Suddenly, Shuttle Diplomacy’s Back


Tel Aviv — It’s as if the Trump administration is revving its engines to reignite the moribund peace process.

After months of talk and speculation about the new president’s approach to Israeli-Arab peace negotiations and whether Trump is still committed to a two-state solution, a presidential envoy arrived in Israel on Monday for an inaugural round of shuttle diplomacy.

Jason Greenblatt, a New Jersey real estate lawyer employed by the Trump Organization and an Orthodox Jew, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday evening and continued to Ramallah in the West Bank on Tuesday for a session with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I know we’ll do great things together,” Greenblatt promised Netanyahu before a meeting that lasted more than five hours.

According to the statements released by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the U.S. Embassy, the two discussed how to advance peace with all of Israel’s neighbors, not just the Palestinians — a reference to Netanyahu’s suggestion that Israel boost ties with Arab neighbors first and then focus on a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But noticeably absent from the U.S. statement was any reference to the two-state solution. The omission might have been an effort to help Netanyahu face down growing calls in his coalition to disavow a Palestinian state completely. Indeed, government ministers were pushing to approve legislation to annex the settlement of Maaleh Adumim.

It also continues the uncertainty from the Trump-Netanyahu White House summit last month when the president said he isn’t necessarily wedded to a two-state solution if Israelis and Palestinians agree on something else.

“There have been many failed attempts. They will have to come up with something realistic: When will they find it, what will it be and how will be it implemented are still unknown.”

Greenblatt’s meetings come a few days after President Trump chatted with Abbas on the phone, opening a channel of communication between the White House and Ramallah that had been nonexistent since the election. The new peace envoy’s meetings in the region have also spurred reports in the Israeli press that Trump is working on convening a regional peace summit aimed at reinvigorating Israeli-Palestinian talks.

But diplomats and observers were skeptical that the current round of shuttle diplomacy would lead to a revitalized peace process. Trump presumably wants to come up with a new approach for negotiations, but those efforts are still in their earliest stages, said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and the European Union.   

“I don’t think after these meetings and the telephone conversation [with Abbas], they can necessarily come up with a coherent program. Even if they adopt the working assumption [that] the negotiations have to reach a two-state solution, that isn’t sufficient in itself,” Eran said. “There have been many failed attempts. They will have to come up with something realistic: When will they find it, what will it be and how will be it implemented” are still unknown, Eran said.

According to the statement from the Netanyahu-Greenblatt meeting, the sides are also discussing a joint understanding on settlement construction that will help advance “peace and security.”

In addition to calming the movement to annex Maaleh Adumim, Netanyahu also has to deal with an unfulfilled promise to the evacuees of the unauthorized outpost of Amona to build them a new community. Israel’s media reported that the prime minister will try to argue that a plan to build homes for them on an empty hilltop near the Israeli settlement of Shiloh doesn’t actually constitute a new settlement.

The outpost evacuees, however, contend that a new settlement is exactly what they were promised, and they have been occupying a protest tent outside the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem for weeks.

Greenblatt’s visit to Israel is more of an effort to hear what the sides have to say rather a sign of an impending breakthrough, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Monday.

Scott Lasensky, a former adviser in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv under the previous administration, said Greenblatt is “taking the temperature” of the sides. Lasensky suggested that Greenblatt and Netanyahu might be looking to revive a serious of informal understandings on settlement growth that existed between former President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“If [Greenblatt] is coming to talk about constraints on settlement building, then there’s likely to be tension in the relationship, given how much support there is for unrestrained contention,” Lasensky said. “They are going to look heavily at ideas that were tried by the Sharon and Bush governments — informal understandings that there be no new settlements, building in settlements would be up and not out [a reference to “natural growth” within existing settlements], and that there would be no new land grabs.”

Greenblatt’s meeting with Abbas in Ramallah was held on Tuesday afternoon, just a few days after the telephone call between Trump and Abbas in which the president invited the Palestinian leader for a meeting in Washington. Though the call lasted just a few minutes, Israel Radio’s Palestinian affairs correspondent said the conversation was important for Abbas because it bolstered his standing — both domestically, in the Arab world and toward Israel — as the sole “address” for the Palestinian leadership.

The phone call and the meeting follows disparaging comments about the new administration from Palestinian politicians, who were upset by Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his appointment of bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, a patron of the Israeli settlements.

Following the meeting with Abbas, Greenblatt tweeted that the two had a “positive and far-ranging exchange” about prospects for peace, bolstering the Palestinian security forces and stopping anti-Israel incitement.

Before the meeting, Greenblatt met with Palestinian technology entrepreneurs, perhaps in an echo of remarks made after the meeting with Netanyahu that the U.S. wants to help boost the Palestinian economy. Those messages are reminiscent of Netanyahu’s call for an “economic peace” several years ago, a suggestion that has stoked mixed reactions among Palestinians who fear that the idea is a recipe for pushing aside talks on political sovereignty.

Indeed, Greenblatt and the new administration are up against serious skepticism among Palestinians. According to a Palestinian public opinion survey released this week, only 9 percent believe Trump will renew peace talks, while 38 percent think that the new administration will help foment a deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations that will become violent.