The Understated Statesman: An Interview With Jason Greenblatt

jason greenblatt
Jason Greenblatt with President Donald Trump. (Jason Greenblatt)

Behind every pro-Israel president is a pro-Israel staff. With President Trump, it’s most notably Jason Greenblatt, his trusted advisor, who moved seamlessly from the Trump Organization to the Trump administration.

Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, worked for over twenty years as the president’s chief legal officer before becoming his Israel advisor on the presidential campaign. He currently works as Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, tasked with the seemingly impossible mission of forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Courteous and circumspect, Greenblatt manages to be in the news without being the news. A graduate of YU and NYU School of Law, the father of six from Teaneck, NJ keeps a low profile while jetting from one Middle East country to another in a focused yet honest quest for peace.

In an exclusive interview with Hamodia, Greenblatt shares his vision, his frustrations and the challenges that accompany the ultimate pursuit.

The last time we met, I interviewed you as a Trump Organization attorney, who was thrust into the spotlight as Trump’s Israel advisor on the campaign. Today you head President Trump’s Middle East negotiations. Can you describe that transition?

I didn’t actually work on the campaign, but during the campaign then-candidate Trump asked David Friedman, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and me to be his top Israel advisors. I am now an Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, and I work on a team of three: Jared Kushner, who leads it, Ambassador Friedman and myself, to see if we can reach a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. We work very closely with the State Department and the National Security Council on this. I also deal on the Israel file and the broader Middle East. Our view is that a lot has to be done with the regional countries in order to try to make this a success, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and so on.

The weight of the responsibilities is enormous. I wake up every morning realizing that when I drive through the gates of the White House we have this potential to help millions and millions of people. We can help them by eventually reaching a peace agreement, which we all know is going to be extraordinarily complicated and difficult. So many have not been able to achieve that before us and we are very cognizant of that. Or, if we’re not able to reach a peace agreement, we can help improve lives along the way. In that respect, my work is vastly different from what I did before but in a very positive way, although I loved my prior job because it was exciting, fun and challenging.

Mr. Trump is recognized as the most pro-Israel president in Israel’s history. As a result, many in the Arab world and beyond question his ability to be impartial, a criticism applied to you as well, being that you’re Jewish and labeled “right wing.” How do you respond to such criticism?

I’ll respond in a couple of ways. With respect to Israel, the president is no different today than when he was a candidate. He was very pro-Israel then, but he also said that he really wants to try to achieve a peace agreement. On Jerusalem, during the campaign he said he was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy. All those messages existed before he became the president. I think the only criticism the Palestinians or others who might be against those decisions can levy against the president is that he actually kept his word with respect to Jerusalem and the embassy, unlike others who came before him. So the same president that the Palestinians respected when he came into office is the same guy now. Any criticism to the contrary is a distortion of reality. The president’s decision on Jerusalem and the embassy was bold and courageous and nothing short of historic, and he has been hailed as the most pro-Israel president ever.

As far as the criticism against David, Jared and myself, it’s true we’re Orthodox Jews. The benefit of that is that we understand Israel’s needs, particularly with respect to security. But we have also spent the last 16- 17 months understanding the Palestinian needs and regional Arab needs. Jared and I are very close with some of the regional Arab leaders. And we had a good relationship with the Palestinians until the Jerusalem announcement.

Being a religious person is a non-issue. There’s a mutual respect on both sides because so many of the people in the region are religious, or recognize the importance of religion in one’s life. There are different levels of observance perhaps, but since religion is as deep and emotional and important to them as it is to me, we connect in a way that doesn’t require any learning curve. So I don’t think any of the criticism against us is fair or appropriate. We understand one another.

At the end of the day, what the president has always said, and I firmly believe, is that we’re here to try to find a realistic and fair solution that both sides can agree on. We’re not here to impose a deal. So even if we were different people, the ultimate decision of whether to reach this agreement is going to be up to the Israelis and Palestinians, not us. All we can do is help guide them, help shape this, and explain why we think something is fair or appropriate, but it’s not for us to enforce the deal because we’re not going to be the ones that have to live with the consequences of the deal.

