The 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 initiative.

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.”