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‘We’re at a very dangerous time’

Former U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt speaks to JNS about the Biden administration's approach to the Israel-Hamas war, Iran and the Abraham Accords.

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.

In 2017, then-U.S. President Donald Trump appointed Jason Greenblatt as Special Representative for International Negotiations. In his role as the White House’s point man on the Middle East, Greenblatt served as one of the chief architects of the administration’s Peace to Prosperity Plan between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between the Jewish state and four Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Greenblatt subsequently wrote of his experiences in his book, “In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East–and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It.”

In a conversation with JNS, Greenblatt shared his post-Oct. 7 insights into the region, including the Biden administration’s approach to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, U.S. policy regarding Iran and how Trump navigated complex Mideast realities.

Greenblatt also recently spoke with the Qatari prime minister in Doha, one of the epicenters of negotiations aimed at freeing the 134 hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

Greeblatt is currently senior director of Arab-Israeli Diplomacy at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and has been working independently on building economic, cultural and tourism bridges between American and Israeli companies and those in the Arab world.

Q: Have you been speaking to contacts you made as special envoy to the region, and if so do they view the war against Hamas as depicted in the media or are their opinions different behind closed doors?

A: It depends on which contact. I spoke to many diplomats and leaders in the region. Some view and understand the conflict more clearly than others. They all want to see the conflict end since it has a tremendous impact throughout the region. Most understand why Israel is fighting this war but, at the same time, it is very difficult and challenging for them to see what is happening in Gaza. 

Q: National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir recently created a firestorm by saying that former U.S. president and 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump would have been more supportive of Israel’s military campaign than the Biden administration. Do you agree with him?

A: I say this as a huge Trump supporter: President Trump did many terrific things for Israel and I believe he would be extremely supportive of Israel at this difficult and challenging time. However, the comments by Minister Ben-Gvir are not helpful. Credit needs to be given to President Biden for his support of Israel since Oct. 7. 

There are certainly things that the Biden administration is doing which I strongly disagree with, especially pushing for a two-state solution, recognizing what they call an independent Palestinian state, talking about Israel dehumanizing Palestinians and even equating what happened in Israel on Oct. 7 with what Israel is doing in response. 

I think this is all misguided and terribly bad. Still under any U.S. administration, Trump, Biden or otherwise, it’s important for Minister Ben-Gvir to be grateful for the support that the U.S. president gives. That type of criticism could jeopardize it. While I do agree with him that Trump was terrific for Israel, he should choose his words more carefully. 

Q: The Biden administration came out with some strong statements vis-a-vis the prospective Israeli operation in Rafah in southern Gaza. Do you think they’re still fully supportive of Israel’s goal to destroy Hamas?

A: I certainly hope they are and that they understand the intense challenge that Israel faces. Israel did not ask for this war. Israel is doing everything it can to reduce civilian casualties. I hope that the Biden administration stands by Israel and understands it. I can’t speak for whether they do or don’t. 

Q: Why can’t the Biden administration place the full leverage of the United States on allies such as Qatar, Turkey and other regional countries to get the Israeli hostages released?

A: I was in Qatar earlier this week with some families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. I spoke to the Prime Minister of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and his National Security Council. I believe that they are doing everything they can. I don’t think they have the kind of leverage some people say they do.

The United States or Israel could pressure Qatar to send Hamas’s leadership away to Iran or somewhere else. Perhaps that would help. 

Whoever makes that decision should think very carefully. If it does not work then Qatar will have no leverage whatsoever. Having sat on meetings with them, I appreciate everything they do for the hostage families. 

Q: The Biden administration is again pushing for the establishment of a Palestinian state and is reportedly even exploring the possibility of unilaterally recognizing one. Why do you think this is, and do you think it is counterproductive to reward the Palestinians with such a victory post-Oct. 7?

A: Not only do I think it’s counterproductive, it is dangerous, foolish and mind-boggling. President Biden has suffered politically as a result of his decisions on Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. That’s why he’s doing it. This kind of talk is extremely dangerous and I hope they drop it immediately. 