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Greenblatt meets with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (Flash90)

During Mr. Trump’s campaign, he laid out his visions for NATO, the Mexican border, China and tariffs, the fight against terrorism, etc. Why is this specific deal shrouded in secrecy?

It’s a great question. What we’ve discovered is that the talking points, the standard phrases, and the terminology on this file mean different things to different people. Let’s pick the most obvious one, the phrase two-state solution. Different people think it means different things, and in isolation, it does not really mean anything. Contrast that with NATO, where the president says clearly he believes that people aren’t contributing their fair share on NATO, that everybody should be upping the amount, and that it’s not fair that we contribute more than others.

Those are very clear, black and white, understandable issues that you don’t have to be an expert in the field to understand. But the Israeli Palestinian conflict is so nuanced, so complicated. No one understands what a two-state solution really means, particularly when it comes to issues related to Israel’s security or recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. There are just too many layers.

The Oslo Accords were also secretive and they failed.

But we’re not negotiating secretly. What we’re shrouding in secrecy is our plan. We’ve visited many, many times with both sides and others in the region. Since December 6, we’ve not had formal discussions with the Palestinian leadership (their choice), but we’ve probed and prodded and gotten a wealth of information out of the Israelis, from politicians to many others, and we continue to gain insight from Palestinians (though not the Palestinian leadership) and the region.

At this point in time, anything we release publicly will just allow the spoilers to come out and undermine our efforts. On our file, there are people who don’t want peace, and there are people who, short of Israel’s destruction, will never agree to peace. So we don’t want to give any ammunition to any potential spoiler until the last possible minute. Ultimately, we have to release a plan, and we want to close that gap between when we share it and when we release it publicly to give the spoilers the least chance of ruining our potential success.

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Greenblatt with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (C) and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, at the PM’s office in Yerushalayim, on July 12, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The two-state solution has lost support in Israel, and former Minister of the Interior and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar recently said, “The two-state solution on a practical level was never more than a two–state slogan or idea.” Would you agree? If so, why pursue a plan instead of letting it die a natural death?

Without the right context, it’s just a slogan, which is why we don’t use it. What we’re putting together is not a two-page term sheet. It’s an extensive document that explains how we think the conflict can be resolved. It lays each issue out very clearly.

We want to move from a slogan to a well-baked idea for both sides to sit down and understand that they can negotiate something that they can be far better off with for themselves, their kids, their grandkids. But they’re both going to have to make that decision, not us.

Abbas was not a viable partner even before his refusal to speak with Mr. Trump, following Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the American embassy move, which perhaps explains why you seem to advocate for a change in PA leadership.

I can’t go into the details of the plan itself, but in terms of President Abbas, we have not advocated for regime change. That’s not for us to do. We don’t dictate to others who to choose as their leaders or negotiators.

There are certain segments of Palestinian society that are trying to make it seem like we’re asking for regime change; we’re not. The leaders are who the leaders are. When or if they leave their office and someone else comes in, it’s not going to be up to us to figure out who that other person is going to be.

Regarding changing leadership in Gaza, you wrote, “The Palestinians of Gaza have the opportunity to reject the failed policies of Hamas and turn toward a legitimate governing body.” But the people of Gaza overwhelmingly voted for Hamas. Why would you think they wouldn’t elect them again?

I think it’s clear that after ten years most Palestinians in Gaza should recognize that Hamas’ leadership is a terribly failed experiment. I’m not sure whether they would elect new leadership, and I’m not sure whether they would be willing to let President Abbas come in under the PA to control Gaza. They certainly want reconciliation. But a reconciliation which includes Hamas in its current form would not be acceptable to Israel nor to the U.S. There’s no way to actually know, but I’d like to think that the vast majority of people in Gaza know that Hamas has completely failed them.

