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.
featureMiddle East

Trump envoy upbeat on Saudi deal, says Riyadh worried by Israeli domestic strife

Jason D. Greenblatt, who served as the special envoy to the region between 2017-2019, says Biden should focus on direct talks, and avoid pressuring Israel on the Palestinian issue "beyond what the Saudis want."

Former President Donald Trump’s special Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt was invited to the Saudi Embassy in Washington last week to celebrate the kingdom’s national day.

“I wore my kippah proudly, and I was warmly welcomed and greeted. And I think it’s so dramatic the changes that have happened that I feel very optimistic and hopeful about it,” he said.

Greenblatt, who is now a businessman in the private sector and frequently visits Saudi Arabia, is probably the ultimate authority when it comes to analyzing the historic shift in the region.

Greenblatt played a role in the early stages of this process, living and breathing this dynamic under the Trump administration for almost three years. He recalls that in 2017, as an observant Jew, he had to bring kosher food with him to the home of Islam, where at that time, even non-Israeli Jews were not warmly embraced.

“I went ahead of President Trump because he was flying on Shabbat to Saudi Arabia. There was no reason for me to fly on Shabbat, so I had a very lonely Friday night with rice cakes and peanut butter that I had brought from New Jersey or from Washington, and the U.S. embassy had brought over some kosher frozen macaroni and cheese from a U.S. army base in Saudi Arabia. I did not wear my kippah at the time. I didn’t wear it in the White House, although I wore it always in my personal life. Now, I wear my kippah in the whole region. It’s no big deal, right?” he said.

Q: What has changed over the past six years in how people react to the word Israel?

A: I would say initially when I raised the word Israel, there was a sense of discomfort. That’s not to say that I noticed any form of bad feelings about it. But it wasn’t something that would naturally roll off the tongue of those in the room in conversation. And by the way, that was even true in the United States.

I remember when President Trump went on that first trip, the one that I had that Friday night dinner in Saudi Arabia, and I remember seeing his speech before he made it and seeing the word Israel there a couple of times. And I remember the State Department, you know, wondering whether he should use the word Israel or be a little bit more subtle about it.

Now, of course, Trump would never be subtle about anything. And I was very proud that he used the word Israel multiple times. And it wasn’t an issue, but I would say it was new, right? Today, you don’t have to be uncomfortable or embarrassed using the word Israel. If you watch the crown prince’s interview on Fox [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] he wasn’t uncomfortable. He used the word Israel.

Q: How does the kingdom view Israel currently?

A: I can only speak about my own experiences, walking through malls, walking through the streets, sitting in restaurants, attending their public spaces. I have yet to see any negative reaction to me … I have yet to see any negative reaction to me or my family members who are there. … I think there’s a realization that we are very similar in terms of our religious needs, our religious requirements, our religious feelings—they respect it. I would say they’re respected [by the Saudis] far more than [by] many of the Europeans I deal with.

Most of my business is done in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. There’s lots of “Shabbat Shalom” going around. The number of “Shana Tova” messages that I got, both in English and even some in Hebrew, is remarkable.

‘Unbelievable transformation’

Greenblatt, who wrote the book In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East–and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It on his time in the White House, has kept in touch with senior figures in the kingdom and has a good feel for their thinking.

Nevertheless, he has refused to divulge details on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the normalization process currently in the making.

“The people that know don’t talk, especially on something so sensitive,” he said. However, he noted that Saudi Arabia is undergoing an “unbelievable transformation,” part of what he said was a wider effort to sideline the radicals while preserving the values guiding the kingdom.

“It still remains a very religiously conservative country and I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future. I’m not sure it’s the desire of the country or its leadership to change it. But I do think, and the crown prince has said this publicly, [that] they are trying to move away from some of the [extremism] that happened many years ago and bring it back to how they view Islam as a religion.

“We have to look at today’s Saudi Arabia, today’s Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and understand that they are going through an unbelievable transformation, and that includes opening up their societies to others, including Jews, figuring out how to navigate a very tricky region, which of course would include Israel, figuring out how to support Palestinians but also move forward with their own plans. And I think we should warmly welcome it and help them with this process.”

Q: How close are Israel and Saudi Arabia to signing a deal?

A: I think that most people should be guided by the public comments of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that he made to Bret Baier on Fox News. That, to me, is the most telling [indication] of what’s available. … I think that what the crown prince said is very, very remarkable. The fact that he said things like “each day we’re getting closer”—I don’t know if that’s the exact quote, how he phrased [it]—what he wanted to do for the Palestinians, which, of course, everybody knows is so different than most people always say—including the Palestinian leadership. I read somewhere that they’re still saying all the demands that they want, which isn’t what the crown prince said, but I think that is the most up-to-date information.”

Q: Is it surprising that in the interview, he said that regarding the Palestinians, he just wanted to see their economic conditions improve?

A: I don’t think it’s surprising, because while they were very supportive of the Palestinian people—I believe that they’re frustrated by Palestinian leadership—they also are embarking on this incredible Vision 2030. That here, they’re now already starting to prepare beyond 2030. And they realized that the world has changed so dramatically in the last number of years, they have to put Saudi Arabia before anything else. So, by no means will they abandon the Palestinians. But I think they also realized that they can help the Palestinians while taking care of their own country first. And I think that’s a very smart and pragmatic way to do things.

Q: Will Saudi Arabia be ready to have direct flights from Israel in six months? Are they ready to accept Israelis, with all of what that means?

A: Is all of Saudi Arabia ready to have a million Israelis [visiting] the way the UAE has? I don’t know if they’re ready today. I think it takes time. It’s a very big country. There are decades of a certain type of education that was given to the Saudis, about Israel and about others, including Jews, that there’s a transformation period that needs to happen.

I think they’ve been undergoing that transformation period … does that mean they’re ready to hug a million Israelis tomorrow? Probably not. But I would say that over time—and not a particularly long period of time—I think it will work. I do think Israelis, and anybody who goes there, need to respect the norms of Saudi Arabia.

I think, for example, [about] what happened in Qatar for the World Cup, where people were complaining that some Israeli journalists were shouted at and treated disrespectfully. I wasn’t there, I only saw the news clips, but I would first of all say those were probably not people from Qatar. I think some of those Israelis were quite aggressive in sticking microphones in people’s faces and saying, you know, “What do you think about Israel?” I think steps like that are unhelpful … that when you go—and this is true, really for any country—be respectful of the society. Don’t jump all over people and try to get them to comment about Israel. Their culture is very different. They’re generally more shy, they’re more quiet. They’re less willing to speak publicly about how they feel. And I think we should find that right rhythm, where each culture and each religion respects each other. And not go there in a very aggressive way.

The world is watching

Greenblatt also warns that some in the region have begun to question whether Israel is as stable as it was in light of the ongoing judicial reform protests that have rocked the country since early 2023. This, he says, could impact the pace of the normalization with Saudi Arabia.

“I think what’s important is for Israel to show despite these things, whether it’s the protests against judicial reform or ugly events that happened on Yom Kippur, I think that people, the government and the prime minister need to reassure the region that [it] is, or remains, a very strong stable and secure democracy. I do think he [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] will have to reassure—not just the Saudis, by the way, but the region, including the countries that signed the Abraham Accords—that Israel still is this remarkable, miraculous, amazing country.

I think the world, especially the GCC, is watching what’s happening in Israel, beyond the protests, but let’s not pretend that the Yom Kippur events in Tel Aviv, they’re not paying attention to that—they are. I think that the prime minister needs to reassure them that Israel remains strong and a full democracy and stable and reliable despite these moments of uncomfortable television clips. One of the things that’s attractive about Israel to the region is its stability, its strength, its cohesive, generally cohesive society, including the military. … I was watching a rabbi’s speech, not by an Orthodox rabbi, in which he cited a poll that one in every four Israelis wants to leave Israel. That means something to these countries; it means something to anybody in the world. So, I think it’s important for the prime minister and the government of Israel generally, to show that what’s happening in Israel is a result of—let’s call it a robust democracy.

Q: So, these are not just domestic Israeli issues; they have regional implications?

A: I believe so. Yes. Think about the implication it has on the United States—both Jewish and non-Jewish. Think about all the press that’s [been] written about the protests over the last number of months and the negative effect that has had on Israel’s reputation in the United States. The Arab countries are watching it with an equal measure. And I’m not saying it will deter Saudi Arabia or any country from making peace with Israel. That’s not high on the list, but it’s not a plus. It’s not a positive thing in the process.

Q: As someone who served as the peace envoy under the previous president, do you have any advice for President Biden?

A: So, by all accounts, President Biden is serious and dedicated to doing this [achieving a normalization agreement]. In fact, I probably would go so far as to say that if he doesn’t succeed, it’s more likely to be the fault of Congress or Israel than [of] President Biden. The one error I think President Biden is making is constantly bringing the Palestinian issue into the equation. It’ll be enough for the Saudis to press the Israelis as to what they want to do with the Palestinians. It’s the right of the Saudis to do that. I don’t think the United States needs to put their finger on the scale when it comes to the Palestinians. I think it’s possible that President Biden now understands that—because his remarks to the prime minister at the United Nations were very different than they were a week or three weeks ago. He also used kind of soft language when it comes to the past, when it comes to the Palestinians, about preserving the two-state solution. I don’t remember the exact quote.

If he does anything beyond that and makes demands of the prime minister to go beyond what the Saudis want, or the Saudis need, I think he’s jeopardizing the deal.

If I were still in the White House, if I were in the role that I once had and working for President Biden, I would say the best thing the United States could do, even if it’s not realistic, is encourage the crown prince and Prime Minister Netanyahu to talk directly without the United States in the room, frankly. I don’t think it’s a realistic approach, but I do think it will, it could lead to something more positive than the United States being a middleman, or worse—the United States pressuring Israel for things that the United States wants for the Palestinians.

Q: What are the chances of the normalization happening?

A: I can’t [give] percentages. I never would do that. I think no, it’s proceeding. What seems to be in a good way. But there are so many critical things being discussed. Mutual defense from the United States … what, if anything, is being asked of Israel for the Palestinians, and recognizing, you know, how the coalition is made up in the current Israeli government. It’s too hard to assign any kind of percentage. But I would say that even if it doesn’t happen immediately, and it takes time, we are certainly as good a spot as we’ve ever been and proceeding in a path as good a path as we’ve ever been and we should applaud that.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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