OpinionMiddle East

Following in the footsteps of Abraham

Former Trump administration Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt shows how rejecting conventional thinking brought peace.

Former U.S. Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks at a conference of Israel Hayom newspaper at Davidson Center in Jerusalem Old City on June 27, 2019. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90.
Former U.S. Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks at a conference of Israel Hayom newspaper at Davidson Center in Jerusalem Old City on June 27, 2019. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90.
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt is a pro-Israel advocate residing in New York.

A new book by Jason Greenblatt, a former Middle East envoy and one of the chief architects of the Abraham Accords under former U.S. President Donald Trump, debunks the widely-held assumption that only career diplomats can create meaningful change. In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It launches on July 19, on the heels of current President Joe Biden’s visit to the region.

During his approximately three years working as Trump’s Middle East envoy, Greenblatt was tasked with helping the president formulate regional policy. Greenblatt’s time in Washington was punctuated by a series of pro-Israel strategic moves, including the U.S. withdrawal from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—and the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The book provides a fascinating personal and professional look at Greenblatt’s role in the White House and makes a compelling case that much of the U.S. government remains wedded to an outdated Middle East paradigm.

Greenblatt, who previously worked as chief legal counsel for the Trump Organization, notes that he and his wife Naomi had never been “political people.” Yet it is precisely because of this “outsider” status that Greenblatt, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and senior advisor Jared Kushner—all political neophytes—were successful in altering decades of U.S. policy in the region that saw resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key to Arab acceptance of Israel.

The unique trio replaced a strategy rooted in paternalism with one rooted in pragmatism. They preferred to listen rather than lecture in regard to negotiations between Israelis and Arabs. While Washington “experts” like former Secretary of State John Kerry enjoy preaching to Israel about its “settler policy,” Greenblatt writes about his time spent with both Palestinians and Israelis. Sadly, any expectations of peace were tempered by the reality that some of his Palestinian interlocutors later had their homes raided and were arrested once they returned home.

While many in the media criticized the administration for abandoning the Palestinians in favor of a larger Israeli-Arab rapprochement, the book devotes considerable time to Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which laid out an economic and political framework for an Israeli-Palestinians peace deal. Greenblatt reveals that many Arab leaders, both publicly and privately, urged the Palestinians to accept the proposal, but the Palestinian Authority’s rejectionism led to its failure.

Rather than invoking tiresome platitudes about building consensus, Trump’s team of advisors quickly pivoted and refused to “debate issues that have been debated before.” In the Path of Abraham discusses how diplomatic overtures to Iran’s neighbors exposed their quiet coordination with Israel on confronting the shared threat of a nuclear Iran. Greenblatt, Friedman and Kushner’s synergy and collective commitment to dialogue with Arab countries on issues more critical to their security than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had the dual effect of advancing peace and reshaping U.S. policy in the region.

In the Path of Abraham discusses Greenblatt’s view of where various countries stand on normalizing relations with Israel. It remains unclear what gains, if any, will be made when Biden meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman later this month. In contrast to the current president’s sidelining of the Saudis, Greenblatt reminds readers that Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign trip. What’s more, it was the Saudis who first “sounded the alarm” on Iran, with Intelligence Minister Turki al-Faisal warning that the JCPOA “was the first step down a very slippery slope.” Cooperation between the Gulf monarchy and Israel is increasing and In the Path of Abraham offers a thoughtful reflection on its future, along with an assessment of Israel’s engagement with countries like Qatar and Oman.

Greenblatt, who is Orthodox, confirms that Trump hired him years ago as a junior attorney with the “full knowledge” that he was an observant Jew. Rather than bristle at his attorney for being “offline” for 25 hours every week, Trump not only “encouraged” him to practice his “religiously demanding lifestyle, but to be proud of it.” In the Path of Abraham contains revealing stories ranging from Secret Service agents politely escorting Greenblatt off White House grounds in time for Kabbalat Shabbat to a top ranking Arab official insisting that he proceed with reciting Kaddish for his father, who had recently passed away, before a phone conversation. Indeed, a critical message woven throughout the book is that being a committed Jew is a good thing and can be an advantage rather than a hindrance when seeking the admiration and friendship of others.

Perhaps it is Greenblatt’s religious devotion that gives him the capacity to show professional kindness towards those with whom he vehemently disagrees. He writes about visiting the bedside of Saeb Erekat, the late advisor to P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, during Erekat’s recovery from a lung transplant. The personal exchanges and arranged kosher food did not prevent Greenblatt from directly confronting the ailing Palestinian on his failures. That said, Greenblatt wrestles with how to make sense of those like Abbas, whose personal charm does not excuse his troubling history of supporting terrorism and comparing Nazism with Zionism.

It bears mentioning that Greenblatt, over his numerous talks with Netanyahu and Abbas, cannot recall an instance when either leader said a disparaging personal word about the other. Holding firm to one’s positions does not necessitate individual crudeness. At a time when political polarization is at an all-time high, this is an important message.

As was recently shown in a piece for Mosaic, some of the greatest leaders in Jewish history emerged from the most unconventional circumstances. Drawing from a background bereft of elitism and traditional political acumen, Greenblatt stands on his religious and political principles, both of which are distinctly In the Path of Abraham.

Irit Tratt is a freelance writer who resides in New York. Her work has been published in The American Spectator, The Algemeiner, The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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