In Pursuit of Peace

Those who love the people of Israel and are concerned about their security tend to be avid supporters of President Trump—and for good reason, as he has been unflinching in his defense of the Jewish State. Most recently, during the President’s press conference after the failed negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, he had some very nice things to say about Israel and its embattled prime minister. In answer to a question from a reporter just hours before the long-anticipated announcement that Benjamin Netanyahu was going to be indicted on multiple charges, Trump stated, “Well, I just think he’s been a great prime minister. I don’t know about his difficulty, but you’re telling me something that, you know, the people have been hearing about. But I don’t know about that.

“But I can say this: he’s done a great job as prime minister. He’s tough, he’s smart and he’s strong. He is very defensive. His military has been built up a lot. They buy a lot of equipment from the United States, and they pay for it. Of course, we give them tremendous…subsidies also. Four billion dollars is a lot each year. But they’ve been very good. They’ve been incredible, actually, in many ways. But there is a chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“All my life…when they talk about tough deals…and we all like deals…the toughest …would be [making] peace between Israel and Palestinians. They say it’s like the impossible deal. I’d love to be able to produce it. We’ll see what happens.
“We were paying the Palestinians a lot of money and I ended that about two years ago because they weren’t saying the right things. I said, why would we pay somebody that’s not saying nice things about us and not really wanting to go to the peace table? And they’ve been much better. We’ll see what happens.”

For many people, these remarks were the biggest takeaway of the press conference.
The individual who has been entrusted with laying the groundwork for that elusive peace is none other than my amicable and soft-spoken host today, Jason Dov Greenblatt. After Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Jason was appointed to serve as his special representative for international negotiations, and he’s been flying back and forth to the Middle East ever since. Just last Monday he and the President’s senior advisor, Jared Kushner, met in the United Arab Emirates with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, where they discussed increasing cooperation between the two countries; the Trump administration’s efforts to facilitate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians; and various ways to improve the welfare and prosperity of the entire region through economic investment. Then on Thursday Jason and Jared met with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the current emir of Qatar, and the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, to pursue those same issues.

Only time will tell if anything lasting will emerge from all these efforts, but the endeavor itself is praiseworthy. Our Sages were effusive in their praise of the pursuit of peace: “Great is peace, for even in times of war peace must be sought… See how beloved peace is; when the Holy One, Blessed Be He, wished to bless Israel, He could not find a vessel great enough to contain their blessings except for peace” (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 5:15).

The Role of a Lifetime
This is not the first time I’ve met Jason. I previously visited him in his country-style home in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he resides with his wife, Dr. Naomi Greenblatt, a well-regarded psychiatrist who has helped many people in the Orthodox community, and his six charming children, the oldest three of whom are triplets. I also had an opportunity to meet Jason in the Trump Organization’s posh conference room on the 26th floor of Trump Tower shortly after the Republican presidential candidate announced that Jason would be serving as his campaign advisor on Israel and the Middle East.

Jason began working for the Trump Organization in 1997, gradually rising to the positions of executive vice president and chief legal officer. So it came as no surprise that after Donald Trump was elected he left New York for Washington, DC, to join the new administration. For the past two years I’ve kept up an email correspondence with Jason, and I was privileged to have been at the Kosel with him during Vice President Pence’s visit there. As I now tell him, I have watched his dignified evolution from a New York real estate attorney to a world-class diplomat and statesman with admiration.

As the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Jason and I have a few things in common. But while I grew up in Brooklyn, Jason grew up in Forest Hills and attended Yeshiva Dov Revel and the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, followed by Yeshiva University. In 1992 he earned a law degree from the New York University School of Law and joined the firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in New York. In the mid-1990s he founded a cappuccino coffee company, but he later sold it in order to return to the practice of law. Yet even as he represented the Trump Organization in its acquisition of prime real estate, he managed to find time to author three travel books, including one about his family’s trip to Israel.

These days, however, as he flies around the world trying to bring about a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians—something that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has openly vowed to thwart—he doesn’t have a whole lot of time for much else. While his tireless efforts have been underreported in the American media, they haven’t gone unnoticed in the Middle East. Nonetheless, he seems to relish his position.

“This role has been the experience of a lifetime,” he tells me with a broad smile after we are seated in his comfy family room, where one of his young daughters is busy playing. “Of course, there are frustrating moments, lonely moments and challenging moments. Some moments have been tragic and sad. Living apart from my family has also been hard on all of us. But we are proud to have the opportunity to make these sacrifices for such a noble goal, and I remain dedicated to trying to achieve this peace agreement and build on the progress we’ve made over the past two years. I consider it a tremendous honor to be able to serve my country. After more than two years on the job I still come to the White House every day humbled, and I marvel at the fact that the work we do may help millions of people.”

