‘Let Me Try to Dispel the Myths’: Jason Greenblatt Tells Hamodia the Inside Story

jason greenblatt
(Jaafar Ashtiyeh/ AFP/Getty Images)

Jason Greenblatt has decided it’s time to say goodbye. The U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East, who was the chief architect of the yet-to-be-revealed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, recently announced his intended departure.

In his two and a half years of service, Greenblatt has become a household name and a familiar face in the Middle East political landscape. He has also become a familiar voice on Twitter, where his balanced commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and impassioned defense of the Jewish State have gained a large following.

Those who have come to recognize and value Greenblatt’s forthright approach to the challenges of the Middle East are sorry to see him go. The region is bidding adieu to a moderator of both sense and sensibility, and he will be missed by people worldwide.

In an interview with Hamodia, Greenblatt speaks of his reasons for leaving and the potential of the long-awaited peace plan.

The announcement of your departure caught people off-guard. Was this a sudden decision or something you were mulling over for a long time?

My family and I were mulling over this decision for a long time. I originally intended to take this position for around two years. It’s very hard on my family to be separated all week. At some point you have to start transitioning out, and I’m transitioning out over the coming period. We don’t exactly know when, but it’s not an abrupt departure. My hope is to stay until the peace vision is launched.

Among my primary responsibilities was to study the conflict, come up with a vision together with my co-workers, and be out there re-educating people about the conflict and changing the conversation about the conflict, which has been an enormous priority for us. We do that on Twitter, in speeches, in interviews. My role also included connecting Israel with the Arab world in ways I don’t think I could have imagined two and a half years ago. We don’t take full credit for that. I think it is because of President Trump and who he is and how he’s respected in the region. But also Prime Minister Netanyahu gets a lot of credit, as do each of the Arab leaders who have made this happen, and Jared Kushner.

My role also included trying to help the Palestinians’ economy. That was a significant challenge and we were not successful in that yet, because we were blocked by the Palestinian Authority. We have now studied the conflict and have completed our vision for peace and deeply straightened the U.S.-Israel relationship. I think this is a good time for me to make the transition.

Often, people leaving a position will give the standard excuse of wanting to spend more time with their family, and there are skeptics saying you’re leaving because the plan may not be fully revealed or is doomed to fail. How would you respond?

I’ve heard a lot of theories over the last week since the announcement, so let me try to dispel the myths. It’s very much a family decision. I am a father, I’m a husband, I have responsibilities, and my family deserves to have me come back into their lives. I have neglected my family for close to three years now, and the time has come for me to come home.

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Greenblatt (background center) looks on as President Donald Trump give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after signing a proclamation in the White House on March 25, 2019, formally recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

I’m proud of the work we’ve done, but I know I’m leaving it in good hands. The role will be split among multiple people — Jared Kushner, David Friedman, Brian Hook, Avi Berkowitz, as well as some others. It’s still very much a team approach. And because of my long-standing relationship with the president — 23 years — and Jared and David, I’m only a phone call away.

Did working in Washington give you an appetite for future public service, or are you planning to return to the private sector?

I was honored to be in public service, and feel blessed to have had the opportunity, but I need to go back to the private sector. However, my hope is that I can straddle the private sector and still be an advocate out there the way I’ve been with my speeches, Twitter and so on. I also hope to keep up relationships with Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region. We’ve spent over two and a half years building those relationships, and I wouldn’t want them to be a lost opportunity.

The plan was twice delayed because of the Israeli elections. Will the nature of the new Israeli coalition government, whether it will be right-wing or more centrist, affect the rollout of the plan?

We decided not to reveal pre-election, but we’ll decide when and if we do it during the coalition formation or wait till after the coalition formation. It’s too soon to tell. How will the election affect the plan? Our plan is different than what people have been talking about for so many years. We think we listened very hard to Israelis, Palestinians, the region, just about every expert.

A lot of what is said about how the conflict should be resolved is either vague or can’t work. One of the reasons is that, for this administration, Israel’s security is paramount. When you talk about certain solutions to the problem, either they don’t take into account Israel’s security or they’re so vague that we have no idea what they mean with respect to Israel’s security. That was a fundamental part of what we have built and our hope is, whatever government is formed, Israel will recognize that the plan is coming from an administration that is probably the best administration and the best U.S. president Israel has ever had to deal with.

Similarly, on the Palestinian side, no matter their criticism of our policy decisions, which they’re angry about and categorize as punishments although they’re not, they were all based on U.S. interests. We think this is a tremendous opportunity for the Palestinians to finally move forward in a way that they can build themselves into something, as successful a society as Israel is. But it’s going to require everyone to take a deep breath, sit down, study the plan and think whether we can finally get out of this conflict with these compromises. That’s up to the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. No one can resolve this conflict for them. No one can force a deal upon them.

