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White House Adviser: On Mideast Peace Plan, 'We Are Aiming For The Home Run'

Jul 10, 2019
Originally published on July 10, 2019 5:53 pm

The Trump administration is swinging for a "home run" in the proposal it's crafting for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it isn't going to offer "goodies" to get the Palestinians to start negotiations, a key White House adviser told Ari Shapiro on NPR's All Things Considered.

Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt is an assistant to President Trump and has traveled to the Mideast repeatedly over the past two years as part of the peace plan effort by Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

In June, the White House released an investment plan for the Palestinian territories, but the money won't start flowing until there's progress on a political solution. That plan hasn't yet been unveiled.

Jason Greenblatt (left) and Jared Kushner attended a Middle East peace meeting in February in Warsaw, Poland.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

People around the region are looking for the political plan to address the big questions, including whether there will be an independent Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, how to ensure security for Israel, what to do for Palestinian refugees and how to end Israel's military occupation of the West Bank.

But progress has been slow. And the Palestinian leadership has broken off contacts to the Trump White House since the U.S. endorsed Israel's claim that Jerusalem is its capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there last year.

The embassy move was just one of several times Trump's White House has sided against the Palestinians. It also closed the Palestinian representation office in Washington, D.C., and has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Palestinians, including for health clinics and food programs for impoverished people.

Greenblatt and Kushner have promoted their plan as a break from the past, whether it succeeds or fails. Highlights of Greenblatt's interview with NPR, edited and condensed for clarity, follow.


Interview Highlights

On building trust with the Palestinians so they will negotiate on a U.S. plan

We would love to have a relationship of trust and confidence, which we do have with many, many ordinary Palestinians. But if the Palestinian leadership ... if they choose to cut us off to the detriment of their people and to the detriment of the possibility of peace, that's their choice. We aren't going to give them the so-called carrots or, you know, goodies in order to buy them to come to the table, because it's never worked before.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2017.
Abbas Momani / AFP/Getty Images

On promising investment to the Palestinians while simultaneously cutting U.S. aid

If there's traction on the political engagement, once we reveal the political plan, then we will certainly look into restoring certain things and trying to improve lives along the way. It is very important to us to improve lives.

But at the moment ... we have not only non-engagement but actually boycotts undermining ... all of our efforts. Insults hurled at the president, our ambassador to Israel, many members of the administration. It is not a wise use of U.S. taxpayer money to keep feeding into a system where there is no positive momentum.

On criticism of the U.S. taking an all-or-nothing approach instead of confidence-building steps

We are aiming for a comprehensive solution. The interim solutions have been tried before. ... I'm not saying we will hit the home run. But at the moment, we are aiming for the home run where we couple a very impressive economic plan that was created by Jared Kushner and a dedicated team here from the U.S. administration, as well as peer-reviewed by outsiders.

It'll be stapled to a political plan. I think that's an important point, because I know that there's been a lot of criticism that we're trying to buy off the Palestinians, that we're trying to bribe the Palestinians, that there's no political plan. All of that is completely untrue. When everybody sees the two parts to the plan, I think it'll make sense to everybody. We're prepared to weather criticism from all sides.

On the timing for unveiling the administration's proposal

We obviously have the [September] Israeli election and government coalition formation looming, and the president hasn't made his decision yet [about releasing the plan]. We're protecting something very delicate. We want to make sure that it succeeds. So we want to air it at the right timing, and we will know the decision pretty soon. ... The plan is pretty much finished.

On whether the plan will come before the 2020 U.S. election

I think it would be a missed opportunity if we didn't. That's a long way off.

On whether the Palestinians deserve to have independence the way Israelis have independence

I would just say that you can't summarize such an extraordinarily complex conflict with the word "independence." You can't summarize the conflict with the words "two-state solution." There are just too many things, too many layers to this conflict to allow one- or three-word slogans or phrases to summarize the conflict.

On the plan's framework

The framework is essentially figuring out how to keep everybody, Israelis and Palestinians ... safe, secure, prosperous. Better lives.

And what we've done is ... roughly a 60-page document, plus some exhibits that will allow everybody, from teenagers to much older people, to understand how we think the conflict can be resolved — with a lot of hard work, compromise and of course negotiation — and allow people to ask themselves the tough question of "Will our lives be better off this way? Are we better off making these compromises so that once we sign" — we the Palestinians, in this case — "can create something unique and special and wildly successful?"

And with the Israelis, be able to continue to be successful but also feel safe and secure and accepted into the neighborhood that they live in, which is a rough and difficult neighborhood at times.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to talk now with a man who has been central to the Trump administration's effort at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Jason Greenblatt is the president's special representative for international negotiations. He's been working with Trump's adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner on a two-part proposal. A few weeks ago, Greenblatt was in Bahrain with Kushner, who hyped an economic plan for the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED KUSHNER: Imagine a bustling commercial and tourist center in Gaza and the West Bank where international businesses come together and thrive. Imagine the West Bank as a blossoming economy full of entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and business leaders.

A SHAPIRO: Next comes a political plan, a challenge that has frustrated administrations for decades. Jason Greenblatt, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JASON GREENBLATT: Thank you for interviewing me. I appreciate it.

A SHAPIRO: I want to begin by asking when we will see your proposal for a political solution to major issues like the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Do you expect it to come out by the end of this year, say?

GREENBLATT: So we're weighing that closely right now. We obviously have the Israeli election and government coalition formation looming. And the president has not made his decision yet. We're protecting something very delicate. We want to make sure that it succeeds, so we want to air it at the right timing. And we will know the decision pretty soon.

