YERUSHALAYIM - When the delegation led by President Donald Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt was readying for their first trip to the Mideast, they discussed the various issues that would likely come up and how to deal with them. But, on arrival in Yerushalayim and Ramallah, they soon discovered that the gulf between the Israelis and Palestinians is so wide that it is hard to imagine how to bridge it.
Greenblatt is personally well-versed on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; but after his meeting with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday, he realizes that the situation is even more complex than he had known.
It must be noted that the Israelis, after eight years during which they felt that the Americans were tilting toward the Palestinians, anticipated that the delegation from Washington would conduct themselves differently. Initially, they had hoped for a clearly pro-Israeli stance. However, they discovered that the Greenblatt team had come without biases, though even that was an improvement over the Obama era.
However, the reports from Ramallah do not bode well. The Palestinians have evidently prepared well for the meeting. They began with a statement that belied all the previous ones objecting to American mediation and seeking international involvement instead. On Tuesday, the Palestinians said that they welcome U.S. mediation, provided, of course, that it be fair and impartial.
Having said that, the Palestinians then put before Greenblatt and his aides four preconditions for any renewal of negotiations with Israel:
First, a total freeze on construction in Yehudah and Shomron and east Yerushalayim; an American statement accepting that the negotiations will be based on a return to the pre-1967 borders; release of thousands of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons; and a timeframe for the talks, to be set before they begin.
Israel, obviously, rejects most of these demands, which amount to a conclusion to negotiations before they even begin. During a five-hour meeting with Greenblatt on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated his view that the Palestinians continue to seek attainment of their objectives without having to give up anything, and before negotiations even start. Israel insists, as in the past, that peace talks resume without any preconditions.
The first talks went smoothly and pleasantly, both in Yerushalayim and Ramallah, according to a source in the U.S. embassy. But it was clear that this was merely a beginning, and that there will have to be a great deal more effort before direct peace talks can be renewed.
Unofficially, the Palestinians also demanded that the proposal to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim be removed permanently from discussion, and not merely frozen temporarily. And, needless to say, they are not prepared to make any statement of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
It would appear that Greenblatt is entering the arena gradually. First, he will attempt to find areas of agreement on the minor, easier issues, and afterwards proceed to the more difficult ones.
Thus, on Tuesday, he sought to work out a quid pro quo whereby the U.S. would drop the embassy move in return for a commitment from the Palestinians to cease incitement against Israel. Then, he would seek Palestinian acquiescence to building within the Jewish towns and cities in Yehudah and Shomron, in return for an Israeli promise not build outside those areas. Agreement on these trade-offs have yet to be reached.
Apparently, what they see from there (Washington), is not what they see from here (Yerushalayim).