It seems inherent in the decision to withhold the plan during the Israeli elections that perhaps there are parts of the plan objectionable to the Israelis. Is there an element of stealth in presenting it only after a government is formed and perhaps has less flexibility to reject it?

If we thought for a second that we can impose or demand a deal on either side, I guess I can understand the premise of the question. But nobody can force this deal upon anyone. When the plan is revealed, it will be up to both sides.

I’ll focus on Israel because that’s your question. If the Israeli government does not think this makes sense, either because we didn’t carefully consider certain elements that they think are important or because politically there’s no will in the country to go through with one of those compromises, then that’s going to be Israel’s choice. It’s also going to be Israel’s burden to bear, in the sense that they’re losing an opportunity for a peace deal that would allow them to finally move past this issue.

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Greenblatt meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on March 14, 2017. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

This may not be the most significant issue for Israel; the most important issue is Iran. But there are many issues and threats to Israel from all over. Ideally, Israel is able to resolve this issue, but if they choose not to engage on our vision for peace, that’s their prerogative. And I say the same thing for the Palestinians. We can’t demand of the Palestinians that they make these compromises and sign a deal that they don’t want. But we’ve changed the paradigm by going from a vague 1-2 page aspirational term sheet to building out something to around 60 pages. We’re saying: Read this carefully and see if you can finally put an end to this. Don’t make a hasty decision. This is such a complex conflict, the vision we have crafted deserves very careful consideration.

In a previous conversation, I submitted the possibility of maintaining the status quo rather than creating a plan that might be unacceptable or might not work. You replied that since it’s uncertain who the next president will be, at least we will have a plan in place. But Trump’s actions have essentially become the new status quo, moving the embassy to Yerushalayim, leaving the JCPOA, cutting off funding to UNWRA and UNESCO, closing the PLO office, recognizing sovereignty over the Golan Heights, etc. Can these facts on the ground substitute for a peace plan?

Can Israel live with the status quo? Sure. I don’t think it’s good for Israel, but they could live with it for now. I don’t know how long they can live with it, and personally I don’t think it is a good thing to live with it. Could the Palestinians in the West Bank live with the status quo? I suppose so, although it’s unfair to them. They have tough lives, but not the way the Palestinians in Gaza do. If the two million Palestinians suffering in Gaza have to live with the status quo it would be horrible. But remember, it is Hamas, not Israel, that is the cause of the suffering in Gaza.

Our goal is to allow Israelis not to worry about the threats — the constant danger, the threat of stabbings, of rocket attacks from Gaza that kill people and destroy buildings, of fields being set ablaze by terrorists. Our plan is designed to allow Israel not to maintain the status quo situation but for a far better future.

Similarly, on the Palestinian side, our deal is designed not to let the Palestinians in Gaza suffer and those in the West Bank to live not nearly where they should be. I think it would be a shame if we didn’t unveil the plan and let people consider whether they only want the status quo, which wouldn’t be good, or whether they want to reach for that next level of living and to thrive and prosper.

From the Israeli perspective, hasn’t the status quo under Trump been pretty advantageous?

I think people conflate the issues. All those decisions — Jerusalem recognition, the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan — were not made only through a peace process lens. Of course, we consider the potential impact of the peace process, but that’s only one lens that we put on it. We made those decisions because they are the right decisions for the U.S.

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Greenblatt attends the launch of a project to improve access to wastewater treatment and water for Palestinian farmers, on October 15, 2017, in the city of Jericho, in the Jordan Valley. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Jerusalem was done because of the Jerusalem Embassy Act; the same thing with the embassy move. Golan was for Israel’s security, and closing the PLO office was based on a law triggered when President Abbas threatened to bring Israel to the International Criminal Court. Cutting funds to UNWRA was done because it is a horribly broken system that only perpetuates bad lives for Palestinians who live in refugee camps, which provide them with no future. I think people have to view the decisions separately. We made them, we stand by them and believe they’re correct.

President Trump called off a Camp David meeting with the Taliban and the Afghan government, following a Taliban car bombing that killed an American soldier. When asked about U.S.-Taliban talks, Trump said, “They’re dead.” With Palestinians continuing to kill Israelis, including American citizens, can Trump draw a parallel and say talks with the Palestinians are “dead”?

I don’t know enough about the Taliban file to make the parallel, but I’ll answer the question a little differently. If the PA will not end its “Pay for Slay” program where they reward terrorists who murder or attack Israelis as part of this effort, then there won’t be peace. It’s a basic concept that you cannot encourage people to kill Israelis and expect a peace deal that works. Not enough attention is paid to this horrific law. The Europeans and other countries who donate to the Palestinian Authority are ignoring this. Their taxpayer money is essentially being used to fund terrorism. That is no longer true of U.S. taxpayer money now that we have a law called the Taylor Force Act.

