Q&A: Jason Greenblatt's Inside Account of the Road to the Abraham Accords

Published: August 8, 2022
Click here to see article originally published on Newsweek.com

The Middle East peace deal known as the Abraham Accords is arguably Donald Trump's most significant foreign-policy legacy. The agreement, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, broke through decades of diplomatic stalemate and has fueled economic growth and regional stability while increasing Israel's security.

Only a year and a half since the signing, recorded trade between Israel and the UAE alone jumped 511 percent in 2021. And the spring's Negev Summit in Israel was a historic gathering of the foreign ministers of the Abraham Accords signatories, even drawing in the Egyptian foreign minister, in a display of security and economic cooperation.

Jason Greenblatt, one of the chief architects of the Accords, chronicles this historic achievement in his new book, In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East—and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It. His account details how Palestinian rejection of Trump's initial peace plan, Peace to Prosperity, in January of 2020 dramatically reshaped his role from peace negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians to peace negotiator between Israel and Arab countries, notably the UAE and Bahrain.

Greenblatt was appointed by Trump as an assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations and served in the White House in that role from Trump's inauguration for nearly three years. He was one of the architects of the administration's Peace to Prosperity plan between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

He was a key player in laying the foundation and developing the relationships for the Abraham Accords. He is the host of the podcast The Diplomat on Newsweek.

In an exclusive interview, Greenblatt describes how the negotiations unfolded and the insights he gleaned about the parties involved.

What was your goal in writing this book? You present new views on the [very old] story of the search for peace in the Mideast. Was that intentional?

That was very important to me because I wanted to myth-bust. There are so many myths about the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict, particularly among the establishment and the mainstream media. A lot of what people say is absolutely wrong. Also, it isn't so black and white. I came into it with a certain viewpoint and was educated a certain way. I'm not saying I agree with the other side, but it was eye-opening to me and deserves a discussion.

For example, everyone always blames the so-called settlements for the reason there's no peace. It's not true. At the same time, there are Palestinian settlements that no one ever talks about. The Europeans and the U.N. condemn Israel for "settlements," but there's not a peep out of them about the Palestinian settlements. The Europeans actually help Palestinians do land-grabs throughout Judea and Samaria.

The counterpart is that the Palestinians have a difficult time building in areas that are Israeli-controlled.

They can go to the Israeli government to get permits, which they probably won't get, but they don't want to because that would be arguing against their political position. That's not an unfair point, but then all of this has to be discussed in the open. Stop being dishonest and only talk about Israeli settlements.

You write about the collapse of past peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and your peace plan also failed because of Palestinian rejection. But without that failure, would you have achieved the Abraham Accords?

Without the Peace to Prosperity plan, there would be no Abraham Accords. When the Palestinian leadership cut us off after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, we kept getting calls saying you have to get the Palestinians back. Our answer was that if they want a better life for their people, then they should call us.

But I said, we're going to keep working and exploring peace with the Arabs. Because, even if the Palestinians got on board, why would Israel make compromises only to find out that the rest of the region was still at war with Israel or wouldn't normalize [relations] with Israel? To solve the Palestinian issue and leave the important countries on the side didn't make any sense.

You call this method—normalizing relations with Arab countries ahead of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—an "outside-inside approach." Can you explain that?

The Abraham Accords has many parents and grandparents. There were Israeli diplomats visiting Arab countries long before we stepped on the scene. I think [former Israeli] Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu doesn't get the credit he deserves because part of this was really his idea. We didn't buy into it immediately because President Trump really wanted to see if we can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But over the course of time, it became clear the Palestinian leadership was not interested in negotiating in good faith and they cut us off.

At the same time, conversations with the Arab countries resulted in more and more positive discussions. Some of the wins we had along the way—getting Israeli journalists into Bahrain for the economic conference, Israel being invited to the World Expo, the Abraham House that Abu Dhabi was building for the three monotheistic faiths—eventually coalesced into what became the Abraham Accords.

In the book, your sharpest criticism is directed at President [Barack] Obama and [Secretary of State] John Kerry. You write that "the 'unbreakable bond' [between Israel and the U.S.] had been strained to its breaking point over these past eight years" because of, as you see it, their anti-Israel sentiment. Do you think the Obama administration's views engendered the anti-Israel bias we see in some of the Democratic Party today?

Absolutely. I think Obama unleashed an anti-Zionism approach that continues to haunt us to this day and continues to grow to this day. It became acceptable. I think he did a tremendous amount of damage.

There is increased acceptance of Israel among Arabs in the Abraham Accords countries, and a decrease of patience with the Palestinians. Are the Palestinians turning to American and European supporters to counter this?

Europe for sure. Some of Europe has always been anti-Israel and continues to use the same talking points that never brought or will bring peace. They ask things of Israel that no other country would ever ask of a friend or ally. Some of those countries are hopeless.

In America, I think it's on us. We don't do a good enough job educating people about the conflict. There's always going to be irrational people, haters, and people with an agenda. We'll never convince them. But so many people actually get affected by those people, and it's on us to educate them about the truth.

You and several of your U.S. colleagues who worked on the Accords are Orthodox Jews. Did that influence your approach?

First of all, it wasn't without criticism. The initial reaction was judgmental, and shame on the mainstream media who made those attacks. I think what it allowed us to do was appreciate and understand the other side better because religion is very important to us and important to the region. We understood each other so quickly in the Arab countries and even among the Palestinians. They showed me such respect for being an observant Jew that it was only a positive and not a negative.

In your book, you distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and write that when you first met [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas you were hopeful of achieving a deal. But with what you describe as the PA's continued glorification of terrorists and refusal to compromise, couldn't it be argued that the PA is indistinguishable from Hamas?

