(July 26, 2022 / JNS) This is not the script that the foreign-policy establishment wanted President Joe Biden to follow in the Middle East. Nor does it reflect his own inclinations or those of fellow Obama administration alumni who are currently making the decisions in the White House and State Department. But whether they like it or not, Biden and his foreign-policy team are coming to grips with the fact that they are living with a Middle East that former President Donald Trump remade. Even more frustrating for them is that they may not have the power to completely reverse it.
Though it was far from a success, it is worth noting that one of the key takeaways from Biden’s recent Middle East trip was that it was more a reaffirmation of Trump’s foreign policy rather than a revival of Obama’s, as Democrats had hoped after they returned to power last year.
That was noted in two recent New York Times articles that both seemed to lament this development. In one, Times Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley claimed that Biden had left in place Trump’s pro-Israel policies and was barely giving the Palestinians lip service. What was worse from the point of view of the establishment, as well as the Palestinians, was that after a year of largely ignoring the revolutionary breakthrough of the Abraham Accords, Biden is now openly supporting them.
Some of the same points were made in a separate article by Times diplomatic correspondent Edward Wong, which expanded upon the theme by noting how Biden is now seeming to mimic Trump’s rhetoric on the threat from China. The headline of that piece—“On U.S. Foreign Policy, the New Boss Acts a Lot Like the Old One,” was particularly deflating for the liberal readership of the Times.
The Times did not mean this as a compliment to Biden. The overall tone was one of dismay about how this administration has, albeit reluctantly, come to grips with the fact that Barack Obama’s push for Palestinian statehood while sidelining efforts to advance normalization between Israel and the Arab states is no longer a viable policy. The same is true for the Democrats’ desire to make Saudi Arabia—the linchpin of the Abraham Accords, despite the fact that it did not itself join them—into a pariah state because of their human-rights violations. That has been sacrificed on the altar of Biden’s need to reduce gas prices after his decision to confront Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
To acknowledge this is not to deny that the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to revive Obama’s appeasement of Iran via a new nuclear deal that Tehran seems to have no interest in signing isn’t antithetical to what Trump achieved. Indeed, the energy with which his team continues to pursue Iran, as well as some of its actions vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians— such as Biden’s comparing Israel’s treatment of them to British oppression in Ireland or his funding of UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency that helps perpetuate the war against the Jewish state—remains deeply troubling.
Yet the basic premise of critiques of the administration from the left about Biden failing to overthrow Trump’s Middle East policy is true. What happened between 2017 and 2021 was a fundamental change in American policy. Moves like Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the shift of emphasis from advancing the so-called “peace process” with the Palestinians to fostering better relations between Israel and those Arab states who see it as an ally against Iran rather than a Zionist interloper can’t be undone because they are rooted in reality, as opposed to ideology, as Obama’s priorities were.
This has led to attacks on Biden for being insufficiently zealous in erasing Trump’s memory. Yet what serious observers ought to be asking is what it is that Trump’s team understood that its predecessors did not.
It’s not just a matter of replaying the video of current climate czar and former Secretary of State John Kerry’s infamous “no, no, no” answer when asked about whether normalization between Israel and the Arab states was possible.
After all, Kerry voiced the consensus of foreign-policy experts in both Democratic and Republican administrations for the last 40 years who were all united against moving the embassy or shifting the emphasis in Middle East policy away from pressure on Israel to make dangerous concessions to Palestinians who didn’t want peace. The same is true when it comes to policy on Iran.
The answer is that Trump—alone of every president in living memory—ignored the conventional wisdom peddled by veteran diplomats, liberal think-tank denizens, and academics and journalists who make up the foreign-policy establishment. Instead, he brought in amateurs whose only previous experience had been in the business world to tackle the Middle East.
The story is retold in In The Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It, a new book by one of those amateurs: Jason Greenblatt, who served as Special Representative for International Negotiations and White House Special Envoy to the Middle East. In Greenblatt’s telling, the Trump team approached these problems with a willingness to both discard the conventional wisdom about Jerusalem, peace, the Palestinians and Israeli-Arab relations, and to confront the facts as they were rather than as they wished them to be.
Much like Sledgehammer: How Breaking With the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East, the memoir on the same subject by David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, Greenblatt’s book unravels the story of how a group of Orthodox Jews who either worked for or represented Trump in his business dealings managed to grasp what generations of people who had studied these issues and worked in the field did not. Rather than being rooted in what some say is merely their bias in favor of Israel, the Trump team understood, as Greenblatt writes, that the experts only “had opinions, not answers” to these questions. For the establishment, the pursuit of the peace process was more akin to a religious ritual that is rooted in faith rather than a policy discussion, which ought to be based on rational analysis.
That led to Greenblatt and his boss—White House senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—presenting a vision of peace that put forward a realistic plan that took into account the need to reject Palestinian fantasies. It also ultimately led them to an outside-in (not inside-out) approach to regional peace that recognized that the Arab states were sick of being held hostage to Palestinian dreams of destroying Israel.
The result was a truly historic breakthrough that Biden has no choice but to leave in place since trashing it to satisfy left-wing ideologues and Israel-haters would be indefensible and a blow to American interests.
Biden could still sabotage the progress made by Trump. Yet the achievements of his predecessor should stand as a warning to future presidents to refuse to become prisoners (as so many before Trump had been) to the so-called experts whose standing is based on their status in the field instead of the insight or originality of their thinking. In this case, it may have taken an unorthodox president who loved to flout conventional thinking and outrage his critics to try this. But he shouldn’t be the last president to fire the establishment.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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