This is the third in an occasional series on Jews who work in the Trump administration.
No matter the situation, there are a few certainties about Jason Greenblatt: He is pragmatic, he listens well and he wears a kippah.
After an early career as a real estate attorney, 20 years as chief legal officer for The Trump Organization and a brief foray into the coffee pod business, the Teaneck, N.J., native now occupies one of the most important advisory roles in President Donald Trump’s administration as special representative for international negotiations.
This month Greenblatt, 50, embarked on what’s been called a listening tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories during which he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to discuss the viability of resolving the decades-old conflict between the two peoples.
In keeping with the longstanding U.S. policy, Greenblatt has expressed support for the two-state solution, unlike his boss who wavered on the question during a press conference with Netanyahu on Feb. 15, saying he supported “the [solution] that both parties like.”
The Trump administration has also given mixed messages on settlements. At that press conference Trump asked Netanyahu to “hold off on settlements for a little bit.” Yet Greenblatt has said the administration “does not view the settlements as being an obstacle to peace.” During his listening tour, Greenblatt reportedly did not ask Netanyahu for a settlement freeze, according to the prime minister’s office.
If Greenblatt has one thing in common with Trump when it comes to the Middle East, it is that peacemaking equals dealmaking.
Greenblatt articulated this in an interview with the Times of Israel in April 2016 while he was serving as candidate Trump’s Israel adviser.
“If you take out the emotional part of it and the historical part of it, it is a business transaction,” he said. “Land is going to be negotiated, water rights are going to be negotiated, security issues are going to be negotiated. So you need to say to them, ‘Listen, we want to discuss these two issues in this quarter, and then you’ll get your check, and these two issues in this quarter, and then you’ll get your check. At the end of the day you want to resolve all the issues. I think it isn’t a good idea to do partial negotiations and then hope for the best.”
Unlike some abrasive members of the Trump administration, Greenblatt is more risk-averse and methodical in the way he presents himself, say those who worship with him at Kesher Israel, an Orthodox congregation in Georgetown.
Norm Eisen, a Kesher Israel member and former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, praised Greenblatt on how he handled the listening tour.
“It seemed like he did a good job on his first Middle East trip,” Eisen said. “He listened to all sides, which I always found to be a good place to start as a diplomat.”
Kesher member Ari Fridman, whose parents live in New Jersey and are friends of Greenblatt, said the Trump administration official is a particular standout in the congregation as a father of six.
“He’s very devoted to his family,” Fridman said. “I can tell you from sitting next to him in shul, his boys sit next to him and are well-behaved and are respectful and are there to daven [pray].”
Fridman said he does not know Greenblatt well, but believes his loyalty to Trump over the years has paid off.
“He’s somebody that’s obviously been involved with the president for a long time and it seems he’s gotten where he’s gotten due to hard work and years of duty,” he said. “He’s obviously been a big part of the Trump Organization’s success, so I don’t think it’s any accident that he’s reached a senior level position in the White House.”
Greenblatt’s friends in New York view him in a similar light. “I think he’s generally just a bright, caring and even-keeled type of guy and he’s the type of guy that you want around you as an adviser,” said Avi Lauer, Yeshiva University’s vice president for legal affairs, who has known Greenblatt since they were students together in the 1980s.
“He’s a very seasoned and strategic negotiator and I think those skills are going to be very important in the peace process,” said Lauer, adding that in his White House job, Greenblatt continues his Orthodox observance.
“As long as I’ve known him he’s been serious about his relationship with God and those around him,” Lauer said. “He cares deeply about Jewish values and I believe those values have shaped who he is.”