I do think they're distinguishable, but they're certainly overlapping. Pay for Slay is an example. The Palestinian leadership pays Palestinians to harm and murder Israelis, and I consider it one of my failings that I wasn't able to convince them to change that.

But Hamas's stated goal is to take over all of Israel and wipe Israel off the face of the earth. They're funded by Iran and are basically Iranian terrorist puppets. Does the PA promote terrorism in some respects? Absolutely. Do they love the fact that Israel is there? Certainly not. But I think there are plenty of positive things about the PA that if they had the courage to negotiate with Israel, in theory you could come out on the other side. You can't do that with Hamas.

Recent polls show a majority of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria rejecting the two-state solution, and Abbas appears to perpetually postpone elections for fear Hamas will win.

The latter is absolutely true. Polls show that if elections were held Hamas would win. I think that when Abbas departs the scene, whether he leaves voluntarily or passes away, there could be a tremendous mess on everybody's hands because of what could happen. There are a lot of people who are amassing weapons there to take over but also potentially to harm Israel.

In your book, you mention Ronald Lauder, who now calls for a Marshall Plan for the Palestinians and proposes having the U.S. "provide Palestinians with all the things that made Israel and other countries financially viable." This plan already failed in Gaza, as did your Peace to Prosperity plan. Why should this be retried? Is it accurate to credit Israel's success to economic aid rather than to Israeli determination and desperation, given that they had nowhere else to go?

First of all, Lauder is a great guy and a great Jew. I don't agree with him on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the economic aspect that you raise is a good one. Israel, despite being attacked relentlessly from the moment of its formation, through grit, sheer will and realizing they had no other choice, ended up creating something remarkable. Israel didn't succeed because people gave them money. People gave Israel money to defend itself, but everything else comes on the backs of hard work.

If they are able to stop the corruption and use the money wisely, the Palestinians could be wildly successful, but they spend the money they're given inefficiently; there's corruption and it's used to pay terrorists. Our plan was designed not to give a cent unless they completely change and we're able to ascertain the money will be used wisely. In the past, we handed out money and it came back in form of missiles and terror tunnels from Gaza. That's why we cut off money to Gaza. Trump cut off the money to UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] too, because it does nothing but leave people in place for years and years and denies them a future.

This is the distinction between Trump and the Europeans, who just write checks and say it's not solvable. [President Joe] Biden is giving $100 million of taxpayers' money to the East Jerusalem hospitals. Why is there no money to pay the hospitals? Because the PA wastes its money and spends it on Pay for Slay. Arab support for the Palestinians has gone down for that reason. They have their own national needs and are frustrated by the misuse of Arab money the same way Trump was.

Moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was one of the most dramatic decisions in Trump's presidency. Do you think it changed the conversation about an undivided Jerusalem?

I think it changed it tremendously, but we're seeing it erode. On his trip [last month], Biden went to the East Jerusalem hospital without being accompanied by an Israeli official, and that's a signal. He made the excuse that it wasn't a political visit but a health visit. That's nonsense: it was a political statement. The Jerusalem Embassy Recognition Act is U.S. law and can't be rolled back. But PR and optic-wise, Biden figured out a way to signal to the Palestinians that it's not a done deal.

Trump fulfilled a promise but also recognized U.S. law, which corrected an historic wrong. Jerusalem was always and will be the capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Trump did more than recognize U.S. law: he totally changed the narrative in terms of pretending that Jerusalem wasn't and will always be Jewish.

Do you regret not accomplishing something concrete in the realm of annexation, establishing another fact on the ground as you did with the Embassy move?

It really was an Israeli decision to extend sovereignty over those parts of Judea and Samaria or application of Israeli law. I don't think Israel is ready for [annexation]CK, even though I'm personally in favor of it. I think Netanyahu probably made the right decision to suspend the decision in exchange for the Abraham Accords. They didn't terminate it or say they would never do it. It was a temporary suspension.

Biden's recent trip to Saudi Arabia was criticized by left-wing Democrats, who point to the killing of [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi and Saudi human rights abuses while ignoring Iranian human rights abuses. Do you think the shift toward Israel by some Sunni Arab countries over common enmity with Iran might contribute to leftist support for Shiite Muslims over Sunnis?

I think so. It's very hard for me to get into the minds of the Iranian regime because they're irrational, hateful, full of lies and [have] an active desire to undermine Judaism and Israel. But I do think the Abraham Accords transcend Iran. The Iranian threat may have driven them into each other's arms like never before, but I think the Abraham Accords are not going to falter if and when the Iranian threat is neutralized. There are other important benefits, and I'm not concerned it will fray if the Iran issue ever disappears.

On a personal note, do you miss the ability to shape global affairs, and would you consider re-entering the public sphere?

I don't miss it because I'm still very much involved. Most of my day is spent talking to people in the Middle East. When you do business, you can also continue to talk peace.

Your Newsweek podcast, The Diplomat, features interviews with many famous figures. Who was the most memorable person you interviewed?

Initially, the most memorable people were Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo and Tony Blair. I think each has a refreshing way of looking at the world today. But I'm also particularly proud of guests from Arab countries—some really high-profile people from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.

What's exciting about the podcast is allowing people to tell their story without my editing. It's my goal to let them give voice to their opinions, and Newsweek has been a great platform for that.

Your book is about your own views and experiences, of course, but could also be read as a tribute to President Trump. Is that a fair statement?

To be clear, none of this would have happened without Trump. He was an unusual president, who spoke in a way that made people understand he meant business. I think that's why the region was willing to give him a shot and do what we did.

Do you think he will run in 2024?

It's hard to tell, but I think the answer is yes. The world is a mess; the country is a mess. Trump will have a lot of work to reset the world stage, but I think he could because he's not afraid of what people are going to say about him. He's a fighter.