Man with Trump’s Peace Plan
By Michael Warren
The Weekly Standard
November 24, 2017
Donald Trump is confident he can get a comprehensive
agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. As one diplomat in Washington
recently put it, the president is more optimistic than anyone else for peace in
the Middle East. Trump told Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian
Authority, during his visit to the White House in May, “I want to support you
in being the Palestinian leader who signs his name to the final and most
important peace agreement that brings safety, stability, and prosperity to both
peoples and to the region.”
As Trump’s first year in office comes to an end, some of
his closest advisers are preparing to release a plan to resolve an issue that
has vexed American administrations for decades. The White House has been
tight-lipped about the ideas being discussed as part of its peace plan or even
when to expect it. Two policy experts who have consulted with administration
officials say the team was preparing to circulate a draft as early as
mid-December, something the White House now denies.
“There has never been and still isn’t a timetable to
present our ideas,” says one White House official. “We have never set a time
frame and have consistently stated we are not going to set artificial deadlines.
The goal is to get this right and to do that we need flexibility.”
Flexibility has been a scarce resource in past
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but the Trump administration has reason to
believe there’s more of it today. For starters, there’s the president’s
close relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a level of
trust between the two countries that was almost entirely absent during the Obama
administration. There are also warmer relations between United States and some
of the surrounding Arab states—prompted by the recognition of the common
threat of a nuclear Iran. The White House sees a chance to engage with the
Palestinians but believes seizing this opportunity requires something more than
another toothless peace proposal.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we present a
two- or three-page framework. The parties generally agree. Then we find out six
months later, the whole thing blows up,” says a senior administration
official. “We’re really trying hard, and the reason it’s taking so long is
to make something more significant . . . something more comprehensive.”
Leading Trump’s effort is a triumvirate of Orthodox Jews:
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador
to Israel; and Jason Greenblatt, a Trump Organization lawyer who was tapped as
the president’s “special representative for international negotiations.”
Other principals on the team include deputy national security adviser Dina
Powell and Donald Blome, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem.
Based in Tel Aviv, Friedman has the most direct contact
with the Israelis, while Kushner has cultivated relationships with the Gulf Arab
states—most recently leading a White House trip (which included Greenblatt and
Powell) to Saudi Arabia, the third time Kushner has visited the country this
year. But much of the staff work of the Mideast peace team runs through
Greenblatt’s office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He directs an
interagency team, including National Security Council and State Department
staff. Greenblatt reports to Kushner and, of course, the president—not, as his
predecessors in previous administrations have done, to the secretary of state.
This Trump effort to solve peace in the Middle East is primarily a White House
A 50-year-old father of six, Greenblatt hasn’t fully
moved to Washington from Teaneck, New Jersey, where his family is part of a
large Modern Orthodox community. His wife and kids travel south nearly every
week to join him for Shabbat in the nation’s capital. Greenblatt has long been
a regular visitor to Israel; he and his wife, Naomi, have even written a book on
traveling there, Israel for Families (2015). “I do rely on him as a
consultant on Israel,” Trump told a group of Jewish reporters during his 2016
campaign. “He’s a person who truly loves Israel. I love to get advice from
people that know Israel, but from people that truly love Israel.” And Trump
trusts him as a 20-year veteran of his real-estate company.
Greenblatt came to the White House job with no diplomatic
experience. The selection was greeted by many in Washington with skepticism. But
others say Greenblatt brings a much-needed outsider’s perspective unencumbered
by preconceptions about what can and cannot be accomplished in peace
negotiations. “I think he kind of brings a fresh approach. He’s a very good
listener. I think he’s got a great temperament,” says Ron Dermer, the
Israeli ambassador to the United States.
“He’s talked to an awful lot of people,” says Elliott
Abrams, who was a deputy national security adviser in charge of Middle East
issues in George W. Bush’s White House. “He has reached out here in
Washington to educate himself. If you’re an intelligent person and you have
bathed in this for a year, you’re going to learn a lot.”
Part of Greenblatt’s education has come from his seven
official visits to Israel in 2017, on top of trips to other countries in the
region. He regularly meets with Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab leaders. Those
meetings supplement what the administration believes is a relationship of mutual
trust with Israel and the Netanyahu government.
“Jason has the unique ability to be both an ardent
defender of Israel and a fair mediator at the same time,” says David Friedman.
“He has infinite patience to hear and understand the views of all parties, but
he never loses sight of America’s unbreakable bond to Israel and the U.S.
national interest in seeing that Israel’s security and stability never be
placed at risk.”
Getting a viable peace proposal together also means
mediating between opposing views within the administration. The White House
maintains that Israel’s security is the top priority for any plan, but there
are disagreements about what this means. There are advocates for the withdrawal
of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stationed in border areas like the
Palestinian-controlled West Bank and Israel’s side of the Jordan Valley,
replacing them with some kind of multinational force and more security
technology. This was a major provision of a plan drafted by Marine general John
Allen during failed 2013-14 peace talks, and some sources say the idea has been
raised in the White House again in 2017.
An IDF withdrawal is almost certainly a step too far for
Netanyahu, and it has plenty of critics on the Trump team. One administration
official insists no such measure has even “been discussed internally.”
“Israel’s security needs will be addressed in any proposal and the Allen
plan is not being looked at or considered and anybody who is telling you
otherwise is completely misinformed,” says the official.
Developments in the region are likely to alter whatever
plans are being made for renewed negotiations. The recent upheaval in the Saudi
government is one unknown, although the success of Mohammad bin Salman’s
consolidation of power may portend well for the American effort—the crown
prince and Kushner are close allies. The latest attempt at reconciliation
between Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that effectively controls Gaza,
and Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, is a larger question
mark. And the corruption scandals plaguing Netanyahu and his political allies
make his coalition government’s future uncertain.
Until the details of the still-forming peace plan are
known, it’s impossible to evaluate how likely any Trump effort is to succeed.
It’s thought that the administration will propose a version of the two-state
solution with an independent Palestinian state that has been U.S. policy since
the George W. Bush presidency. But Trump’s willingness to entertain publicly
just about any idea makes the situation hard to read. “I’m looking at
two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very
happy with the one that both parties like,” he said in February.
Critics see statements like that as a sign the Trump team
has little appreciation for the history of peace negotiations and is making a naïve
effort. But others see hope in Trump’s disruptive and pragmatic approach.
“The greatest book about America was written by a Frenchman,” says Dermer,
“and so sometimes having an outsider’s perspective helps.”