OPINION: The Virtues of Talking to People Other Than Prime Minister Netanyahu
This week marks the Trump administration’s first foray into on-the-ground Middle East peace diplomacy. Jason Greenblatt, who carries the title of assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, arrives Monday in Israel and begins what promises to be a journey filled with hopes, challenges, achievements and frustrations.
I know this beat well. While serving in the Obama administration, I accompanied or hosted Secretaries John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and Special Envoys George Mitchell and Martin Indyk, on dozens of such visits.
They tend to follow a particular rhythm: As soon as the secretary or envoy lands, he or she goes straight into the familiar diplomatic exchanges — meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top advisers in Jerusalem; then travels to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his team. Middle Eastern hospitality often requires that a meal be included. The hosts lay out their grievances, version of history, and desires for the next phase of diplomacy. Candidly, that means each side tries to get the United States to adopt its positions and impose them on the other side. These meetings, which often require shuttling back and forth, can become even lengthier and more technical as documents are drafted, language is haggled over, and stakes rise. And that’s before our envoys add visits to Arab capitals, coordination with Quartet partners (the European Union, Russia and the United Nations), and hosting visits to Washington.
One of the results of this traditional diplomatic approach is that U.S. officials tend to hear a very limited set of voices. To be sure, a relationship of trust must be established between our envoys and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and their advisers; Greenblatt and others can count on logging hundreds of hours with them. People like Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho and Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, along with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, may become as familiar to the U.S. team as their own families.
These early visits, therefore, represent a unique opportunity to get out of the prime minister’s office and the Muqata’a, and hear the views of other Israeli and Palestinian officials and civilians who will be relevant players in the success or failure of any diplomatic effort. Here are some examples — though likely far more than Greenblatt will have time for on his first visit — of engagements that would be time well spent.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials: Netanyahu’s office dominates Israeli policymaking on issues related to the Palestinians. But Israel Defense Forces (IDF) generals and Shin Bet commanders often see the picture through a different lens. They can describe in detail the incitement voiced by Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials, and the even more threatening challenge posed by Hamas and other terrorist groups trying to challenge the Palestinian Authority. But they also won’t hesitate to credit the Palestinian Security Forces with being solid — if still improving — partners with the IDF in preventing terrorism from the West Bank. Even more practically, there is no greater advocate for significant Palestinian economic development — including expanded freedom of movement and PA jurisdiction in the West Bank — than the IDF general staff, who see these measures as critical for Israel’s security. Palestinian security commanders can describe their efforts to establish and maintain the professionalism of their forces, their successes and shortcomings in the battle against Hamas, and the challenge to the morale of their troops in the face of political stalemates and settlement expansion.
Israeli coalition and opposition party leaders: A schedule that reflects the diversity of Israel’s robust, chaotic democracy can be very enlightening. Netanyahu may resist it, as he will want to control the narrative. But one can hardly understand the possibilities and limitations he faces without hearing from right-wing partners and rivals in his government, like Naftali Bennett, or more centrist voices like Moshe Kachlon and Avigdor Lieberman. Even the ultra-Orthodox parties could be sleeper cells in support of a two-state solution at the right moment. A traditional courtesy call with opposition leaders like Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni might be supplemented by a conversation with Yair Lapid, whose party leads in current polls — and even Ayman Odeh of the Joint Arab List — to hear a broad range of Israeli opinion that could affect and shape the current Israeli government, or a future one.
USAID and the United States Security Coordinator (USSC): In addition to the U.S embassy in Tel Aviv and consulate general in Jerusalem, the American presence includes outstanding teams of development and security professionals. USAID implements hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure programs to improve lives for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in full coordination and with the strong support of the Israeli authorities, who believe this aid helps maintain stability and improve Palestinian governance. The USSC manages the popular (even with Republicans in Congress) program to train the Palestinian security forces, and has a unique perspective as the only U.S. entity on the ground that coordinates with both Israeli and Palestinian security officials.
Palestinian and Israeli civil society: The narrow scope of speaking with government officials tends to blind us to the broad range of perspectives among Israelis and Palestinians. One could never speak to everyone, but our envoys would benefit from time spent with business leaders, academic experts (including an army of former officials and negotiators) and students on both sides; Israeli victims of terrorism; Palestinian refugees; and religious leaders of all three monotheistic faiths, who are an insufficiently tapped resource in the battle against extremism and violence. Some of these people will be critical of their own leadership, others will place the blame on the other side, and almost everyone will complain about the United States. Hear them out.
Israeli settlers: If there is one segment of Israeli society we have not spent enough time talking to, it is Israeli settlers. And considering their influence in this government, and on future prospects for peace, that makes little sense. It is worth hearing the views of settler leaders and their constituents — those who live in settlements blocs close to Israel which might be included in land swaps, and those who live in more remote areas. There is under-appreciated diversity in this community, including regarding the Israeli–Palestinian future. These conversations might not be easy, given the Trump administration’s adoption of the traditional U.S. position that settlement expansion can impede prospects for peace. But they would be worthwhile.
Gazans: This group may be the most difficult one to meet, given the obvious security challenges and the (completely justified) ban on contacts with Hamas. But Israel, the PA, and U.S. diplomats know how to bring non-Hamas Gaza residents to Jerusalem and the West Bank for meetings and programs. These Palestinians will be critical partners in any initiative to disarm and uproot Hamas from Gaza, and eventually reestablish responsible Palestinian leadership there as part of a two-state solution. We need to hear their voices, too.
Let’s wish Jason Greenblatt luck and success as he begins his mission. Much of the work outlined above will be carried out between envoys’ visits by our diplomats on the ground. But the more the knowledge these engagements produce penetrates the most senior levels of the U.S. government, the more informed and realistic our policy decisions will be.
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