Top Trump Mideast peace envoy to step down

Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt is leaving government after two-and-a-half years spent crafting a still-unreleased Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, according to multiple administration officials.

Greenblatt, the special representative for international negotiations, is expected to leave the administration soon, likely after the Trump administration releases its proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an administration official said. Avi Berkowitz, an adviser to Jared Kushner and member of the administration’s peace team, is expected to assume most of Greenblatt’s duties.

Greenblatt’s departure comes amid repeated delays of the release of the Trump administration’s peace plan — which was largely finalized late last year. The delays have been in large part due to an uncertain Israeli political situation. His departure, which officials attributed to family reasons, will inevitably raise fresh questions about the viability of the administration’s peace efforts, since Greenblatt will not be involved in any potential direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Trump administration is planning to unveil its peace proposal after Israeli elections taking place in two weeks, but has not yet determined how soon after the elections to release it. Greenblatt does not yet have a firm exit date.

A former top lawyer at the Trump Organization, Greenblatt joined the administration in January 2017 with a narrow focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a plan to serve no more than two years. A senior administration official said Greenblatt was leaving — about eight months past that marker — to return to his wife and six children, who remained in New Jersey while Greenblatt moved to Washington to work at the White House.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to have worked in the White House for over two and a half years under the leadership of President Trump. I am incredibly grateful to have been part of a team that drafted a vision for peace. This vision has the potential to vastly improve the lives of millions of Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region,” Greenblatt said in a statement.

In his role, Greenblatt repeatedly traveled to the Middle East to gather input from Israelis, Palestinians and others in the Middle East before turning to crafting a peace proposal alongside Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

But their efforts were hampered in part by Trump’s decision to recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which provoked a fierce backlash from Palestinian officials, who have since refused to engage with the Trump administration on its peace proposal.

“Jason has done a tremendous job leading the efforts to develop an economic and political vision for a long sought after peace in the Middle East. His work has helped develop the relationships between Israel and its neighbors as he is trusted and respected by all of the leaders throughout the region,” Kushner said in a statement.

While Greenblatt earned a reputation at first as an official willing to listen to various perspectives on the conflict, he struck a fiercely pro-Israel line that amplified claims that the Trump administration’s approach is heavily biased in favor of Israel.

Greenblatt has frequently tweeted criticisms of Palestinian officials and others who have disagreed with the Trump administration or whom he views as impediments to the peace process. But he has remained mute in the face of Israeli actions viewed broadly as counter-productive to peace.

In June, Greenblatt defended his lack of criticism of Israeli officials, including of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to annex parts of the West Bank, telling CNN in an interview he hasn’t “found anything to criticize.”

“I haven’t found anything to criticize that goes over the line,” Greenblatt told CNN, when asked whether he has ever criticized Netanyahu or the Israeli government.

A senior administration official said Greenblatt “will remain in the administration over the coming period as the team continues to strategize over next steps.”

The official said the peace team began planning for Greenblatt’s departure toward the end of last year by increasing Berkowitz’s role in the process, building out a team at the White House and increasing the role of the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, who will also take on more responsibility as Greenblatt leaves.

The Trump administration released the economic portion of its peace plan during a conference with Arab officials in Bahrain last June, but it has yet to unveil the political portion of its plan, which will address the most intractable issues — like the matter of statehood, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees — to resolving the conflict.