There are few things Americans love more than a story that exposes the folly of snobs and experts. It explains the initial appeal of Donald Trump and the enduring appeal of Michael Crichton novels. We need specialists to make our complex economy work, but every now and again the eggheads are blinded by group think and can't see what's in front of their nose.
This is a theme of Jason Greenblatt's memoir of his time as former president Trump's envoy for the Middle East, In the Path of Abraham. As he writes in the introduction, "Most books like this are written by professional politicians or longtime Washington insiders. I am neither of those." Greenblatt instead is a real-estate lawyer who worked for years with the Trump administration, an observant Jew, and a strong supporter of Israel. In other words, he is the opposite of the typical American diplomat who has managed a stagnant Arab-Israeli peace process for the last 30 years.
Greenblatt, together with David Friedman, who served as Trump's ambassador to Israel, and Jared Kushner, the former president's son-in-law, oversaw the diplomacy that led to the Abraham Accords in 2020. These were bilateral agreements between Israel and four Arab states, establishing unprecedented diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world. The countries that normalized relations through the Abraham Accords include Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.
To appreciate how groundbreaking these agreements are, consider that it was Israeli foreign policy doctrine for its first 30 years to seek diplomatic ties with states on the periphery of the Arab world—countries like Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia—because the opposition of the Arab monarchies to the very existence of Israel was so implacable. Things began to change in the 1990s after the Oslo Accords, which established the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Oslo process was a double-edged sword. It softened the traditional opposition of states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Israel during the negotiations, but it also meant that most Arab states (with the exceptions of Jordan and Egypt) would condition diplomatic recognition of Israel on a deal that created a Palestinian state. In effect, it gave a veto to the diplomatic and economic integration of the Middle East to the Palestinian leadership.
To most professional American diplomats, the Oslo process was the only path to peace. The people who mastered its nuances and codicils were akin to foreign policy priests.
Greenblatt didn't care much for the priests of Oslo. The 1993 accords created "an industry that no longer had as its goal the solution to a problem, but an altogether separate allegiance to the ‘peace process' itself," he writes. And that process was deeply unfair. According to Greenblatt, the obsession with Oslo resulted in a U.S. policy that considered the Israeli and Palestinian narratives about the conflict to be "equally valid, equally compelling, and equally deserving of serious attention." In short, U.S. policy was "striving for symmetry," as opposed to fairness. Symmetry is a process that is rigged to produce equal outcomes. Fairness, says Greenblatt, is a process where both parties are treated equally.
In this respect, Greenblatt's outsider status served him well. He saw no reason why the former president should not have made good, for example, on his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to its capital in Jerusalem, something all prior presidents since Ronald Reagan had promised but never delivered. Greenblatt takes pleasure in quoting back the apocalyptic predictions of Washington insiders like former CIA director John Brennan, who claimed the embassy move "would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East for years to come."
One reason Trump's gamble in the Middle East paid off is because by the time he came into office, America's Arab allies were already frustrated with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Greenblatt writes that in 2017 Arab leaders were still publicly supporting Abbas, "but behind the scenes, a different picture seemed to be emerging. Abbas and the ‘Palestinian cause' had become a diminished presence in a broader political discussion in the region." He adds, "More and more, at least in private talks, Arab governments were mulling tentative ties to Israel. At the same time they were beginning to seriously tire of being asked to fund what seemed, increasingly, a chronically corrupt, weak, and incompetent organization in Ramallah."
The other factor that led to the Abraham Accords was the Iranian nuclear bargain negotiated by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama. That agreement allowed Iran to keep its industrial scale nuclear infrastructure and reap the rewards of sanctions relief and an effort to normalize investment in Iran's economy. All the while, the Iranians were stepping up its shadow war throughout the Middle East. In this respect, the environment was perfect to unite Iran's enemies against a common foe.
Greenblatt says the first seeds of the accords were planted in Trump's overseas visit in May 2017 to Saudi Arabia. That was the visit that featured Trump and other Arab leaders in the famous photo with their hands on the glowing orb. Greenblatt writes that after the visit, Trump phoned Israel's prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, to say, "King Salman feels very strongly, and I can tell you, would love to see peace with the Israelis and the Palestinians." Greenblatt adds that Trump also told Netanyahu, there's a growing sense among your neighbors that they have common cause with you against Iran.
It should be said that Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab states, worked together secretly against Iran throughout the Obama years. And on much lower levels even explored diplomatic normalization. That said, there is a major difference between quiet cooperation and formalizing diplomatic ties. It took the sustained attention of the White House to turn the good vibes of the 2010s into the Abraham Accords, and for that Trump deserves credit. It also took outsiders like Greenblatt who were confident enough to ignore the advice of the Oslo priests and try something new.
It's not always the case that the smartest guys in the room don't know what they're talking about. But every now and again, the experts get it wrong. And when they do, it takes an intelligent outsider to politely decline their counsel and try something else.
In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East—and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It
by Jason D. Greenblatt
Wicked Son, 240 pp., $28
Eli Lake is a contributing editor to Commentary magazine and host of The Re-Education podcast.