WASHINGTON — Jason Greenblatt’s announcement of his resignation from the Trump administration on Thursday left an opening for a Mideast peace envoy in Washington.
With Israel only 12 days away from its next election, and the White House having said it will unveil its peace plan shortly afterward, the position was quickly filled by one of the few insiders on the secretive process.
Avi Berkowitz, a longtime ally of Jared Kushner and one of his top assistants, will assume Greenblatt’s role once the Trump envoy officially steps down in the coming weeks, after the release of the peace proposal, the White House said.
Greenblatt, a former lawyer with the Trump Organization, has been working for the last two and a half years on the administration’s peace plan together with Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior assistant.
Happy Birthday! pic.twitter.com/cHsBt3N3EG
— Avi Berkowitz (@AviBerkow) June 14, 2019
Berkowitz, 30, has participated in a number of sensitive meetings on the administration’s Israel policy, including talks on the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
In February, he traveled with Kushner throughout the region, including to Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in preparation for publication of the administration’s peace plan.
Despite his quick rise in US President Donald Trump’s White House, he is relatively new to politics.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Berkowitz, who is Jewish, was not known for holding strong political views until Kushner brought him onto the Trump campaign in 2016, according to a profile in Business Insider.
Berkowitz was an undergraduate at Queens College when he first met Kushner at a pick-up basketball game during a Passover celebration in Phoenix, Arizona.
They both grew up in Orthodox Jewish homes in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. Berkowitz was raised in the town of Lawrence and attended the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway for high school. He is the cousin of Howard E. Friedman, who served as president and chairman of the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) between 2006-2010.
After graduating, he spent time in Israel, studying at the Kol Torah Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He continued his Judaic studies in Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College, then transferred to Queens College to finish his degree, and later went to Harvard for his law degree.
— Avi Berkowitz (@AviBerkow) June 9, 2016
Ever since, Berkowitz has been something of a Kushner protégé, working at his private real estate company, his newspaper, the Trump campaign, and in the West Wing.
During his brief stint at the New York Observer in 2016, Berkowitz wrote about anti-Israel advocates on college campuses. He was known as a free speech evangelist, but was strongly critical when another law student made derogatory remarks against MK Tzipi Livni, then Israel’s foreign minister. Berkowitz wrote in the Observer that the comment on Livni being “smelly” had anti-Semitic connotations, and that “recent anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses has emboldened students to conflate protest with hate speech.”
It’s not clear exactly what role Berkowitz will play in the immediate future.
Greenblatt is widely seen as the architect of the Trump administration’s peace deal and has cultivated working relationships with Israeli officials and other regional actors, although the administration’s relationships with Palestinian officials deteriorated during his tenure.
After Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Trump team had forfeited its right to act as an honest mediator in peace talks. It has since boycotted Trump officials.
As for the long-awaited peace plan, the Palestinians have already called it dead on arrival.
US veterans of the peace process have said Berkowitz will inherit a heavy burden. One suggested that he was far less suitable for the job than his predecessor, a former Trump attorney who himself had lacked previous diplomatic experience.
“If Avi Berkowitz is @jdgreenblatt45′s replacement it’s a considerable downgrade in the position,” tweeted Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel under Clinton and special envoy under Obama. “He’s Kushner’s 29-year-old assistant. Nice guy but does not have the weight or experience of Trump’s former real estate lawyer.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.
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