Mainstream media outlets have derided President Trump’s yet-to-be-released Israeli-Palestinian peace plan as a “sideshow divorced from reality” that is “destined to fail,” and it’s become fashionable to attribute this to the shortcomings of his soon-to-be-departed Middle East special envoy, Jason Greenblatt. But claims that Greenblatt “wasn’t the right guy” for the job are dead wrong. Whatever the outcome of the plan, he has arguably done more to advance the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians than any American diplomat in recent memory.
Though coming into government with comparatively little knowledge of, or experience dealing with, the Middle East, Greenblatt keenly understood that the primary source of the festering conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the unwillingness of Palestinian leaders to accept a Jewish state as a legitimate political entity. Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders may disagree over tactics and political vision, but they share an absolute rejection of living alongside Israelis as equals, and thus see no need to tone down the viciously anti-Semitic content of their educational curriculum, halt violent anti-Israel incitement on state-run media outlets, or take other steps essential to a good-faith conflict resolution.
For a quarter century, Greenblatt’s predecessors glossed over such harsh realities in their zeal to coax PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his successor as Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, into signing agreements and smiling for the cameras. Much of the language used to do the glossing has changed little. In 1988, U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz coached Arafat on the words he needed to utter so that the Reagan administration could say the PLO had “renounced” terrorism. Nearly three decades later, President Obama and his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, could be found repeating the mantra that Abbas had “long since renounced violence” — never mind that the bloodiest period of Palestinian terrorism was sandwiched between. As rejectionism and incitements to violence running rampant in Palestinian society continually thwarted any movement toward peace, high-level U.S. diplomats continued their incessant glossing.
From his first days on the job, rather than parroting the false narratives and biased framings that had become staples of ineffective American diplomacy, Greenblatt set out to publicly discredit them.
This is most striking in his use of terminology. In his frequent public statements, Greenblatt rejected both the term “occupied” to describe disputed territories controlled by Israel and the word “settlements” to describe Jewish towns and villages there. He pointedly abstained from using the term “refugees” to describe the 5.4 million Palestinians registered by UNRWA, on the grounds that “only a very small fraction” of them are true refugees who fled their homes during the 1948 war for Israel’s independence.
So eager was Greenblatt to fundamentally recast the lexicon of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that he declined even to use the well-worn phrase “two-state solution” in characterizing the ultimate aim of American diplomacy. “You can’t take … a conflict as complex as this and boil it down to those three words,” he explained to PBS in July 2019.
Greenblatt discarded the longstanding U.S. practice of suggesting moral equivalency between Israel and its adversaries (e.g., routinely responding to outbreaks of violence by calling on both sides to “refrain from provocative actions”). Indeed, he stated openly what most in Washington believed privately — that Israel is “more the victim than the party that’s responsible” for the violent conflicts in which it’s embroiled.
While acknowledging that Palestinians have suffered, Greenblatt laid the blame not on Israel, but on their own leaders. Hamas “doubles down on vicious incitement while the Palestinian people pay the price,” he tweeted in November 2018, while even officials of the supposedly moderate PA “would rather Palestinians suffer than at least explore a different path for a better future,” in Greenblatt’s estimation. He understood and publicly decried the fact that the PA’s educational curriculum “is radicalizing kids … teaching them about martyrdom and jihad instead of how to thrive in a peaceful world,” while calling its perennial financial troubles “self-generated” because of its continued funding of terrorists and their families under its so-called “pay to slay” program.
Most importantly, perhaps, Greenblatt called out much of the international community for having done “nothing to encourage the parties to sit down at the negotiating table and make the hard compromises necessary for peace.” He condemned the “fictions of international consensus” on the supposed necessity of dividing Jerusalem, urged donor countries to “think twice” before giving economic aid to the corrupt PA, and denounced the fact that UNRWA is “allowed to teach” an anti-Semitic curriculum.
In July, Greenblatt slammed the international community’s bias against Israel at the U.N. Security Council. Last month, he rightly dismissed “U.N. Security Council resolutions passed with the intent of providing a framework for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as having “failed to create progress,” and warned that “reflexive reference to these ambiguously-worded, highly controversial resolutions serves as a cloak to avoid substantive debate about the realities on the ground and the complexity of the conflict.” He seldom missed an opportunity to call out Western media for their bias against the Jewish state.
Greenblatt’s tireless assault on the sacred cows that circumscribe Western thinking (and the vigorous debates that have ensued) should help bring about a turning point in how future U.S. administrations, and others globally, approach the conflict. The critical point in a paradigm shift is not when consensus forms around something new, but when consensus about the old framework of assumptions begins to unravel.