Ahead of Mideast trip, Jason Greenblatt seeks to overcome obstacles in Washington to a renewed peace process
Ahead of another visit to the region by President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jason Greenblatt, the White House is making efforts to recruit support on Capitol Hill and in the American Jewish community for its peace initiative. Greenblatt met last week with members of Congress and delegations of Jewish groups affiliated with the right wing, to explain Trump’s desire to reach “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.
On Thursday, Greenblatt met with a group of six members of Congress – three Democrats and three Republicans – to discuss Trump’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and see if there are ways to create bi-partisan support for renewing the peace process.
Two of the Republicans who participated in the meeting are considered among the more moderate members of the party on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rep. John “Jimmy” Duncan was one of the only Republicans to recently sign a letter to Trump calling on him to express support for the two-state solution, while Rep. Jeff Fortenbery cosponsored a bill this March to create an international fund for supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation.
Greenblatt tried during the meeting to see how it would be possible to overcome the political obstacles that a renewed peace process could face in Washington. Republican lawmakers, who mostly support Trump these days, won’t necessarily offer him the same level of support on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, since large parts of the Republican party base have in recent years adopted more extreme positions, mirroring those of Israel’s right wing. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers, who should, in theory, be more supportive of the president’s peace efforts, have so far not expressed open support, at least partly because of the intense hatred for Trump among the base of the party. When Trump announced earlier this month that he will delay moving of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem so as not to hurt the prospects for a peace agreement, no members of Congress – from either party – expressed support for his decision.
The three Democrats who participated in the meeting with Greenblatt were Peter Welch (Vermont), John Yarmuth (Kentucky) and David Price (North Carolina) — all considered strong supporters of a two-state solution. (Price initiated the bi-partisan letter to Trump in March calling on him to express public support for this long-standing U.S. policy.) Welch told Haaretz that he and his colleagues followed Trump’s recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and were satisfied by his declarations of support for the peace process and America’s role in reaching an agreement.
“I called Greenblatt to say ‘good job over there’ and he indicated his desire to have meetings on Capitol Hill with small groups of Democrats and Republicans,” Welch explained. “Greenblatt impressed us as very serious about the effort and very committed – it was an indication of seriousness of purpose. One of the things that ultimately will be important to do is to build bipartisan support and engagement on Capitol Hill and this is constructive. There are a lot of us in Congress that want to be helpful in getting a secure peace and him getting us involved early on is a very positive thing.”
Greenblatt also held two meetings this week with Jewish organizations that are considered supportive of Israel and the current right-wing Israeli government. On Wednesday he spoke to the leadership of the “Republican Jewish Coalition,” an organization funded by billionaire Sheldon Adelson that was harshly critical of the Obama administration’s attempts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and so far has not taken a clear position on Trump’s diplomatic efforts.
Greenblatt told the organization’s delegation to Washington that the Trump administration will stick to its promise not to force an agreement on the two sides, and that one of the purposes of his upcoming trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority is to begin looking for formulas and understandings between the two parties. An American official who was briefed about the contents of the conversation told Haaretz that Greenblatt “reiterated that the president remains committed to advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians and expressed that any peace agreement must be the result of direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians at some future date.” The official added that Greenblatt also “said that while the United States is committed to helping the parties reach an agreement, ultimately the parties must agree to the terms of the agreement and that the U.S. will not impose a deal on either party.”
The next day, Greenblatt met with the leadership of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella organization representing Orthodox Jews in the U.S., which is not a political organization, but is considered right-of-center on the conflict. Greenblatt repeated the message about not forcing an agreement on the parties, and said that President Trump is fully committed to Israel’s security. Greenblatt also said that Trump hasn’t lost interest in reaching a peace deal, despite all the other important issues he is currently dealing with. “He said that this is a priority for the president and that he sees it as part of his overall commitment to assist Israel and make it stronger and more secure,” said one participant at the meeting.
The most problematic political “landmine” that the administration is currently trying to defuse is the issue of payments by the Palestinian Authority to convicted terrorists and their families. The “Taylor Force Act,” which calls on the United States government to halt all financial support of the Palestinian Authority until the PA stops these payments, is gaining more and more support on Capitol Hill – in recent weeks, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia signed on as a co-sponsor, and other Democratic senators have stated that they will support the bill, which has also received the blessing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
These developments create a challenge for the White House. On the one hand, if the legislation – originally sponsored by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham – passes as it is, it could make it harder to renew the peace process, and could also create an economic crisis in the West Bank. On the other hand, the administration will find it very hard to oppose this bill or try to stop it, especially since Trump has already let down many of his right-wing supporters in the Jewish community with his decision to sign the presidential waiver delaying the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem.
On Thursday evening, Greenblatt met for a personal conversation with Graham, and discussed the legislation with him. The issue also came up in his conversation with the other members of Congress and with the Jewish organizations. Greenblatt said that the Trump administration is trying to solve the issue of the payments to terrorists in dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, and that he believes a solution is possible. “He was very cautious and didn’t go into much detail on what that solution would look like,” one participant said.
At the same time that the administration is working to solve the payments issue with the Palestinians, there are efforts on Capitol Hill – supported by the influential pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC – to soften the Taylor Force Act so that it could receive more Democratic support, and also not cause any damage to Trump’s efforts to restart the peace process. One option that is being discussed is to phrase the bill in a way that would not lead to a total halt of all aid to the Palestinians, but rather, deduct from it the amount going to the terrorists and their families. A vote on the bill could come as soon as August, which means that Greenblatt has a little more than a month to find a solution to this problem that would satisfy all sides, and also increase support in Washington for Trump’s diplomatic efforts.