No experience necessary: Meet the Orthodox lawyer advising Trump on Israel
NEW YORK — If Donald Trump wins the White House, he’ll probably be the first U.S. president whose top adviser on Israel used to do guard duty at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank armed with an M-16 assault weapon.
The adviser, Jason Dov Greenblatt, currently works for Trump as a real estate attorney. Trump identified Greenblatt last week as one of two Jewish lawyers who would be his top Israel advisers; the other is bankruptcy expert David M. Friedman of the Kasowitz law firm.
“I do rely on him as a consultant on Israel,” Trump said of Greenblatt at an April 14 meeting with Jewish reporters. “He’s a person who truly loves Israel. I love to get advice from people that know Israel, but especially from people that truly love Israel.”
Greenblatt, 49, has an unusual resume for a prospective presidential adviser on Middle East affairs. An Orthodox Jewish father of six from Teaneck, N.J., who wears his yarmulke at work, Greenblatt has worked for Trump for the last 19 years dealing exclusively with real estate and company matters. His titles are executive vice president and chief legal officer. He has self-published three travel books, one about a family trip to Israel, and runs a blog about family travel, Realfamilytrips.com.
Asked about his expertise on Israel, and what he reads and who he consults to stay informed, Greenblatt said his main sources of information are daily email alerts, American Israel Public Affairs Committee materials and a weekly Jewish radio program featuring Malcolm Hoenlein, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“I also speak to people that I would say are involved in the Israeli government at certain levels and hear their thoughts,” Greenblatt said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of literature out there, emails and all that, so I read all of those as often as I can.”
Though he would help a President Trump navigate the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Greenblatt has no Palestinian contacts. In fact, Greenblatt said he hasn’t met any Palestinians since he was a yeshiva student in the mid-1980s at Yeshivat Har Etzion, in a West Bank settlement bloc near Jerusalem, when he had some casual interactions with Palestinian laborers, gardeners and shopkeepers. (That was also when Greenblatt, like all students at the yeshiva, did occasional armed guard duty.)
As Trump’s campaign for president has intensified, the Republican front-runner occasionally has tapped Greenblatt on Israel-related matters. Greenblatt says he was among those who helped Trump prepare his speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in March. And when asked several days ago for a surrogate to write an op-ed in support of the candidate, the Trump campaign turned to Greenblatt.
A consultant to Trump on a variety of issues, Greenblatt could end up playing a crucial role in a Trump presidency.
“I certainly will tell him my thoughts on something where I think I need to,” Greenblatt said in a wide-ranging, 90-minute interview at Trump headquarters in Manhattan last Friday. “He’s very much open to listening. But people should recognize that Donald is his own person. An adviser is no more than someone who gives him context. He’s the one making the decisions.”
Greenblatt’s positions on Israel are similar to those of his boss. Like Trump, Greenblatt supports a two-state solution, so long as it is reached by the parties themselves and not imposed by an outside body like the United Nations. He does not believe Jewish settlements in the West Bank are a core part of the problem. He says Trump, an “incredible facilitator,” should try to restart peace talks.
“We kind of need to roll up our sleeves and try to attack it again and see what we can accomplish,” Greenblatt said.
To get the Palestinians to the negotiating table, Greenblatt suggests threatening to withhold some U.S. funding from the Palestinian Authority.
U.S. negotiators “need to lay down the law and explain that the [Palestinians are] not going to get the benefits they get from the United States unless they come to the table,” Greenblatt said. “I think they need to say: ‘Over the course of the next period of time, we will continue to provide funding, but in order to do that you need to do X, Y and Z, set concrete goals, and if you don’t we need to start tapering off the funding,’ and see what happens.”
Also like Trump, Greenblatt believes Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can be handled similarly to Trump’s real estate negotiations, with money as a main incentive.
“If you take out the emotional part of it and the historical part of it, it is a business transaction. Land is going to be negotiated, water rights are going to be negotiated, security issues are going to be negotiated,” Greenblatt said. “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.”
On Syria, Greenblatt said the United States should create safe havens for civilians fleeing the war, possibly by “borrowing land” from nearby Turkey and Jordan. On ISIS, he says the U.S. should marshal a worldwide coalition to address the problem.
Asked how the Iran nuclear deal should be handled, Greenblatt says it’s too late simply to tear it up and that he’s not sure how to proceed.
“I’m not an expert on it to answer that question adequately,” he said.
This would be Greenblatt’s first real foray into politics. He said he hasn’t voted in primary elections and only registered as a Republican this year. He says he’s more liberal than Trump on immigration, and though he didn’t vote for Barack Obama, Greenblatt was excited by his election in 2008 as the nation’s first African-American president. He voted for John McCain in ’08 and Mitt Romney in ’12; he said he couldn’t remember whether he had voted for Bill Clinton for president.
When Trump identified Greenblatt last week as his top presidential adviser on Israel, it appeared to be a spur-of-the-moment decision.
“I knew that he was relying on me for certain aspects of Israel, but I didn’t know I was his top adviser,” Greenblatt said. “I feel fortunate he said it.”
Partway through a meeting with Orthodox Jewish reporters, Trump noted that he had plenty of Jewish friends, and then asked his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to bring Greenblatt and another Orthodox Jewish employee to the room. Shortly after they arrived, Trump was asked about his views on the West Bank. He punted the question to Greenblatt.
“I think the settlements should stay, but I think they have to work something out so that both sides are able to live in peace and safety,” Greenblatt said.
It was in an answer to a follow-up question that Trump said Greenblatt would be his go-to man on Israel.
“I don’t think I can find better,” Trump said.
Greenblatt later said he didn’t even know that a meeting with Jewish reporters was scheduled; he simply came to the room when summoned.
Raised in an Orthodox neighborhood of Queens, Greenblatt is a product of Orthodox Jewish day schools. He went to Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, and then to Yeshiva College after a year of study in the West Bank yeshiva. He obtained his law degree from New York University and worked for a law firm doing real estate transactional work — and tried to launch a start-up cappuccino company — until a recruiter brought him to Trump.
Greenblatt said Trump has been hugely understanding about his religious needs (Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, converted to Judaism before marrying husband Jared Kushner, and the family is involved in Orthodox observance). Greenblatt recalled the time he was leading a complex negotiation when he sheepishly told Trump he had to stop everything for a three-day Jewish holiday.
“He said, ‘Go home, go pray, be with your family and we’ll pick it up after the holiday,’” Greenblatt said of Trump. “He didn’t just not make an issue of it; he made me feel great about it.”
As a manager, Greenblatt has more free time these days than he did as a young lawyer. He and his wife, a full-time psychiatrist, take their family on two 10- to 14-day trips every year. He teaches a weekly real estate class at the Y.U.’s Sy Syms School of Business, and he’s on advisory boards connected to Y.U., the Orthodox Union’s youth organization and Frisch, the northern New Jersey Jewish day school that his 17-year-old triplets attend.
Greenblatt said he considers himself very lucky that he may get the chance to play a historic role helping Israel.
“I’m in this unique, amazing position where I might be able to help a country like Israel that I love so deeply by being where I am,” Greenblatt said. “When Donald negotiates deals in the White House, I know how he thinks, I know how to get his bidding done, so I could be useful. And I’d love to help change this country for the better.”