Politics

Analysis: Trump’s envoy, bareheaded, walks into the lion’s den – Arab-Israeli Conflict


US President Donald Trump’s assistant Jason Greenblatt was an unknown entity in Israel until last year, when Trump – in the midst of his campaign and at a meeting with journalists from the Jewish media – introduced him as one of his top Middle East advisers.

The picture of Greenblatt that has appeared over and over since then is one of him wearing a large, black kippa.

In every picture, that kippa was prevalent.

That kippa was gone, however, when he showed up in Jerusalem for his first meeting as Trump’s special representative for international negotiations. While whether or not someone wants to wear a kippa in public is very much a private matter and his own business, it was impossible not to notice.

Some, however, did more than notice. They criticized Greenblatt and noted the irony: Here is a man who, as a top executive in the Trump empire, felt comfortable enough to wear a kippa to work, but doffed it when he came to Jerusalem to meet with the prime minister of Israel.

But the reason is clear.

When Greenblatt was representing Trump’s business interests in New York, what he wore on his head was of absolutely no consequence.

But now that he has been thrust into the role of US mediator of Israeli-Palestinian peace, he does not want to look as if he identifies with one side. You can wear a kippa when negotiating land deals in New York, but when you are negotiating for peace in the Middle East, for perception’s sake, it may be best not to look like you live in Beit Shemesh.

Consider an opposite scenario.

How comfortable would Israelis be if the chief US Middle East negotiator was a Muslim woman from the State Department dressed in a hijab? These are obviously very superficial measuring sticks: one can be very pro-Israel without a kippa, or extremely pro-Palestinian without a hijab. But perceptions matter, and the perception that Greenblatt was promoting by meeting Netanyahu bare-headed was that he is an impartial representative of the US government.

Pictures of a kippa-clad US negotiator shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah would do little to enhance Greenblatt’s credibility in the Arab world. And in the early stages of an administration – especially this administration – credibility is important.

By the way, it’s not as if Greenblatt is a man hiding or ashamed of his identity. On his way to Israel he tweeted a picture of his tallit, tefillin and siddur over the caption that it was time for the morning prayers in the Frankfurt airport.

“Pray for peace,” he wrote.

Yet there was also something symbolic in Greenblatt’s decision not to wear a kippa.

During the campaign, it is easy to say certain things. But once in power, the responsibilities of office tend to make one alter one’s rhetoric and see things differently.

On the campaign trail, Trump and his associates could talk about moving the embassy to Jerusalem, about an historic Jewish right to live in Judea and Samaria and about continuing to build in the settlements. But once in office, faced with pressures coming from numerous locations – the Department of Defense, the State Department, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – things become more nuanced. Other considerations, which during the campaign can be easily dismissed – because those not in office do not bear the same type of responsibility for their words – suddenly become more significant, and more influential.

Greenblatt waded this week into difficult waters, waters where many more experienced than he have jumped in before with very little success.

But this lack of experience – Greenblatt is a real estate lawyer, not a professional diplomat – is not necessarily a handicap, especially considering that so many before him, with so much experience, failed. Maybe his lack of experience will enable him to look at things in a way that his experienced predecessors might have summarily dismissed.

Greenblatt also has the benefit of having started the job with the bar set low. Former president Barack Obama named George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy just two days after he was inaugurated, and gave him the puffedup title “Special Envoy for Middle East Peace.” That’s a high bar. Greenblatt’s portfolio is more modest: special representative for international negotiations.

Trump, the consummate businessman, looks at the Middle East and sees the “ultimate deal” to be negotiated.

But Greenblatt is starting slowly, not building up unrealistic expectations. He talked with Netanyahu about improving Palestinian living conditions, and with Abbas about building up the capacity of the Palestinian security forces and stopping incitement.

He is talking about setting guidelines with the Israeli government on where Israel can and cannot build in the settlements.

These are small, non-bombastic steps. Steps that indicate he is looking for base hits, not an immediate grand slam. Home runs, especially by a “Special Envoy for Middle East Peace,” are much more dramatic, but a few base hits strung together can actually score some runs.

Greenblatt is bringing to the region a different approach, and a different style. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But one thing is certain: the approach of the last 25 years – all shepherded by people with vast amounts of experience – have led nowhere.

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