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Greenblatt visiting the Gaza-Israel border, August 30, 2017. (David Azagury/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

How do you react to the PA and Abbas’ defiant stance regarding pay for slay, despite the Taylor Force Act?

On Taylor Force, I’m really dismayed that the PA does not understand how abhorrent the Palestinian law is. We gave them ample time to change it, well before Taylor Force became the law of our land. This is not about the need for a welfare system; this is rewarding terrorism. When the Palestinians deny that, it’s just fabrication.

Rather than deny that, don’t they seem proud of it?

Some people deny it, other people are proud of it, I agree. But I think there’s a disconnect between many on the Palestinian street in the West Bank and their leadership. I’ve met a lot of Palestinians in the last year and a half, young, middle aged, etc. They want a better life. They’re not thumping on the table, incitement kind of people.

They are people who are nationalistic, to be sure. I’m not going to say that they don’t want their own state; most do. But they also want their leaders to stop being defiant and stop wasting time running around the world trying to get paper victories and try to resolve the conflict, so that they can get a home, a job, pay their mortgage, send their kids to school. But not at the expense of their national aspirations. Many do want their leadership to think creatively and compromise.

What they don’t remember is that when Israel was founded, it was this scrappy little country in the desert that had to be developed. Look what Israel managed to turn itself into in 70 years. The Palestinian people are very similar to Israelis. They’re educated, motivated; they aspire to succeed. But in my view they were held back by bad decisions over many years; many promises were made to them. I think that was a tactical error for so many years, and my hope is that they might finally come to recognize that.

In a recent interview with a Palestinian newspaper, Jared Kushner said, “President Abbas says that he is committed to peace and I have no reason not to believe him.” Do you agree with this statement?

President Abbas has made it his mission to try to resolve the conflict through negotiations and non-violence. I think he must do a far better job condemning terrorism. There’s no question there are things he can do differently and better. However, because of political constraints and other reasons, which aren’t at all satisfactory to me but nevertheless exist, he does what he does.

Whether or not he’s willing to negotiate a conflict ending, comprehensive agreement on terms that both sides can agree to, as opposed to only on his terms, remains to be seen. I hope we’re lucky enough to get to that question. At the moment he refuses to talk to us, which I think is to the detriment of his people. He and the leadership are condemning a plan they haven’t read or seen. How does that benefit the Palestinian people? Ask me this question again in a couple of months.

Notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s strong support, much of the world’s unfair response to the escalation at the Gaza border highlights the uphill battle Israel continues to face in the media, on campuses, in Europe, and particularly with BDS. How would you counter such criticism?

We’ve been very clear that we respect Israel’s need to defend itself. I have also been surprised and disappointed at much of the world’s reaction on this issue. Some just completely ignore the danger that Israel faces with the riots, kites and balloons and of course the missiles; they ignore who many of the protestors really were. Even if the protests initially started with a group of peaceful, regular people, they were quickly taken over and used by Hamas. Hamas pushed, maybe not physically, but encouraged and, in some cases, threatened people to go to the fence at risk to themselves.

The ceasefire reached this weekend is helpful, as it hopefully reflects the very beginnings of an understanding by Hamas leadership that there is nothing to be gained from any form of violence, including attacks on Israeli soldiers, attempts to damage the fence, and launching rockets and arson kites. At the end of the day, Hamas is fully responsible for all of the losses of Palestinian lives; they encouraged people to put themselves in danger in an effort to harm Israel. This administration stood by Israel 100%, and we hope that others in the world will recognize what happened and recognize the dangerous games that Hamas is playing with the lives of Palestinians and the PR victory they are trying to achieve at the expense of its people. This is to the detriment of two million people in Gaza and also affects the Palestinians in the West Bank.

I’m sure you’re also well aware of Ambassador Haley’s work at the U.N. She’s been doing an unbelievable job for Israel, defending Israel, and trying to reset the conversation at the U.N. I think she is making changes; she is dedicated to this.

