It’s the Settlements, Stupid!

Jason Greenblatt is undoubtedly an intriguing personality. Beneath his black skullcap lies a shrewd real estate dealer who knows marketing and is skilled in identifying business opportunities. Greenblatt dons or doffs the skullcap according to the occasion. On March 19, 2017, he participated (without skullcap) as an observer at the Arab League Conference on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. But returning home, via Ben-Gurion Airport, Greenblatt accepted the blessing of the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, where the skullcap returned to his head.

So who is Jason Greenblatt : a senior American diplomat in the Middle East or a religious Jew who loves Israel and is Netanyahu’s ardent supporter? Even if it takes time to figure out, Greenblatt is undoubtedly a trusted representative of Donald Trump. His immediate boss is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, likewise a devout Jew. Kushner, who knows Netanyahu, heads the White House Office of American Innovation. What distinguishes the Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt trio is that all are realtors whose business interests, combined with political interests, precede all else.

Netanyahu could not get along with a black president and a Harvard Law School graduate, so now he must deal with Obama’s diametric opposite: an in-your-face celebrity and ruthless businessman. True, both Trump and Netanyahu share a burning hatred of Iran, but for different reasons: Netanyahu sees Iran as a danger to Israel’s existence, while Trump sees Iran as an existential threat to the Saudi kingdom. Obama talked optimistically about Iran, while Trump is soft on Saudi Arabia. Obama had no business interests in Iran, while Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (until recently CEO of ExxonMobil) have plenty in Saudi Arabia!

Even before entering the White House, Trump sharply criticized Obama’s failure to veto the UN Security Council’s anti-settlement resolution. He tweeted: “As far as the UN is concerned, things will look different after January 20.” On February 16, at a joint press conference with Netanyahu in Washington, Trump pulled out his pistol and fired without warning when he urged Netanyahu to “hold back” from building Jewish settlements for a “little bit.” Netanyahu’s smiling face could not conceal his embarrassment.

Although the above was said as an aside, since that day Jason Greenblatt has doffed his skullcap, rolled up his sleeves and begun to work energetically to realize the “ultimate deal.” The paradigm is simple: since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a matter of real estate, only sophisticated realtors can solve it. “I’m looking at two-state and at one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Mr. Trump said at the same news conference. He thus taught Netanyahu some basic truths: money has no smell and in business there is no ideology—one or two states, the main thing is to reach a solution.

Greenblatt’s extraordinary presence at the Arab summit in Amman on March 29 shows that Trump’s intentions are serious. He had sent his emissary to promote a deal. While the countries directly involved, Jordan and Egypt, support the resolution of the conflict, the backing of the Arab world can only help. Trump has already invited General Sisi to visit the White House, followed by Abu Mazen. These two visits are intended to resolve the conflict between the Egyptian regime and the Palestinian Authority. (The conflict was the outcome of Abu Mazen’s exclusion from the planning of a regional conference under the auspices of former Secretary of State John Kerry). The Saudi Crown Prince and the Jordanian King have had meetings with the Trump in Washington, and everything points to a big regional move.

With “the Donald” in the White House, yesterday’s refusal will be today’s consent, and what is true for Abu Mazen, will be doubly true for Netanyahu. The time of decision approaches. Two states or one state, the main thing is to overcome the current situation of procrastination. But Netanyahu does not want two states or one state, he wants to leave the situation as it is, and here he clashes with Trump. The “happy days” of Obama are over, and Netanyahu’s bridges to the Democratic Party have been burned. Among the Republicans he will not find many dissidents. Trump, Kushner, Friedman and Greenblatt, one president plus three skullcaps!

Time is running out. Abu Mazen is old and it is not clear what will happen after his departure. In Gaza, there is little drinkable water, while electricity, work and medical services are collapsing under the Israeli siege. The problem is that Netanyahu does not have a majority in the present government in order to conclude an agreement. Likud ministers Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin nixed Herzog’s entry into the coalition when they preferred Lieberman. The walls are closing in on Netanyahu. On the one hand, the US administration is not willing to accept “No” for an answer, and on the other hand, the current governing coalition is unwilling to give “Yes.”

Here is where Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon enters the picture. A coalition crisis surrounding Israel’s new Public Broadcasting Corporation seems like a weak excuse to go to elections. It only strengthens the assumption that Netanyahu intends to dissolve the government in any case. So he creates a crisis with Kahlon, but his real quarrel is with Bennett and the extreme right-wing in his government. Netanyahu signals to both: if you raise obstacles and attempt to separate me from my base, we will go to elections. Bennett’s hastily arranged meeting with Jason Greenblatt in Washington attests to the wide rift between him and Netanyahu. Bennett’s lobbying campaign for annexation of Area C takes place at a time when Netanyahu is negotiating with Trump on the future of the settlements. Bennett opposes early elections and is working desperately to scotch a regional peace conference. He cannot be a partner in a government that freezes settlements. He knows that should there be new elections, he might not be included in the next government. In light of the present coalition’s inability to reach an agreement on the Palestinian issue, the Labor Party’s entry into a Likud government will prove that, this time, Netanyahu is willing to do business.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu faces a dilemma. He has little wiggle room and may be forced to risk his political capital on a regional conference whose main players are weak and unfocused: Saudi Arabia is knee-deep in the war in Yemen; Jordan is imploding under the burden of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have fled to its territory; the Egyptian regime is unable to overcome the Islamic State in Sinai and is involved in the war in Libya; and Abu Mazen is losing ground to Hamas. In the end, a regional conference will not focus on the two-state solution; instead it will endorse another interim agreement that would expand the powers of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, deferring issues already deferred in the Oslo agreement: borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and the refugee problem.

Abu Mazen understands that such an agreement will not “fly” in the Palestinian street. He knows that “interim agreement” is newspeak for continuing the Occupation, the separation barrier, and the closure of the West Bank, and that therefore it would require the backing of the entire Arab world. An agreement would lead to the collapse of the present Israeli government. For the sake of a dubious arrangement that is unlikely to materialize, Netanyahu would have to risk splitting from his base and entering new elections. As long as Trump wants an agreement, however, and even if the current crisis with Kahlon gets resolved, the time will come when Netanyahu will have no choice but to take that risk.

* Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat