.

“I hope to continue to help seek peace and improve the lives of all in the region — Palestinians, Israelis and all of their neighbors,” he told The Times of Israel this week in a farewell interview.

“Someone who was involved in prior peace efforts said to me when I announced my departure that this effort is like the Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ — You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. That resonated with me. The people and leaders throughout the region have touched my heart and my soul, and I hope to remain involved and help achieve a solution to this long-standing conflict.”

Greenblatt, whose family resides in Teaneck, New Jersey, said that one of the administration’s greatest achievements in the Middle East was to bring Israel closer to the Arab world, something he considered a core mission.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd from right) meets at his Jerusalem office with the ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (right); White House adviser Jared Kushner (center); US Ambassador David Friedman (second left); and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, on June 22, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“Before this Administration, engagement between Israel and its neighbors was often behind the scenes. People were reluctant to speak about it out loud. Now, in just three years, we see a huge shift with countries being increasingly open about its relationship and engagement with Israel,” he said.

Reflecting on his two-and-half-year term as US President Donald Trump’s “Special Representative for International Negotiations,” Greenblatt said he helped create “a solid vision for peace, one that can actually be achieved and improve the lives of millions of people.” But he also acknowledged that the peace proposal, which he authored together with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, may not be “embraced immediately” by the two sides.

“When the plan is released, each side will have to decide how it wants to proceed,” he said. “When the vision is released, I hope that both parties will read it carefully and not make any hasty decisions. Rejecting the plan outright helps no one.”

What follows is the entire text of the interview, which was conducted via email.

The Times of Israel: You are ending your term by the end of October, most likely weeks if not months before the launch of peace plan that you put so much effort into. Why did you decide not to stick around a little longer to see it through and deal with the responses that the plan’s publication will certainly elicit?

Jason Greenblatt: I’ve heard a lot of theories about my departure since it was announced. I’ve been clear that it’s very much a family decision. It’s time to return to my wife and six children, who have remained in New Jersey during my time in the administration. I am a father, I’m a husband, I have responsibilities, and my family deserves to have me more fully in their lives.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Special Negotiations adviser Jason Greenblatt. (Twitter)

I only intended to join the administration for two years, and in that time I’ve worked to analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to draft a realistic and implementable vision to help solve the conflict, and to work on developing relationships between Israel and the region.

What do you say to those who argue that you quitting the White House before the peace proposal is publicized indicates that you yourself have very little confidence in the plan’s success?

There’s never a perfect time to make an announcement like this, but I’m very proud of the work we’ve done and the realistic and implementable vision we’ve drafted, and I’m confident in our team and their commitment to carrying it forward.

As hard as you worked on the plan, you are undoubtedly aware that it may very well fail, not least because the Palestinians have already declared their intention to reject it outright. What should happen then? Are you in favor of maintaining the status quo until there is a new Palestinian leadership, or would you support active steps, such as, for example, a unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank?

The administration will release the plan when the time is right and when they think it has the best chance of success. I hope that the vision we have drafted can advance the cause of peace and bring people together [and] start a productive, realistic discussion — even if it’s not embraced immediately.

We’ve been very successful in speaking the hard truths and encouraging people to think outside the stale, decades-old talking points on this conflict.

But it’s important to remember that nobody can force this vision upon anyone. When the plan is released, each side will have to decide how it wants to proceed. When the vision is released, I hope that both parties will read it carefully and not make any hasty decisions. Rejecting the plan outright helps no one.

How do you respond to critics who say that Avi Berkowitz, who was tapped as your successor, is too inexperienced to take on a portfolio as complicated as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Avi is a sincere, genuine person who takes his work seriously and I have a lot of respect for him. He has spent two and a half years at Jared’s side in the White House and has developed quite a good relationship with Middle East ambassadors and diplomats.

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

I have no doubt he can handle the role, together with Jared Kushner, David Friedman, Brian Hook, and our many other colleagues across the US government who have helped us and will continue to do so. We have always worked as a team and I absolutely think he is qualified to do what’s expected of him.

Looking back at your term, what would you describe as your greatest achievement? And where did you go wrong, what do you regret?

Among my primary responsibilities in this role was to study the conflict, come up with a vision together with my colleagues, and re-educate people about the conflict. I think we’ve been very successful in speaking the hard truths and encouraging people to think outside the stale, decades-old talking points on this conflict. I don’t think those talking points will ever resolve the conflict.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president’s assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas’s office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)

My role also included connecting Israel with the Arab world in ways I don’t think I could have imagined two and a half years ago. We certainly don’t take full credit for that — of course credit is due to us, including of course President Trump and Jared Kushner, but also to Prime Minister Netanyahu and each of the Arab leaders who have made this happen.

Some people who initially considered you an honest broker, especially in the beginning, later on felt that you too eagerly embraced Israel and too viciously attacked the Palestinians. In one interview you said you don’t see any reason to criticize the government in Jerusalem. Did you never wonder if your pro-Israel statements, and those countless tweets attacking Palestinian officials, could undermine your credibility as fair negotiator tasked with mediating between the two sides?

