Donald Trump Stuns the Middle East by Sending an Honest Broker

By Raphael Ahren

Times of Israel

March 17, 2017


Something unusual happened on the White House’s homepage the day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met US President Donald Trump for the first time in the Oval Office.

Netanyahu was still in Washington on the evening of February 16 when, between 9:30 and 10 p.m., a new link appeared at the bottom of the site, under the category “Get Involved,” together with items in support of “empowering female leaders,” Trump’s plan to boost employment, and his nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.

Entitled “President Trump Stands With Israel,” the new link led to a page on which the leader of the free world declares, with no further explanation, that he “stands in solidarity with Israel to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our two nations and to promote security and prosperity for all.”

The page invites users to sign up with their names and email addresses to show that they stand “with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

While the president’s friendship with Netanyahu is no secret, having this item permanently placed on the White House homepage — it’s still there as of this writing, a month after Netanyahu’s visit — is exceedingly surprising. No other foreign country, let alone a single politician from a foreign country, has been given this honor.

And yet, after nearly a full week during which his special representative for international negotiations, Jason Dov Greenblatt, toured the region in a bid to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one cannot help getting the impression that in the months ahead, Washington will not unconditionally side with Jerusalem on all matters relating to the conflict. Greenblatt’s schedule, interactions and comments plainly signal a genuine attempt to take Ramallah’s concerns into consideration as well.

The envoy’s four-day visit, eight hours of which he spent in two sessions sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office, demonstrates quite clearly that Trump does not intend to be Netanyahu’s yes-man.

According to people who spoke with Greenblatt, his boss — who prides himself on having mastered the “art of the deal” — is determined to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Trump himself “expressed his strong desire to achieve a comprehensive, just, and lasting settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” in a statement after he met Wednesday with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And Greenblatt worked exceedingly hard to be perceived by the players he met in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan as an honest broker.

The art of diplomacy

The lawyer-turned-diplomat did not only meet Netanyahu’s counterpart, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but also Jordan’s King Abdullah, another important regional stakeholder whose views on the conflict are not exactly congruent with those of the Israeli leader.

While Greenblatt’s sessions with Abbas and Abdullah were much shorter than the two meetings with Netanyahu, officials in Ramallah were uncharacteristically optimistic after their contacts. Abbas, who Trump had last Friday invited to the White House, declared after his talks with Greenblatt that a “historic” peace deal was possible. “The mood is good,” one Palestinian official said with succinct enthusiasm in a private conversation.

In a unprecedented move for US officials, Greenblatt met Thursday with the heads of the Yesha Council, the settlement movement’s most important advocacy group. But he also spoke to young Palestinians in Bethlehem and at the Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah “to understand their daily experiences.” He met Palestinian high-tech entrepreneurs and a “cross section of folks from Gaza,” as he wrote on his busy Twitter account. The Gazans gave him “hope we can find solutions to humanitarian challenges while meeting Israel’s security needs,” he noted.

Greenblatt on Thursday also hosted a rare interfaith summit of the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which was attended by both Israeli chief rabbis and the chief justice of the PA’s Sharia court.

On Wednesday night, Greenblatt, an observant Jew, visited the Old City’s Yeshivat Hakotel, a Talmudical seminary located in what the international community calls illegally occupied territory, and waxed on Twitter over the stunning “view of the heart of ancient Jerusalem.”

But if you thought that his Orthodoxy and his past as a student in a West Bank yeshiva had caught up with him, Greenblatt then tweeted that following his visit to the yeshiva he walked five minutes “to the home of a new Palestinian friend and saw the same sacred site, from a different angle.”

Some Israelis wondered why Greenblatt had chosen not to wear his customary big, black kippa during his diplomatic meetings. (He remained bareheaded even during the interfaith meeting, only putting on his kippa afterwards for the group photo.) He wanted to appear statesmanlike and not give the impression that he was biased in favor of Jewish Israelis, pundits surmised. But Greenblatt at no point hid his strong Jewish identity. At a stopover in Frankfurt before arriving, he tweeted a photo of his siddur, prayer shawl and phylacteries, indicating that he was about to “[p]ray for peace.”

On Thursday evening, as he wrapped up a visit he called “extremely positive,” he thanked Netanyahu and his staff for helping him make a minyan — the required forum of ten Jewish men — so he could say the Kaddish prayer in memory of his late mother.

Like his boss, Greenblatt tweeted frequently. Very much unlike his boss, his tweets were well-crafted messages of peace — friendly, positive and balanced. “I was extremely fortunate to meet some incredible Israelis and Palestinians on my trip. Thank you all for your perspectives!” he wrote as he headed toward Ben Gurion Airport.

People who spoke to Greenblatt said his mission was to listen and not necessarily to convey elaborate policy proposals. In contrast to the Obama administration — which had a very clear vision of how a solution to the conflict should look from day one — the Trump White House currently appears interested in fully understanding where everyone is at before formulating a coherent Middle East policy.

During his February 15 press conference with Netanyahu, the president said whatever solution both parties want would be fine with him, be it a one-state or a two-state solution. It seems a safe assessment that many of Greenblatt’s interlocutors here argued passionately for the need for a Palestinian state.

And it is in this context that the envoy’s unfinished negotiations with Netanyahu over settlement expansions should be seen. The White House has so far refrained from endorsing a two-state solution, but the fact that Netanyahu in two lengthy meetings did not manage to convince Greenblatt to give him free rein in the West Bank indicates that the Trump administration is determined to keep the prospect of Palestinian statehood alive.

Netanyahu publicly promised to build a new settlement for the recently evicted residents of the illegal Amona outpost, and vowed to reach an agreed-upon policy with the administration regarding settlement construction, but no such deal was done by the time the US envoy flew back to Washington. When this reporter tweeted on Thursday evening that Greenblatt’s second powwow with Netanyahu had ended without concrete results, the US envoy replied that “complex matters are not black and white and require significant time and attention to review and resolve.”

According to various sources, significant gaps remain between the two sides. If Netanyahu thought Trump would give him the green light to build wherever he wants, he has to think again.

Some Israeli politicians and pundits surmised on Friday that Netanyahu started missing Barack Obama this week. In the past, he could always blame the former president’s perceived anti-Israel attitude when pressured by his right-wing rivals over the slow pace of settlement constructions. With Trump, who etched his friendship to Netanyahu onto the White House website, this is no longer possible.