There are few things Americans love more than a story that exposes the madness of snobs and pundits. This explains the initial appeal of Donald Trump and the enduring appeal of Michael Crichton’s novels. We need specialists to run our complex economy, but every once in a while the eggheads get blinded by groupthink and can’t see what’s in front of their noses.
It’s a theme of Jason Greenblatt’s memoir of his time as former President Trump’s Middle East envoy, On the way to Abraham. As he writes in the introduction, “Most books like this are written by professional politicians or longtime Washington insiders. I’m neither.” Instead, Greenblatt is a real estate attorney who worked for years with the Trump administration, an observant Jew, and a strong supporter of Israel. In other words, he is the opposite of the typical American diplomat who has managed a stagnant Arab-Israeli peace process for the past 30 years.
Greenblatt, along with David Friedman, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Israel, and Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, oversaw the diplomacy that led to the Abraham Accords in 2020. These were bilateral agreements between Israel and four Arab states. , establishing unprecedented diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world. The countries that have normalized relations through the Abraham Accords are Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
To appreciate how revolutionary these agreements are, consider that it was the doctrine of Israeli foreign policy for its first 30 years to seek diplomatic relations with states on the periphery of the Arab world – countries like Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia – because the Arab monarchies’ opposition to the very existence of Israel was so relentless. Things started to change in the 1990s after the Oslo Accords, which established the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Oslo process was a double-edged sword. This softened the traditional opposition of states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Israel during the negotiations, but it also meant that most Arab states (with the exception of Jordan and Egypt) would make Israel’s diplomatic recognition conditional on an agreement creating a Palestinian state. . In effect, he vetoed the diplomatic and economic integration of the Middle East to the Palestinian leadership.
For most professional American diplomats, the Oslo process was the only path to peace. The people who mastered its nuances and its codicils were like priests of foreign policy.
Greenblatt didn’t like the Oslo priests very much. The 1993 accords created “an industry that was no longer about solving a problem, but about a quite distinct allegiance to the ‘peace process’ itself”, he writes. And this process was deeply unfair. According to Greenblatt, the obsession with Oslo resulted in a US policy that viewed Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the conflict as “equally valid, equally compelling, and equally deserving of serious attention.” In short, US policy aimed for “symmetry” as opposed to fairness. Symmetry is a process designed to produce equal results. Fairness, says Greenblatt, is a process where both parties are treated equally.
In this respect, Greenblatt’s underdog status has served him well. He saw no reason why the former president would not have kept, for example, his campaign promise to move the American embassy in Israel to its capital in Jerusalem, which all previous presidents since Ronald Reagan had promised but never held. Greenblatt delights in quoting doomsday predictions from Washington insiders like former CIA director John Brennan, who claimed the embassy move would “damage American interests in the Middle East for years to come.”
One of the reasons Trump’s Middle East gamble has paid off is that by the time he came to power, America’s Arab allies were already frustrated with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Greenblatt writes that in 2017 Arab leaders were still publicly supporting Abbas, “but behind the scenes a different picture seemed to be emerging. Abbas and the ‘Palestinian cause’ had become a diminished presence in a larger political discussion in the region” . He adds: “Increasingly, at least in private interviews, Arab governments were musing about half-hearted ties with Israel. At the same time, they were beginning to seriously weary of being asked to fund what seemed, increasingly, to be chronically corrupt, weak and incompetent organization in Ramallah”.
The other factor that led to the Abraham Accords was the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. The deal allowed Iran to retain its industrial-scale nuclear infrastructure and reap the benefits of sanctions relief and an effort to normalize investment in the Iranian economy. Meanwhile, the Iranians were intensifying their shadow warfare throughout the Middle East. In this regard, the environment was perfect for uniting the enemies of Iran against a common enemy.
Greenblatt says the first seeds of the deals were planted during Trump’s May 2017 overseas visit to Saudi Arabia. It was the visit that featured Trump and other Arab leaders in the famous photo with their hands on the glowing orb. Greenblatt writes that after the visit, Trump phoned then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say, “King Salman is very convinced, and I can tell you that he would like to see peace with the Israelis. and the Palestinians”. Greenblatt adds that Trump also told Netanyahu there is a growing sense among your neighbors that they have a common cause with you against Iran.
It must be said that Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab states, worked together covertly against Iran throughout the Obama years. And even at much lower levels explored diplomatic normalization. That said, there is a major difference between quiet cooperation and the formalization of diplomatic relations. It took the sustained attention of the White House to turn the good vibes of the 2010s into the Abraham Accords, and for that Trump deserves credit. It also took outsiders like Greenblatt who were confident enough to ignore the advice of Oslo priests and try something new.
It’s not always the case that the smartest guys in the room don’t know what they’re talking about. But from time to time, the experts are wrong. And when they do, it takes a smart outsider to politely decline their advice and try something else.
On the way to Abraham: how Donald Trump made peace in the Middle East and how to prevent Joe Biden from undoing it
by Jason D. Greenblatt
Naughty Son, 240 pages, $28
Lake Eli is a collaborating editor Comment magazine and host of Re-education podcast.