JERUSALEM — Jason Greenblatt, the New York real estate lawyer appointed by President Trump as his special representative for international negotiations, sounded out Israeli and Palestinian leaders on prospects for Middle East peace, garnering generally positive reviews from both sides Tuesday despite his lack of diplomatic experience or defined goals.
Greenblatt met Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, following a five-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday night.
The visit marked the first time that Trump has sent one of his key envoys to the region to probe the possibility of solving an intractable conflict — one that has bedeviled his predecessors in the White House and flummoxed even more experienced U.S. diplomats for decades.
Since taking office, Trump has indicated a departure from previous U.S. administrations that were solely committed to the concept of a two-state solution, and he has signaled interest in exploring a regional approach to reaching a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Last month, in a news conference with Netanyahu in Washington, Trump appeared determined to find a solution that would be acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, although he did not make clear exactly what that meant.
A U.S. Embassy official, speaking anonymously in keeping with protocol, said the goal of Greenblatt’s visit was primarily “to hear their views and perspectives on the current situation and how progress towards peace can be made.”
Despite low expectations for the visit, hopes were high on both sides — although for quite different reasons.
For Israel, the meeting was viewed as a chance to present its arguments for strengthening Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the construction of a new community to replace Amona, a Jewish outpost demolished last month after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled it was built on private Palestinian lands.
Among Palestinians, Greenblatt’s visit was an encouraging sign — after what was described as a positive telephone call between Abbas and Trump on Friday night — that the U.S. president is committed to providing them with an acceptable solution.
Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Greenblatt tweeted that the two had discussed settlements, the regional situation and how progress toward peace with Palestinians can be made.
In a joint statement, Netanyahu and Greenblatt said they were both committed to advancing a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu said that under Trump's leadership, he looked forward to the prospect of peace with all of Israel’s neighbors, including the Palestinians.
The two, however, did not seem to have resolved differences over Israel’s desire to expand its controversial settlements, built on land Palestinians hope to use for a future state. In Washington last month, Trump asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
The settlements issue seemed to be a rare point of contention between Israel and the Trump White House. After his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu told reporters that while the two agree on most matters, they do not see “eye to eye” on everything.
Speaking Tuesday night, Netanyahu said the two administrations were trying to reach an understanding on the issue. He said his meeting with Greenblatt was positive.
Netanyahu is under immense pressure from the right flank in his coalition, including his coalition partner and rival Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party. Bennett and his party have been pressuring Netanyahu to declare sovereignty over certain settlement blocs and move ahead with building a new settlement even without Trump’s direct consent. Both Netanyahu and Bennett constantly vie for the support of thousands of ideological and politically motivated Jewish settlers.
In Ramallah, the de facto headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, feelings toward Trump and his intentions have been positive since the Friday phone call between the two presidents. They were further buoyed by Tuesday’s meeting with Greenblatt.
“We received Greenblatt as a representative of the U.S., and we appreciate and welcome the fact that he is open and wanting to listen to the Palestinian side,” said Husam Zomlot, a senior adviser to Abbas. “This is a good start.” Zomlot will take up the post of the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the United States next month.
Zomlot said Greenblatt was attentive and spent hours in Ramallah meeting with the Palestinian president and many of his senior advisers.
“It is crucial that they are consulting, and that is why we believe this is an opportunity for us,” he said. “The road to peace is well known, and we are all willing to give it a chance.”
Local media reported that Trump has invited the Palestinian leader to Washington, a trip he is likely to undertake sometime next month. The belief is that the U.S. president will likely propose a peace deal that would include the resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, in exchange for a halt to settlement expansion and an American pledge not to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
“The U.S. administration has made various statements on the peace issue, and one can understand the president is taking a businesslike approach to the problem, as opposed to a diplomatic approach,” said Michael Oren, an Israeli member of parliament and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “That is a breath of fresh air from the previous eight years.”
Oren said that when Barack Obama took office as president, he immediately appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East and told the sides what peace would look like. The result, Oren said, was an impossible situation that did not give either side room to negotiate.
“What I hear from Netanyahu is that this president is open to different ideas. It is not about ideology but what stands a chance of succeeding,” he said. “We have an opportunity now to regain a level of intimacy and trust that has been lost, that is vital for moving ahead with the peace process.”