Q: Did former U.S. President Trump ever consider recognizing a Palestinian state?

A: No. President Trump never considered it outside the context of the peace plan that was developed under his administration, which was extremely detailed and always premised upon negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It was never unilateral. We were very careful with regard to how we defined what would constitute a state. It’s very different from the definition of the Biden administration, the United Nations or the European Union. It’s very different from what most people think and talk about, which is why we were very careful to write a long and detailed plan that explained what it could be. 

Q: Did he trust Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas?

A: No, I wouldn’t say that. When President Trump first met him, perhaps the first meeting or two, President Abbas put himself out to be somebody who was interested in negotiating peace with Israel in good faith. Over time, President Trump realized that President Abbas was not interested in negotiating anything other than what he was demanding and what had been promised to the Palestinians for decades, none of which was realistic or appropriate. 

Q: Do you think the Americans in general understand the Palestinian national movement’s inherent opposition to Zionism? Did Trump?

A: Some do. We’re at a very dangerous time, and a lot more effort has to be made to educate them better on Hamas, who committed atrocities against Israelis on Oct. 7 and who vowed to destroy Israel over and over again, or the Palestinian Authority with their ‘pay-for-slay‘ rewarding Palestinians for the murder of Israelis. 

There are so many other factions of Palestinians who truly do not want to see a thriving Jewish state in the Land of Israel. More should be done to educate the American public on that. 

President Trump understood the Palestinian national movement’s inherent opposition to Zionism and also surrounded himself with a very large team of people who also understood it. I was never concerned when I worked at the White House.

Q: There is again talk of a normalization agreement between Israel and the Saudis. Do you see this happening any time soon?

A: It’s very difficult to tell at the moment. All countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, are having a very difficult time watching what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza, and understandably so. 

They may understand why Israel has to uproot Hamas, but what they see over and over again are images of Palestinians who are not part of Hamas and who do not look like Hamas, including children, dying. That puts a lot of pressure on them. At the moment, we are not on the right track, but I am always optimistic that we will get back on the right track at the right time. 

Q: In your experience dealing with the Saudis, are they serious about conditioning normalization on the creation of a Palestinian state? Or would they suffice with declarative steps in exchange for U.S. security guarantees vis-a-vis Iran?

A: I think their messaging has changed over the past number of months. They realize that the creation of a Palestinian state is an enormous challenge. They are very supportive of the Palestinians and they will make their position known overtime. This week, they had a much stronger message about the conditions, that differed from the messaging in the past number of months. It’s a bit difficult to answer this question at the moment. 

Q: What do you think of the Biden administration’s Iran policy?

A: Extremely weak. Extremely dangerous and part of the reason why we’re in this mess to begin with. 

Q: Do you think Israel will be better off if Trump wins in November, and why?

A: I think that President Trump understands Israel’s challenges. He is hugely supportive of Israel. He is supportive of a realistic peace and stability in the region. Most Arab countries also understand where Trump stands on policies, especially with regard to the Iranian regime, so in my opinion Israel and most of its Arab allies will be safer and more secure with a leader like President Trump in the Oval Office. 

Q: In your time negotiating the Abraham Accords, were there other countries that seemed open to normalization with Israel? 

A: There were, but it’s impossible to look back and wonder what could have succeeded. We certainly had a lot of positive conversations with certain countries. I can’t name who. These things change so quickly based on what is happening in the region. It was an opportunity that was lost then, but hopefully one which will come again at the right time.  

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add, maybe regarding your recent visit to Kfar Aza?

A: Thank you for mentioning it. I did that specifically with a Palestinian. There are too many people around the world, especially in Arab countries, who doubt what happened on Oct. 7 and who believe that Israel is exaggerating the atrocities. 

I wanted them to hear it directly from a Palestinian who walked around in Kfar Aza and saw the horrific things that happened there, expressing sorrow. I figured that they are not willing to listen to Israelis, they might listen to a Palestinian. I hope more people watch the video and understand the tremendous damage and destruction in Israel caused by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists.  

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