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Can Trump's Ex-Lawyer Jason Greenblatt Achieve Middle East Peace?

by Petra Cahill /  / Updated 
Jason Greenblatt (L) and Jared Kushner.Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images

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LONDON — President Donald Trump said shortly after taking office that he wants to broker "the ultimate deal" — peace in the Middle East.

Helping him to achieve the holy grail of diplomacy — alongside son-in-law, Jared Kushner — is his long-time lawyer, Jason Greenblatt.

All eyes were on the pair Thursday as they meet leaders in Israel to "continue discussions with regional partners about how best to support the peace effort."

They talked with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt.

Jason Greenblatt in Jerusalem in July.Ronen Zvulun / Pool via AP

With no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs, Greenblatt is not your typical diplomat. But, as a 20-year employee of the Trump Organization, who rose through the ranks to become a vice president and the chief legal adviser to Donald Trump, he does have the ear of the president.

And he’s being well-received in the region.

There was a lot of apprehension on the Palestinian side in particular that Greenblatt — an Orthodox Jew from Teaneck, N.J. — would be an ardent supporter of Israel with no time for the other side of the conflict, according to Professor Yossi Mekelberg, head of the International Relations Faculty at Regent's University London. But so far, that has not borne out.

“People are surprised that he’s actually a very good listener — on both sides,” said Mekelberg, who recently returned from a trip to the region. “So far with Greenblatt, he’s listening. He’s trying to understand.”

In the beleaguered Middle East, that’s impressive in itself.

Unlikely diplomat

During the presidential campaign, Greenblatt became one of Trump’s de facto advisers on U.S.-Israeli relations — after Trump called for him to help field questions at a press event for Jewish journalists at Trump Tower in April 2016, according to an account of the meeting by The Forward, a news organization geared toward American Jews.

“I do rely on him as a consultant on Israel,” Trump said of Greenblatt at the meeting, according to The Forward. “He’s a person who truly loves Israel. I like to get advice from people that know Israel, but from people that truly love Israel.”

Related link: Why a Jerusalem Holy Site Is Again a Flashpoint of Violence

The 50-year-old father of six does know and love Israel — he was a yeshiva student there in the mid-1980s and is the author of a travel guide “Israel for Families.”

Trump appointed the diplomatic novice as his special representative for international negotiations, with a focus on the Israel-Palestinian peace process, in December.

In a statement at the time, Trump said Greenblatt has a history of negotiating “substantial, complex transactions.”

In a slightly unusual move, Greenblatt reports not to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department, but directly to the White House and Kushner, the president’s senior adviser who has been tasked with brokering peace in the Middle East.

Since taking the job, Greenblatt has been to the region several times. His first official visit in March included a meeting with Netanyahu, as well as Abbas, and visits to Ramallah in the West Bank and a Palestinian refugee camp.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Jason Greenblatt, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 14, 2017.Abbas Momani / AFP-Getty Images file

He was dispatched in July to help with the crisis over the al-Aqsa mosque that triggered some of the most violent clashes between Israeli and Palestinians in years.

Not 'freelancing'

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert praised Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s involvement in the recent negotiations to ease tensions.

Nauert said during a briefing at the time that as tensions escalated, Greenblatt “jumped on a plane” and was “working really hard to try to de-escalate the tensions there.” She added, “we’re really happy that Mr. Greenblatt is there.”

Asked about the coordination between the White House and the State Department on the peace process and whether or not the Trump appointees were “freelancing” in the region, Nauert replied, “There is no freelancing, the efforts that the White House is engaged with, as it pertains to Israel and all of this, we are aware of those efforts, we stay in close contact.”

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Greenblatt was credited with helping Israel and the Palestinians to reach a water-sharing deal earlier in July. It’s seen as a small but critical step, especially to parched Palestinian communities, that could help pave the way to greater cooperation between the two sides.

The Israelis and Palestinians also signed a deal to provide more electricity to Palestinians in the West Bank.

Greenblatt touted both agreements as "an example of the parties working together to make a mutually beneficial deal."

Gidon Bromberg, co-director of EcoPeace, an Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental organization, applauded Greenblatt's success "in identifying that water is a low-hanging-fruit-issue and that moving forward on water issues has an important contribution to the welfare" of people on the ground.

Local opinions

For Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha council, the official umbrella organization representing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Greenblatt’s intimate knowledge of Israel and the complex relationships among the players in the conflict, plus his legal background, are incredibly valuable.

Revivi credited Greenblatt with two successes already — the water deal and the role he played in diffusing tensions over the compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

“Netanyahu thanked Jason and he deserves this. Netanyahu knows exactly who the players are that helped him reach that agreement, without Jason this would have continued to be something totally uncontrollable,” said Revivi.

But to Nour Odeh, a political analyst based in Ramallah and former spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, Greenblatt has “no clue” about the conflict. And Greenblatt’s diplomatic and political inexperience, as well as his Jewish religious affiliation, are problematic.

Jason Greenblatt (L) and Jared Kushner.Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images

“He doesn’t have the wider perspective needed to understand and listen to the input from Palestinians with an open and internationally-oriented mind," said Odeh.

For Odeh, the bigger problem is the lack of American foreign policy vision that put Greenblatt in this position in the first place.

“The problem is not with him, but with the American administration who appointed someone who has loyalty to the president, but has no clue what to do with the conflict.

“Ultimately it has to do with the American policy in the region. Is there a clear American policy regarding the Palestinians-Israeli conflict? I think the answer to that is no, and that should be a concern not only to Palestinian, but to the Americans,” she added.

Exceeding low expectations

However, that Greenblatt has the ear of the president is key, according to Professor Mekelberg, who is also a Senior Consulting Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, the international think tank.

“While he lacks any diplomatic experience, when he arrives in the region, people know he’s close to Donald Trump,” said Mekelberg. "Someone who has a direct line with the president — you have to take him seriously.”

And Mekelberg sees the lack of expectations around the Trump administration's foray into the morass of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a good thing.

"The level of expectation of the international community is so low, that in a strange way, it’s actually good. Because you can’t let them down anymore," he said.

"The question for me right now is: How quickly can the Trump administration, if at all, come up with a plan? What to do next? Because coming and going and listening — it’s all good, but we need to see something happen."

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