“But you do come home for Shabbos, right?” I ask.

“Yes, unless I’m traveling, Shabbos is the most special time for us. My wife, who is amazing, and my children, who are also amazing, are 100% dedicated to the mission. I couldn’t do my job without my family’s incredible support and sacrifice. It’s not just the physical separation that’s hard but the fact that I can be anywhere from six to nine hours ahead of New York, which means that just being in contact can be challenging. But we believe that G-d has given us an opportunity to try to help, and we feel blessed to be part of this incredible journey to see if we can possibly achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians while ensuring the safety and security of Israel and the greater region.”

“I really believe that both you and klal Yisrael have been blessed by your appointment,” I tell him sincerely. I know few public servants who are as earnest and dedicated as Jason is to the well-being of the United States as well as to the welfare of the worldwide Jewish community. His tweets about davening and putting on tefillin in diverse places, including most recently on Air Force Two when he was traveling to a summit in Warsaw with Vice President Pence, are a true kiddush Hashem.

“That trip was a microcosm of my two years in the administration and my 23 years of working for the President as a proud American and an observant Jew,” he shares. “It was an incredible feeling to stand at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw for the ceremony with Vice President Pence, the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of Poland when Keil Malei Rachamim was said. My family is from Hungary, not Poland, and thank G-d everyone survived intact. But my wife’s family was in the Warsaw Ghetto, and my wife’s grandmother was separated from her parents there and never saw them again. It was an unbelievable experience to sit down together with so many foreign ministers. I also did a Q&A on Thursday night with the Polish community. There were three Righteous Gentiles who came to hear me speak sitting in the front row. Being able to thank them personally gave me the chills. I don’t know whom they saved, but meeting them was incredibly special.”

“What was the goal of the Warsaw Summit?” I ask him.

“The summit was organized by the State Department, and Secretary Pompeo was very clear about its objectives, which included discussing common threats such as Iran, Yemen and Syria. Jared Kushner also made a presentation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the summit’s main accomplishments was that countries from all over the region, including Israel and many of its Arab neighbors, sat down together to discuss how to solve their problems without tension or animosity. The discussions were rational and reasonable.
“Now that it’s over, the PA is characterizing the summit as negative, backwards or unsuccessful—depending on who’s talking. Saeb Erekat wrote an op-ed in Haaretz essentially saying that the summit was a total failure, and what the United States is trying to do will never work. I responded to him—by Twitter, since he isn’t talking to me—by pointing out that he’s been saying the same things for decades, which has gotten the Palestinians virtually nothing. He and the Palestinian leadership should work towards helping their people rather than just making the same statements over and over again.”
“Every American administration has had Jewish people involved as negotiators and representatives,” I tell him. “For example, I recently spoke with former Ambassador Dan Shapiro. But there have been very few Orthodox Jews in these positions like you and David Friedman. One of the things former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren pointed out in his book, which was written during the Obama administration, was that the only people who are really going to fight for Israel are the Orthodox Jews, because everyone else is assimilating and losing interest. I know that your objective is to uphold the interests of the United States, but I’m sure that working to secure peace in the region is something that touches your soul.”

“Yes, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I was very moved when I visited the Kotel and Yad Vashem with President Trump. The ceremony I attended with Vice President Pence at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw was also incredibly meaningful, given the facts of our long Jewish history. We are very fortunate to live in a great country like the United States, where a Jew can have a job like mine. I work for a President who has deep respect for the Jewish people, deep respect for my Orthodox observance and deep respect for the State of Israel.

“You mentioned that my work touches my soul. Someone recently made a comment about how this administration does things differently from previous ones because the issues are approached with a full heart, not just politically and diplomatically. That has certainly been our approach. We approach things with our hearts and souls.”

“I don’t know if Teaneck is generally pro-Trump, but you probably get some negative pushback,” I say.

“Not very often. Most people recognize what we are trying to do and they’re respectful. Once in a while there’s some negativity, but that’s been the least of my problems over the last couple of years. Teaneck is a very special community.”

“Two years ago, I was interviewed on NPR and I was asked what my thoughts were on the President’s relationship with the Jewish community. I mentioned what you said about the President having deep respect for Jews. When he condemned Ilhan Omar for her anti-Semitic tweets, many commentators, including Jake Tapper, said that the President was no better. I would like you to respond to those criticisms.”

“I am personally offended by such criticism of President Trump. I’ve known him for 23 years. Other than Jared and Ivanka, there is probably no one else who has as much insight into his feelings about the Jewish community as I do. People take isolated remarks and jump to conclusions, or they get upset if he doesn’t do things exactly as they want or within the timeframe they want, but that’s wrong. After so many years of interacting with him on a very personal level as an observant Jew, I am telling you that these attacks are unfounded and unfair. Take a look at his State of the Union speech a few weeks ago. That shows the true Donald J. Trump.”