This administration has always been clear — Israel is one of our strongest allies, our support of Israel’s security is unwavering, and we will speak hard truths about the conflict. I take issue with your characterization that I attacked Palestinian officials on Twitter. I have engaged with Palestinian officials and everyday Palestinians in numerous ways and I am proud of the relationships I have built with many Palestinians.

The United States is not a judge, nor a jury, and we are not going to force anything on either party

When I criticized Palestinian officials, it was to push back on their support for heinous programs such as the Palestinian Authority’s “pay to slay” program, where they reward Palestinians who murder Israelis, or where they condemned our peace vision without even seeing it, or other efforts that truly harm ordinary Palestinians and the prospects for peace.

Regardless, we all know that the only way to truly end the conflict will be a political vision that both sides will negotiate directly and agree to together. The United States is not a judge, nor a jury, and we are not going to force anything on either party.

No country, group of countries or international organization is a judge or jury, nor can any of them force a deal here. I do believe that our political vision is one to which both sides can engage on, negotiate and eventually agree upon.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, center, and US peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, right, meeting at the US Embassy’s branch office in Tel Aviv on September 23, 2019. (Courtesy/Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

You have said that one of your goals was to “change the conversation” around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, you told the UN Security Council that there is no international consensus on the issue, and dismissed previous resolutions and international law as unable to bring about peace. Do you feel you achieved your mission? Were you able to penetrate the conventional wisdom about the conflict? Or did your comments fall on deaf ears?

I have long said that peace will require honesty and a willingness to consider new ideas, as well as courage and hard compromises. This process has been about us speaking to the parties and to countries interested in this conflict candidly, not in stale slogans and calcified talking points. While some countries may have disagreed with the numerous speeches I made at the UN Security Council, others agreed.

Moreover, some diplomats whose countries disagreed with my remarks privately acknowledged to me that they agreed with much of what I said and the necessity to be more frank and direct as I was. So I think it was a mixture — some listened and absorbed and in private agreed with some of the remarks, and others were unconvinced and will remain so for some time.

In terms of your question about whether I believe I have achieved my mission, in some respects, yes. Among my primary responsibilities was to educate people about the conflict and change the conversation about the conflict. We also set out to create closer ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I believe that we have made progress on those fronts.

I also think we have created a solid vision for peace, one that can actually be achieved and improve the lives of millions of people. But there is so much more to do. Step by step I hope that those who remain involved in the process will continue to make progress.

During your term, we have witnessed many instances indicating a rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world, not least at the Peace to Prosperity economic workshop in Bahrain. And yet, many skeptics argue that Netanyahu’s so-called outside-in approach won’t work, that the Arab states will only fully normalize relations with Israel after the Palestinian issue has been settled. Do you believe Arab-Israeli peace is possible even before a comprehensive agreement with Ramallah?

As I said earlier, one of the things I am most proud of is the work that we have done in connecting Israel with its Arab neighbors. Before this administration, engagement between Israel and its neighbors was often behind the scenes. People were reluctant to speak about it out loud.

Now, in just three years, we see a huge shift with countries being increasingly open about its relationship and engagement with Israel. It remains to be seen how far this goes and I don’t think anyone really knows. We will need to wait and see.

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, right, at the opening dinner of the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain, June 24, 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

But moving in this direction can only benefit everyone. The anti-normalization philosophy has not worked. Israel has thrived despite this philosophy and the Palestinians have suffered. And the Arab countries only stand to gain from working with Israel. It is time for people to take a harder look at this issue.

As opposed to President Trump, you are diplomatic and discreet, soft-spoken and polite. And yet, you always loyally backed your boss, never publicly second-guessing his unconventional — some say brash — style, nor his controversial policy decisions. Now that you are ready to leave the administration, can you share with us how you really felt about the president cutting funds to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence projects last year, or, more recently, his withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria?

I fully support President Trump’s decisions.

Finally, tell us about your future plans. You said would return to the private sector. What kind of job are you interested in? Would you consider a position in a think tank dealing with the peace process, or do you want a break from the mess that is the Middle East?

Well, this is the first time in nearly a quarter of a century that I am looking for a job. I have had a remarkable 23 years working for President Trump. It has been amazing. I don’t know what the future holds in store for me and I am excited to see. I do hope to remain somewhat involved in the peace effort. I consider it a privilege to have been able to interact with everyone — from ordinary citizens, young and old alike, to leaders throughout the region.

I see tremendous promise and potential, despite the challenges. I hope to continue to help seek peace and improve the lives of all in the region — Palestinians, Israelis and all of their neighbors. The next generation there deserves a much better future and I would be proud to play a role in helping them get there.

Someone who was involved in prior peace efforts said to me when I announced my departure that this effort is like the Eagles song “Hotel California” — “You can check out any time you want but you can never leave.” That resonated with me. The people and leaders throughout the region have touched my heart and my soul, and I hope to remain involved and help achieve a solution to this long-standing conflict.

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