The job of “special envoy” can be frustrating. Its duties are elusive. Some special envoys come to the Middle East to prevent war, others to advance peace. The late Joseph Sisco, who became envoy in 1968, was mostly concerned with Soviet power plays of the Cold War. The mission of the late Philip Habib, President Ronald Reagan’s envoy from 1981 to 1983, was to restrain Israel’s First Lebanon War plans; he ended up brokering an agreement that sent Yasser Arafat and his comrades to a decade of exile in Tunis.
The job of “special envoy” can be unrewarding. Habib was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts but failed to see the end of Israel’s bloody war in Lebanon. Ambassador Martin Indyk, envoy from 2013 to 2014, was praised for investing a huge effort in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Indyk ended his stint as an envoy before he could turn the process into real peace.
Jason Greenblatt is the latest special envoy to the region, this time for President Donald Trump. He should get a medal for agreeing to take this thankless job. He should also get a patience-enhancing treatment, if there is such a thing. But most important, he must develop strategies for achieving two goals. The first is to convince the parties to advance the peace process. The second is to convince his boss that advancing the peace process doesn’t necessarily mean finding the “ultimate deal” the president is seeking.
Trump said not long ago that reaching such a deal is “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” If he sticks with this view, his irritation with Greenblatt is inevitable. A deal is difficult. The ultimate deal is probably impossible.
The people seeking the deal for Trump—his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his envoy Greenblatt and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (notably all New York Orthodox Jews)—are on a steep learning curve. As they meet with leaders in the region, they are learning the complexities of maps and the ever-changing interests of countries. Their last round of talks provided Israel with a small victory. “The United States officials and Israeli leadership underscored that forging peace will take time,” a statement from the White House declared. Weirdly, that is a first sign from this administration of acknowledging reality: a reference to “time” without specifics, without setting a timetable, without declaring something will happen or not happen “within a year” or “no longer than” or “by the end of my term.”
And this is a bigger step forward than it may appear, because the Trump administration has three advantages over its failing-to-achieve-much predecessors.
One: low expectations. President Barack Obama was expected to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as just one piece of the more ambitious puzzle of world peace.
Two: unpredictability. The Obama administration did exactly what it was expected to do. The cards were always on the table, the sentiments fairly clear. Trump, on the other hand, works in mysterious ways. One day he scares Israel by signaling a need for restraint on settlements; the next day he scares the Palestinians by demanding an end to payments to terrorists’ families. Both parties dread his next move or next tweet. He keeps them on their toes. It makes them more cautious in rejecting his overtures.
Three: recalibration of regional interests. With the Arab Spring fervor over and Iran still on the rise, the two main concerns of the leadership of Arab countries are neither Israel nor the Palestinians. They are chaos and Shiite triumphalism. Wasting time, money and energy on the marginal nuisance of Palestinian national frustrations hardly makes sense. So the Sunni Arab world might be more prepared than before to put the conflict behind it and move to face the real challenges of the future. That, at least, is the hope in Israel and, increasingly, in America. If Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States can all come together—if they can reconcile with Israel and make the Palestinians accept a plan that is less than what they currently expect—maybe some kind of a deal can be arranged.
A “deal”—not necessarily a “peace” deal. An “arrangement”—not necessarily the ideal “two-state solution” envisioned by previous generations of envoys and peace processors. This, if it happens, will be a cold, calculated, sober, interim, partial solution. It will be more than the current “managing the conflict” state of affairs and less than the desired “ending the conflict” state of affairs.
Israel could live with such a partial solution. In fact, for Israel this is probably the best available option—although a perpetuation of the current state of affairs is also not as problematic as the advocates of change make it seem. Israelis have lived with this “unsustainable” situation for 50 years, and the arguments that they will not be able to live with it for another 20 years, or more, are not convincing.
The Palestinians will have a harder time accepting it. But if both their Arab supporters and the United States present them with a stark choice, it will be hard for them to reject it.
The open question marks are thus the Arab countries—how serious they are about moving this deal forward—and the president of the United States. How ready is he to accept the limits of his ability to broker a real peace? How ready is he to invest his energy in advancing a less than “beautiful” deal?
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based contributing writer for the International New York Times, the political editor of the LA Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.