The best that we can do is speak clearly and bluntly about what we view as the truth, and we hope we get through to rational, intellectually honest people to understand that these are complicated questions. The way this was played out in some of the media was not fair at all and completely unhelpful to the Palestinians, unhelpful to peace, and a distortion of what Hamas really does and stands for.

On a personal note, how has your new position affected you, your family, and your position in the Jewish community?

I’m enormously blessed to have a wife and six kids who are incredibly supportive of what we are trying to accomplish. Look, it’s not easy. Separating from my family on Sunday night and not seeing them again until Shabbat is hard. And it’s getting harder by the week on me, on my kids and my wife. My wife is a rock, and my kids give me a lot of chizuk. But in that respect it’s enormously challenging.

In my community and among my friends, I’ve been fortunate for the most part, because most of my friends respect what this administration is trying to accomplish. I’ve definitely experienced a few people who are just anti-the Trump Administration and have therefore cut off ties with me. That has been very disappointing to me. You know people for ten, twenty years and then they turn their nose up at you in the street. Thankfully, it’s been very few but it’s surprising. I have also been extremely fortunate to get emails from all over the world with great words of chizuk and great blessings, from Jews, Christians and others. Words of inspiration, including from Muslim leaders, about the work we do is so meaningful.

For the most part people are respectful and supportive. I also think, after a year and a half, people understand that coming up to me at shul to tell me we can never achieve peace or explain their way to achieve peace isn’t the way to help the administration. So we’ve gotten past that as well.

Has your position affected your feelings towards the State of Israel?

I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last year and a half. I’m as strong a supporter as I was before, but my eyes have been opened to the conflict in a way that they weren’t before. One of the things I try to teach my kids, and really anytime I do public speaking, is that we all do ourselves a very big disservice when we only read the newspapers that we are accustomed to reading. If we are on the right or the left, most people only read those kinds of newspapers, and therefore we are stuck in our own echo chamber.

There aren’t a lot of people who get to live the experience that I have been fortunate to experience, and understand there is another side to the story. Whether one agrees with the opinions on the other side is another story, but there is another side. The conflict will only be resolved by understanding that there is another side and trying to work through these issues.

What we need to do is open our eyes and understand that the world has changed, that there’s a new generation here that can connect and respect one another. Does that mean we’ll solve Jerusalem and security and the other complex issues in a way that both sides will accept? We may not. But if I can put on my tefillin in Saudi Arabia and be comfortable being a religious Jew throughout the Arab countries that I visit, and have serious, thoughtful and important conversations with Arab leaders about peace and Israel and working with Israel, it is clear that the world has changed a lot. That’s what we need to build on to see if we can be successful.

But the Arab countries are savvy and have their own end game. Don’t you think they are doing this less to accommodate you personally and more to further their own agenda?

There’s no question that every country has its own end game, including our own. But almost without exception, the experiences and the conversations that I’ve had have been sincere. They don’t need to help us solve this conflict to reach their end game. This conflict is only one issue on a list of issues that they face.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to be willing to compromise in a way that hurts their own national interest. That doesn’t mean they’re going to give up on the Palestinian cause. They won’t. But they are seriously interested in moving past this and turning a new page.

You mention the idea of hearing the other side. While that’s important, if for nothing else than knowing how to best defend one’s own position, would you agree that it’s equally important not to be undermined by gullibility or swayed by the desire to achieve a deal?

100%. One of the benefits of having three people very well steeped in the Israel side of the equation, in Jared, David and myself, is there’s no gullibility. We understand exactly what Israel needs, exactly the dangers Israel has faced since its inception.

Do you ever feel pressured to overcompensate for the perception others have of you as Orthodox Jews?

No, we’re not embarrassed by it. We’re very public about it and proud of it. If you look at my Twitter feed from the day of the inauguration until now, I don’t think you will see a single thing that is inconsistent with how we feel, what we know, and what we believe.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t working hard to try to achieve a peace agreement, but we are neither gullible nor swayed. But don’t take my word for it. Scroll through my Twitter. I think you’ll find it’s backed up. And if I’m wrong — challenge me on it.