The Slatest

Maybe Trump’s Real Estate Lawyer Wasn’t the Right Guy to Bring Peace to the Middle East

Greenblatt sitting beside Abbas.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Jason Greenblatt in Ramallah on March 14, 2017, back when they were still talking. Abbas Momani/Getty Images

Expectations for the Trump administration are now so low that, upon the announcement that the president’s former real estate lawyer is no longer overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, serious Middle East analysts are concerned his successor won’t bring the same level of gravitas to the role.

Jason Greenblatt, a 20-year employee of the Trump Organization, began his ascent to his current unlikely position when candidate Donald Trump, during an interview in Trump Tower, dispatched then–campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to get him and another Jewish executive to help answer a question from a Forward reporter about the West Bank. Greenblatt then became Trump’s informal adviser on Israeli-Palestinian matters and, after Trump took office, was entrusted, along with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, with forging what Trump called the “ultimate deal” for Middle East peace.

Despite his lack of experience, officials from both sides gave Greenblatt tentatively positive reviews at first. But Palestinian officials have cut off engagement with the Trump administration since the president announced the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the end of 2017. (Greenblatt took to tweeting at them instead.)

Undeterred, Greenblatt and Kushner have continued to insist that they are moving forward with their plan, brushing aside doubts about whether it will ever actually appear. The “economic” portion of the plan, which basically amounts to enticing wealthier Arab governments to invest in the Palestinian territories, was unveiled at a conference in June, but amounted to little more than a glossy brochure that was broadly rejected by regional leaders as an attempt to sidestep the thorny issues of sovereignty and borders at the heart of the conflict. Kushner and Greenblatt have claimed that all those issues will be tackled in the political portion of the plan, but it’s not clear when we’re going to see that.

The release of the political plan was supposedly imminent last spring, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a new government, but was delayed after Netanyahu’s efforts to form that government failed. It’s now expected some time later this fall, after the new Israeli elections in two weeks and the subsequent round of negotiations to form a government.

But Greenblatt’s departure has inspired new doubts. It was reported today that he will be leaving the administration in a few weeks to return to the private sector. The White House is citing family reasons, noting that Greenblatt had only been supposed to serve two years and has now served three. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the “ultimate deal” is being put on the back burner. Greenblatt’s portfolio is reportedly being transferred to Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, and Avi Berkowitz, Kushner’s assistant. The 30-year-old Berkowitz is often described as Kushner’s protégé. This won’t be his first foray into international diplomacy—the New York Times has reported that Kushner dispatched him to meet with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2017—but it doesn’t raise high hopes that Kushner is now delegating the job to a subordinate.

There’s not much reason to think the plan would have succeeded anyway. Its terms are a closely guarded secret, but from what has been reported, it seems like it would leave the Palestinians with far less autonomy than what is minimally required for a “state” under international law and allow Israeli settlements in the West Bank to remain under Israeli control indefinitely. U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who may also take on a more prominent role after Greenblatt’s departure, has suggested the U.S. would not object to Israel formally annexing at least some of the West Bank, which Netanyahu has pledged to do in his desperate bid to hold onto his position and stay out of jail. Greenblatt has said he supports Friedman’s position.

Under these conditions, the Palestinians have little incentive to take the plan seriously, particularly heading into a U.S. election year that could see Trump removed from office.

Reaching a mutually agreed-upon settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians is a tall enough order. Doing it while giving Netanyahu virtually everything he wants and constantly making symbolic moves to please pro-Israel voters in the U.S. is basically impossible.

It was always a far-fetched notion that a couple of New York real estate guys with no foreign policy experience were going to come in and completely reinvent the Middle East peace process. But to be fair, the boss never really gave them a chance.