Tel Aviv Diary: Why Did Trump’s Guy Attend the Arab Two-State Summit

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Jason Greenblatt, Trump's Middle East envoy, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 13. Marc Schulman writes that Greenblatt has surprised everyone, both with his level of professionalism and the extent of his understanding of the issues in the conflict. Many had assumed Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, would support the position of National Religious parties in Israel. However, at least to date, he has turned out to be the consummate negotiator, trying to understand the positions of all sides. Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Handout via REUTERS

Most residents of Tel Aviv, and for that matter the rest of Israel, missed a very dramatic story: An Orthodox Jew from Queens, New York, attended the Arab Summit in Amman.

While much of the coverage of the summit questioned why they were dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a time when the Middle East was awash in strife, the larger context was missing. Here was an Arab Summit meeting taking place not to discuss the destruction of Israel but to save the concept of a two-state solution.

However, in a country where the accepted wisdom is that there are no partners for peace (even among the leaders of many of Israel’s opposition parties), it was easier to ignore this meeting than to contemplate its significance.

Furthermore, Trump's envoy to the negotiations stated a long accepted American norm, though often disputed by Israeli leaders, i.e., an Israeli-Palestinian peace would benefit the Mid-East and entire world. 

While the Arab summit was in session near the Jordanian Dead Sea, in Israel, it was a week of political victories for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both large and small.

In an overnight meeting on Thursday, the Israeli security Cabinet reached two unanimous decisions—both of which Netanyahu wanted. The first was to approve in principle the creation of a new settlement for those who were forced to leave their homes in Amona (after the courts had declared that those homes were built on private Palestinian land.) This was a promise Netanyahu made and feared the domestic political consequences of not keeping.

The Trump administration reacted with acceptance to the decision, stating that Netanyahu had promised to create this new settlement before Trump had asked him not to build more settlements.

The second security cabinet decision was to severely limit new building in the West Bank to areas that already have buildings on them. In short, not to increase the footprint of Jewish settlement in the West Bank. This was done as a gesture to Trump, who had demanded that Israel cut back settlement construction, something he indicated he did not think was helpful in his goal of negotiating an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Related: Peace in Israel will come only through a two-state solution

At Netanyahu’s urging, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history unanimously agreed to a significant settlement freeze. The decision to limit any building in the settlement to its existing physical footprint was made, despite the fact that the Trump administration has not agreed to even that level of building.

Many on the right wing hailed it as a historic victory. The left, while decrying any additional construction on settlements, saw this decision as a ray of hope that the new Trump administration was serious about limiting Israeli building in the West Bank.

Netanyahu's other victory this week came after days of meeting with Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon. These discussions were not about important matters of state, nor important matters of Israel’s economy, but attempts to avoid new elections—i.e., new elections that Netanyahu threatened to call if he did not get his way in stopping the new Public Broadcasting Authority, an authority whose creation he had supported but which he stopped from taking to the air at the end of April.

It seems Netanyahu had cold feet about allowing the Authority to begin broadcasting because of a key provision of its charter, calling for its employees— especially the senior officials—to be selected in such a way that would preclude political influence. Netanyahu, who has been obsessed with controlling the news media, had threatened to force new elections unless his demands were met.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu put the Israeli political world on notice—if he did not get his way with the Public Broadcast Authority he would call for new elections. The political world took him seriously, since he had done this before.

His coalition partners, particularly the ultra-Orthodox were furious. They are enjoying the fruits of being a members of the current coalition and oppose new elections, so much so that Netanyahu could not be sure of their support next time if he were to call for new elections now.

In his role as finance minister, Kachlon, the onetime Likud member who split from Netanyahu and the party over social issues, insisted that the authority begin to operate in April, for budgetary reasons. (The authority had already been funded and was spending money preparing for broadcast).

Related: Arab nations face stark choice: Israel or Iran

The two reached a compromise in their final meeting, in which Netanyahu achieved his key goal—meaning, the Broadcast Authority would begin operations, but without a news division. The news division would be put into a separate authority, whose directors would be political appointees, whom Netanyahu (as long as he remains prime minister) will be able to control. 

Kachlon hailed the agreement a victory, since the Broadcast Authority would indeed start broadcasting, and Netanyahu agreed to pull a draconian bill that would have given him unprecedented control over the the media. Political observers, however, lambasted Kachlon for agreeing, since according to most of them Netanayhu was playing poker with Kachlon but with a hand that everyone understood was empty.

So, in the end, Netanyahu achieved his goal of stifling the possibility of a new independent news operation from coming into being.

Despite these recent victories, Netanyahu faces two significant challenges in the coming weeks.

Much to his surprise, the Trump administration has placed trying to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians center-stage. Trump's designated negotiator, Jason Greenblatt has surprised everyone, both with his level of professionalism and the extent of his understanding of the issues in the conflict.

Moreover, many had assumed Greenblatt, who is an Orthodox Jew, would automatically support the position of National Religious parties in Israel. However, at least to date, he has turned out to be the consummate negotiator, trying to understand the positions of all sides.

His attending the Arab Summit is just an example of that fact. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Jordanian King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority Mahmud Abbas are all meeting with President Trump in early April. The three men met recently to coordinate their positions.

Netanyahu fears the Trump administration is about to make demands he is going to find almost impossible to meet politically. Finally, the police investigations into the prime minister continue.

For the past few weeks, the investigations have largely gone silent. It is unlikely they will remain silent for long.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.