“From my perspective,” I say, “we’ve never had a better friend in the White House. You are in a position that very few people have had the privilege to be in.”
“Yes. It’s amazing.”

“I always mention that Trump has Jewish einiklach, but I remember the relationship you and David had with him before he was elected.”

“Exactly. There has never been a ripple of a problem, only tremendous positivity.”

Peace Process
I ask Jason to tell me about his efforts to secure peace.
“We have a long way to go,” he concedes, “but we have certainly made a lot of progress with regard to our relationship with Israel, our relationship with the Persian Gulf states, and Israel’s relations with those countries.

“We have also made a great deal of progress towards developing a vision for a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, which was developed after extensive study and listening to many voices. Over the last two years President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he is a huge supporter of Israel. Nikki Haley did an unbelievable job defending Israel at the UN. The President remains dedicated to trying to achieve peace, as it would be good for both sides. But it is no secret that the Palestinian Authority cut off all ties with the United States in December 2017, after the President made his historic and courageous announcement about Jerusalem. Till today, that remains the status quo. The PA is adamant about not dealing with us unless we reverse some of our decisions, including our recognition of Jerusalem. Some people might say that that has had a negative impact on our progress, but it isn’t true. While our door remains open to the Palestinian leadership, and we believe that their lack of engagement is counterproductive and hurts the Palestinian people, we have continued our efforts and are still working hard on the vision we hope to present in the coming months.

“Part of this involves meeting with ordinary Palestinians, from teenagers to business people. Many Palestinians are eager to share their views. These conversations are very valuable, as we get to hear how they feel about the conflict as well as the solutions they’d like to see. In some cases, these discussions depart from the PA’s talking points. They have been very helpful in formulating our vision.

“Israel’s relationship with its neighbors is also dramatically different from the way it was two years ago. When I took this job, I could never imagine that an event like the Warsaw summit would ever take place. Of course, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that we’d like to resolve, we don’t believe that it’s the core point of contention in the region. As every intellectually honest person knows, if we resolved this conflict it wouldn’t resolve many others, such as the problems in Syria, Iran and Yemen, or terrorism and extremism. Still, helping Israel improve its relations with its neighbors also helps the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But as with all very complicated issues—and some say that this conflict is one of history’s most complicated—it take a great deal of time and patience to see if a solution can be achieved. There are obviously many, many challenges.”

“What do you think was accomplished when the US made its declaration about moving the embassy?”

“The President wanted to respect the 1995 law that was passed by Congress. I believe we recognized the historic and current reality that Jerusalem was and is the capital of Israel, and we refused to continue the fiction. We will no longer allow people to pretend things that aren’t true. Still, while we can try to help the involved parties, we aren’t going to force a peace agreement on them.

“What we really accomplished was shedding light on the truth. This direct engagement makes some people uncomfortable. They prefer that we speak more diplomatically in private. But the old methods haven’t worked, which is why it’s time to try something new. I also don’t agree that if the Palestinians say things publicly that aren’t true we should remain quiet or only call them out on the carpet behind closed doors. Don’t forget that they refuse to engage with us either quietly or publicly! By the way, most of the Palestinians I’ve met support my views, based on the feedback I’m getting on Twitter. They find the frankness and openness refreshing. They want to understand what’s going on and hear it directly from us, even if they don’t always agree.”

“In his State of the Union Address, the President said that he would be taking a realistic approach. What does that mean in practical terms?” I inquire.

“We’re trying to create a deal that’s fair, realistic and implementable. We are also keenly focused on Israel’s security. Our view is that the talking points of the past have never brought peace, nor do we think that they will ever bring peace. However, we do have a vision of how we think peace might be achieved, and we aren’t interested in imposing a solution on either side. I’m sure I said the same thing the last time we talked two years ago.”

“You did,” I rejoin, “which is amazing, because then it was all in the realm of potential and now it’s close to reality.”

“Nobody can force peace on anyone else, whether it’s the US, the EU or the UN. We intend to deliver a very detailed vision of how we think peace can be achieved, and our hope is that the two sides will go through it together, negotiate something and ultimately walk out of the room with a peace agreement, however long it takes. We have no illusions about the challenges, but enough has changed in the region that we believe we should seize the opportunity and try.”

“When do you think the US plan will be publicized?”

“Not before the Israeli elections, although we haven’t decided how long afterwards we’ll wait to release it. We will make that decision in due course.”

“You’re waiting until after the elections out of respect for the electoral process?”

“Yes. We are trying to achieve something that is very delicate. We want to give it the best chance of success, and no one thinks that releasing it between now and the elections is a good idea.”

End Goal
“You mentioned that the Warsaw summit was organized by the State Department. Can you explain why the White House and State Department have a two-pronged approach to the same problem? I know that you and Jared are working on behalf of the President, and the State Department is working on other initiatives.”

“Jared Kushner, David Friedman and I work together, but we coordinate very closely with the National Security Council and the State Department, and we have a really great relationship with them. Secretary Pompeo is doing a phenomenal job, and he’s a wonderful partner. The same goes for John Bolton and the whole NSC staff. The President sets the mission and decides which direction we’re supposed to row, and we all work together to full that mission.”

“You said that the Palestinians severed their ties with the US. Is that with both the White House and the State Department, or do they still have a relationship with the State Department?”

“For the most part they’ve boycotted the whole administration. I believe that that works to their detriment. But as I said, many Palestinians continue to engage with us.”

“It’s fascinating that you’re trying to bring the two parties together, yet you’re speaking to Palestinians who don’t represent the PA.”

“Right. I want to be clear: These Palestinians who engage with us aren’t coming as official representatives of anything. They are coming to us as private citizens who want to see the conflict resolved. First of all, they want to be able to air their grievances. Almost without exception they are upset about some of the decisions we’ve made, like the one on Jerusalem, although not all of them. Most of them were upset by the decision to cut funding for UNRWA.

“On the other hand, several prominent Palestinians have told me, ‘Please thank President Trump, because he did us a favor by cutting UNRWA. UNRWA turned us into a nation of beggars, and this will hopefully give the PA an opportunity to retool itself and allow the people to succeed.’

“They also come to tell us what they would like to see in a peace deal. What’s interesting to me is how many of them are deeply frustrated with their leadership, not just for cutting off ties with us but also how the PA doesn’t help the public, and even worse, how it’s ruining the Palestinian economy.”

“Do you think that not having a relationship with one side has set the process back at all?”
“I view it a little differently; I think of it as two separate roads. There’s an ongoing peace effort, and there are decisions that have to be made for the United States of America. We told the PA that we will continue to be dedicated to working towards peace, but we still have to make our decisions even if an agreement isn’t reached. This is definitely a different approach from what they’re used to, and it frustrates and in some cases angers them, but we’ve made it clear why we’re doing it. We no longer hold up making decisions because they might affect a peace process.

“The vision we’ve developed to end the conflict is far more detailed than prior efforts. One of the most often-cited attempts was the Arab Peace Initiative. The first time I saw it after it was published I was amazed, because the concept was really remarkable at the time. But here we are many years later, and you realize that it really doesn’t say enough for anyone to understand what it actually means.

“So when we’re criticized by people who want to know why we don’t just put out something like the Arab Peace Initiative, I respond, ‘Well, let’s sit down together and look at it. Can you tell us what it actually means and how it will achieve peace?’ They never know how to answer. The Arab Peace Initiative is very aspirational, but there are no details in it. What we’ve been doing is trying to examine the past efforts, understand why they didn’t work, and go into much more detail. We firmly believe that when the Israelis and Palestinians see our plan, despite the compromises it entails, they will see what the future can hold for both of them. We believe that they will both gain more than they give.

“Where we have failed to make progress is in getting the PA to stop rewarding terrorists and their families; that’s why the Taylor Force Act was essential. We’ve also failed to help the Palestinians improve their economy because the PA has refused to work with us. That’s another missed opportunity for the Palestinian people and a great disappointment to me, because improving the lives of the Palestinian people is an issue about which I care deeply.”

“What kind of progress has there been between Israel and its neighbors?”

“When we first started, the progress was quiet, but since then there has been more overt cooperation. This is good for everyone, and it’s an essential step on the road towards peace.”

“Has the US become closer with its allies in the region?”

“The United States has close ties to many countries in the region, although that obviously doesn’t include the Palestinians at the moment or Iran and Syria. But those relationships are very important. These countries all have great respect for President Trump.”

“How much of that credit would you say goes to the Trump administration?”

“Not only do President Trump and his administration deserve credit, but much of it goes to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the other leaders in the region. What many people don’t understand is that when the President took his first trip to the region, which included Saudi Arabia followed by Israel, he was setting the table. If you look back at the speech he gave in Riyadh you’ll see that his intent was to show that in order for there to be stability, everyone has to work together. Two years later, we are now seeing the fruits of that labor. The President made his expectations very clear. At the same time, the United States isn’t about to tell any of our allies in the region—Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar—that they have to do this or that vis-à-vis Israel. As allies, their stability is important to us, so we’re allowing them to make decisions based on their own national interests.”

Someone once said that true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. Perhaps that is the reason why peace is so elusive. But as hard as it is for us to envision, one day true peace will be achieved. For as the Prophet Isaiah (2:4) foretold, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

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