Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for international relations, arrived in Israel Monday following a week of escalating tensions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far right-government decided to install metal detectors at the entrance of the Al-Aqsa mosque two weeks ago, leading to widespread protests and multiple casualties over the last few days. Three Palestinians were shot and killed in East Jerusalem during protests on Friday, while three Israelis celebrating a birthday were knifed to death in the West Bank later the same day (both areas are occupied by Israel). A few hundred Palestinians have also been injured over the course of the week as the violence has escalated.
While the White House has been notably silent about the recent clashes, officials told Israeli publication Haaretz the Trump administration has been working to approach the issue through quiet diplomacy. According to a senior official, Greenblatt is headed to Israel “to support efforts to reduce tensions in the region” following a violent week and lengthy period of unrest.
“President Trump and his administration are closely following unfolding events in the region,” the official said. “We are engaged in discussions with the relevant parties and are committed to finding a resolution to the ongoing security issues.”
It’s not clear that Greenblatt — or any other U.S. official — will be able to quiet tensions. While relations between Israelis and Palestinians are perpetually strained, the past few weeks have seen an explosion in violence.
At the heart of the debate is the Temple Mount, or Haram esh-Sharif, an area considered sacred by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Located in the Old City of East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied since 1967, the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and home to Al-Aqsa, a deeply important landmark for many Muslims. In order to prevent clashes, the status quo dictates that the area be reserved for Muslims, while Israel’s neighbor Jordan serves as custodian of the entire Temple Mount compound, an agreement many Israeli generals support.
But Netanyahu’s efforts to appease his right-wing coalition have run contrary to the advice of security experts. Two weeks ago, three Arab Israelis were killed after shooting two Israeli Druze police officers outside the compound. In retaliation for the shooting, Israel installed metal detectors at the site and barred men under the age of 50, infuriating Palestinians. Security cameras are also being added, part of measures the government says will ensure safety.
But Palestinians argue that this is about more than just metal detectors, and the new security measures represent a draconian infringement on their rights, which are already few and far between. Mass protests have ensued as a result of the dispute, spurring fiery demonstrations over the weekend.
Further escalating the conflict are Israeli hardliners. Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have refused to back down, standing by the increased security measures.
“They [the metal detectors] will remain,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister for regional development. “The murderers will never tell us how to search the murderers. If they do not want to enter the mosque, then let them not enter the mosque.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has responded in kind, canceling scheduled security coordination meetings with Israel. U.S.-Jordan relations have also suffered. Jordanian officials condemned the metal detectors and have taken a hard line over a deadly clash Sunday night in Amman’s Israeli embassy, which saw a 16-year-old Jordanian worker dead after he stabbed an Israeli security officer. The Jordanian landlord of the embassy’s residential quarters was also killed.
Greenblatt was sent to help resolve these increasing tensions. But Trump’s own history with Israel is complex. Despite overtures to Netanyahu, including naming controversial pro-settlement Zionist David Friedman as U.S. ambassador, the president has also antagonized the Israeli government numerous times. Since taking office, Trump has waffled on moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, something Netanyahu has pushed for despite outcry from regional experts. Trump administration officials have also repeatedly failed to clarify whether they believe the Western Wall, or Kotel, is located in Israel (the Wall is in occupied East Jerusalem).
Shaky relations aside, the Trump administration’s decision to send Greenblatt is an indicator that U.S.-Israel ties are still a priority for Trump, who remains close with Netanyahu. Calming regional anxieties is also a priority — following Monday’s meeting, the envoy is reportedly headed to Amman in further efforts to mitigate the escalation.