A SHAPIRO: Now, you held this conference in Bahrain where you invited international businesspeople and others to discuss investment in the Palestinian territories. Jared Kushner has said these investments would only come once there is a political solution, instead of investing right now or taking a step-by-step kind of confidence-building approach.

I want to play you something that David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me at the end of that conference in Bahrain, which he attended. Here's part of what he said in our interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID MAKOVSKY: The Trump administration, Jared Kushner and his critics share a common view that when it comes to the Middle East, it's either all or nothing. And sadly, though, whenever it's all or nothing, it's nothing.

A SHAPIRO: How do you respond to that assessment that whenever it's all or nothing, it's nothing?

GREENBLATT: We are aiming for a comprehensive solution. The interim solutions have been tried before. I'm not saying we will hit the home run. But at the moment, we are aiming for the home run where we couple a very impressive economic plan - it'll be stapled to a political plan. I think that's an important point because I know that there's been a lot of criticism that we're trying to buy off the Palestinians, that we're trying to bribe the Palestinians, that there's no political plan. All of that is completely untrue.

A SHAPIRO: The economic plan that you've put forth offers financial investment for Palestinians. And meanwhile, the Trump administration has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid money to the Palestinians. In fact, promotional materials for your plan use photographs of programs that have since been defunded.

Do you have any intention of restoring any of that aid, anything that might help inspire confidence in the Palestinian people that the U.S. does sincerely want to help them?

GREENBLATT: If there's traction on the political engagement once we reveal the political plan, then we will certainly look into restoring certain things and trying to improve lives along the way. But at the moment, where we have not only nonengagement but actually boycotts, undermining of all of our efforts, insults hurled at the president, it is not a wise use of U.S. taxpayer money to keep feeding into a system where there's no positive momentum.

A SHAPIRO: Over the last couple of years, the Trump administration has developed a credibility problem with the Palestinians. The U.S. has sided with Israel's claim to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. You have said Israel has a right to keep some of the land it occupies in the West Bank. And on the Palestinian side, you have closed the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington, and you often criticize Palestinian officials on Twitter but don't criticize Israeli officials.

A recent public opinion poll suggests 90% of Palestinians do not trust the Trump administration. What concrete steps can you take now to earn the Palestinians' trust?

GREENBLATT: That's an answer I could sit and discuss with you for about an hour. I'll do my best because you packed a lot into that. First of all, the Jerusalem announcement was grounded in U.S. law from 1995. It's something that President Trump promised during the campaign multiple times, and he was the only presidential candidate to follow through with this bold, courageous and historic decision.

A SHAPIRO: If I may, the Trump administration has defended each of the policies that I've described. Cumulatively, though, they seem to have undermined Palestinian faith in the Trump administration. And so my question for you is what are you doing to rebuild that faith, that confidence?

GREENBLATT: Fine. I won't defend each one on this show because it's - we don't have enough time. But what - we don't need to restore confidence in the Palestinian people until the political plan is out there. It's all about the political plan. Either the political plan will be acceptable to some degree to both sides, enough to cause them to engage and want to reach the finish line, or it won't. We're not in the business of paying people to come to the table to negotiate something and then fail.

The real story here is what is in the political plan, and will it allow people to reach a final status agreement that'll improve everybody's lives? If it isn't, then it'll be the same as everybody else.

A SHAPIRO: So what I hear you saying is you don't see any value in building a relationship of trust and confidence to pave the way for success of that political plan. You think the political plan will either succeed or fail on its merits, whatever happens leading up to its release.

GREENBLATT: We would love to have a relationship of trust and confidence, which we do have with many, many ordinary Palestinians. But if the Palestinian leadership, if they choose to cut us off to the detriment of their people and to the detriment of the possibility of peace, that's their choice. We aren't going to give them the so-called carrots or, you know, goodies in order to buy them to come to the table because it's never worked before.

A SHAPIRO: Do you think the Palestinians deserve to have independence as Israelis have their independence?

GREENBLATT: We are doing our best to realize the aspirations and needs of both sides. It is unrealistic to think that both sides will get everything that they want. There will be hard compromises if we're going to be able to succeed. But we ask for everybody's patience. And once the political plan is revealed, we think that people will realize we've done our best to address things like the question you just asked.

A SHAPIRO: That's a general answer to a specific question. Am I to take it that you're not willing to say now that you do think Palestinians deserve their independence?

GREENBLATT: No, don't take it like that. I would just say that you can't summarize such an extraordinarily complex conflict with the word independence. You can't summarize the conflict with the words two-state solution. There are just too many layers to this conflict to allow one- or three-word phrases to summarize the conflict.

A SHAPIRO: I'd like to play you something that former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, no relation to me, said on NPR a couple of weeks ago. He was ambassador in the Obama administration. He was talking about the leadership of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANIEL SHAPIRO: I think the current leaders are probably not the leaders who are going to be able to achieve this agreement. They have been through several rounds of failed negotiations. They mistrust each other deeply. They both face very, very challenging domestic political circumstances.

I think the goal of the Trump administration, or any U.S. administration now and maybe in the near term, should be not to try to achieve a two-state solution but rather to try to keep that option alive for later.

A SHAPIRO: Do you think he's right that these are not the leaders who will be able to achieve peace?

GREENBLATT: No, I don't agree. I agree with much of what he said. I don't agree with that point. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is a leader who can get this done. I also think that President Abbas is a strong leader with a lot of respect from his people. And if he's willing to reengage and if he's willing to look at the plan with an open mind, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said he would, he also has the strength to get through this. But he has not done himself any favors by continuing to disconnect from the U.S.

A SHAPIRO: Jason Greenblatt, thank you for joining us today.

GREENBLATT: Thank you so much.

A SHAPIRO: He is an assistant to the president and has been leading the Trump administration's efforts on a peace plan between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.