Jason Greenblatt, US special envoy to the Middle East, announced he will retire at the end fo the month. He revealed his intentions on Sept. 5 and while doing so, explained that the timing of his departure lines up with the peace plan he was helping negotiate between Israel and Palestine. Greenblatt will wait until after the release of that plan before stepping down. US President Donald Trump has since appointed Greenblatt’s replacement, Avi Berkowitz, who like his predecessor, is an Orthodox Jew.
Greenblatt reportedly only planned to stay in his position for two years, but as the negotiating dragged out, he opted to stay on board with the Trump Administration to see it through. Together with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Greenblatt began working on a peace deal nearly as soon as Trump took office. The president famously called the goal the “deal of the century” and charged Kushner with achieving it, despite Kushner’s lack of experience in foreign affairs.
Greenblatt also came into his position with little knowledge in the field of international politics; his career before serving in The White House was predominantly highlighted by his tenure as Chief Legal Officer for the Trump Organization. Most of his day-to-day work, however, consisted of real estate business for which Trump had become known for.
In locating a suitable replacement, Trump chose Berkowitz, a 30-year-old friend of Kushner. Berkowitz only graduated law school three years ago and, with a concise career history, has not even had time to establish a proper résumé by which to draw a fair opinion of him. After university, he joined the Trump campaign, serving as assistant director of data analytics. His main responsibility was creating live Facebook shows before and after the presidential debates. Following the electoral victory, Berkowitz transitioned to The White House, working under Kushner as what could aptly be described as an “administrative aide.”
Somehow, all of this has prepared Berkowitz for the monumental task of forging peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. Former Middle East envoy Martin Indyk was unimpressed with the choice.
“If Avi Berkowitz is [Greenblatt’s] replacement, it’s a considerable downgrade in the position … Nice guy, but does not have the weight or experience of Trump’s former real estate lawyer,” Indyk said.
Joining Kushner and Berkowitz is Brian Hook, Trump’s envoy for Iran. Hook has served on several levels of the Trump administration, first as Director of Policy and Planning under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then as Senior Policy Advisor under his successor, Mike Pompeo. He has been in Washington for a decade, serving in the Bush administration and working as consultant and lawyer. Hook’s experience begs the question, “Why not choose Hook as the special envoy?”
Firstly, Berkowitz is Jewish, which could explain why he was chosen over Hook. While Kushner, and possibly Trump himself, tends to prefer working with other diplomats of his religion, it could very well hurt the chances of a Middle East peace plan succeeding. Already there was a questionable bias to the American team with two Jews leading it, but Trump amplified these optics when he moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Furthermore, his unwavering support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly as the annexation the Golan Heights, reeks of favouritism.
Another possible reason is that Hook is either satisfied with his current role under Pompeo, or simply too vital to the State Departments ongoing international efforts. Since Trump came into office, the department has been severely understaffed which does not bode well for an administration that is trying to broker new deals with nations all over the globe. Put simply, the State Department needs all the help it can get and certainly Hook is a huge asset for it.
Doomed from the Start
The Middle East peace plan promised by Trump is reportedly already finalised, but even as early as June, Pompeo was forced to start defending it against allegations of one-sidedness. In closed-door meetings, he spoke pessimistically about the probability of Palestinians accepting the deal, saying he understood why it might appear as a pro-Israel deal instead of a mutually beneficial accord. Even so, Pompeo is hoping that both sides give it a chance, but the Palestinians already appear ready to boycott any future discussions.
“[This appointment] makes it very clear that the administration has no real interest in seeking a just resolution but are essentially just stepping back and allowing the right-wing fanatical fringe in Israel and the US to dictate what the reality on the ground is for Palestinians,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
Another way of looking at the appointment is that it is simply a way for Kushner to consolidate his power. By installing a young, low-level assistant, he can maintain a grasp on the situation in a way that he could not do if Trump had appointed someone with more experience, said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
Trump’s Middle East “deal of the century” was likely doomed from the beginning due in part because of biased negotiators and also due to his pro-Israel policy agenda. It is possible that Greenblatt and Kushner put together a worthy plan, but it is telling that Greenblatt never intended to stick around to see it through. Under the assumption that the peace accord is already dead, Berkowitz’ appointment seems less impactful. The better question is how he will shape US policy on other regional issues.