It’s a matter of sequencing, in a way. Would I rather they had ended that program two and a half years ago when I started having conversations with them? Of course. I’ve had many disappointments in this job, but it’s been among my chief disappointments – that I wasn’t able to get them to do that. Congress stepped in and passed the Taylor Force Act, which I think is a right and just decision, but to date the Palestinian Authority continues their “Pay to Slay” program. In fact, they’re doubling down and continuously saying that they will continue to pay what they call payments to martyrs and what we call rewards to terrorists.

Should this be a precondition to talks?

It’s not a precondition to talks because if we start going down the precondition road, both sides have preconditions and we’re never going to get anywhere. Whether we agree with one or the other side’s preconditions, they have them. We’re approaching it differently by saying: Move the preconditions to the side, here’s the plan, and in the course of negotiations and an eventual possible signing, those preconditions will either be resolved or given up on.

But I can’t imagine a world in which a peace agreement is signed where the PA continues the “Pay to Slay” program. I can’t imagine the Israeli government ever signing such an agreement. It would make no sense and it’s completely antithetical to the concept of peace. But if we make that a precondition before we even lay down the vision we will likely get nowhere. Instead, we have cut all funding to the PA and continuously raise awareness of this issue to other donor countries.

The economic portion of the plan presented in Bahrain seems largely predicated on forging alliances with Sunni states in the region, reflecting the shifting alignment of power brokers in the Middle East to counter Iran. While Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan are basically intact, they were threatened by the Arab Spring and point to the volatility and unpredictability of the region. Is it a mistake to rely too heavily on such alliances?

It is a volatile region and likely to remain so in our lifetime, even if we achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. That’s why if we don’t address Israel’s security needs in the vision we’d be putting forth a terrible plan. That security needs to be addressed thoroughly for a deal to work. The security cooperation between Jordan and Israel and Egypt and Israel is very strong, but you can’t guarantee that forever. Even if our peace plan succeeds, nobody knows what happens the next day. Those who suggest that security protocols only need to last for a few years or even a decade do not understand the very real, dangerous threats Israel and the region face.

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Greenblatt with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during the Arab League summit in the Jordanian Dead Sea resort of Sweimeh on March 29, 2017. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images)

The economic portion is essential because if we manage to get a peace deal done, if we don’t focus on the economy, then shortly after the peace plan, whether it’s a year, a decade, 30 years, it’s going to unravel again. Everyone needs to prosper for a peace deal to take hold and continue. As far as who we rely on, I would split that into two. Financially, it’s essential to get Arab funding for this economic plan. We need other funding as well – European money, American money. There’s a lot of money needed to make this happen. If other countries are not going to step up to the plate, that’s going to be a stumbling block.

Lastly, while I don’t envision certain countries in the Arab and Muslim world signing on to this deal, like Syria and Iran, if enough countries do sign on to it, then we will have a much more successful deal. We do need to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict at the same time.

You seem optimistic that the region can be stabilized to the extent that the plan succeeds.

I am in this business because I have hope. I use the word hope, not optimism. But there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done and difficult decisions to be made by all involved if we are going to be able to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

I’m a big proponent of pushing back on the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core conflict of the region. People use that talking point and I think it’s completely untrue. This is not the core conflict in the region. It is a conflict that would be better for the region if it’s resolved, but it is not going to resolve all of the other serious threats. The talking point that this is the core conflict in the region is pure propaganda. One only needs to look at the other conflicts to understand that.

This journey must have been a transformative one. Which experiences or people you’ve met left the most lasting impression?

There were many things. But if I had to choose one that I keep going back to in my own head, it’s the idea that if we had a way to reconnect the two societies – Israelis and Palestinians – and have heartfelt, intelligent, challenging conversations, I think we would have a better chance of beginning to walk down the road toward peace and seeing if we get to the final destination of peace. The problem is that we get wrapped up in political statements, in media reports that cause people to pull back because they’re afraid.

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L-R: Greenblatt, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, at the prime minister’s office in Yerushalayim, July 12, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

None of that is helpful, but the conversations I’ve had in private with ordinary Israelis, Palestinians and leaders in the region are remarkable. How do we harness that and actually make it happen? I’m not sure I have the answer. My hope is that this vision will allow this to happen.

After the announcement that I will be stepping down, I was overwhelmed by beautiful emails from all over the world. But there’s one email that I printed out and carry in my wallet from a young Palestinian who I met multiple times over the last two and a half years. He thanked me on behalf of himself and his people for being dedicated to trying to resolve the conflict. Although we’re on opposite sides of the spectrum in so many ways and he disagrees with our policies, he recognizes that we are a country of our own with the right to make our own decisions. He was initially skeptical about trusting me but now feels he has gained a friend and wants to continue the dialogue in order for us to help him and his people move forward.

There are many Palestinians and Arabs who have expressed this sentiment to me over the past nearly three years. This is what allows me to believe that there’s hope that our vision will succeed. If it doesn’t, I hope that in the coming years, in the lifetime of my children, we can finally get this done.