How the Abraham Accords took a different path

Jason Greenblatt in Jerusalem, 2017
Jason Greenblatt in Jerusalem, 2017 (U.S. Embassy, Tel Aviv / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Michael Rubin | Special to WJW

Albert Einstein supposedly quipped insanity was repeating actions but expecting different results each time. By that definition, America’s Middle East peacemaking has long been crazy. Generations of American diplomats predicated peacemaking on the idea that the road to peace ran through Jerusalem and that Israel should accept a Palestinian state on terms demanded by the Palestinian leadership. Few questioned whether conventional wisdom about the conflict was right. Even fewer did anything about it.

Jason Greenblatt shrugged off such core assumptions after President Donald Trump appointed him his Israel adviser and special representative for international negotiations. “In the Path of Abraham” describes Greenblatt’s travels and travails as he, Trump and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner navigated through the Middle East to win an agreement between Arab states and Israel that eluded his predecessors.

“In the Path of Abraham,” however, is more than a chronicle. Greenblatt mentions meetings but neither betrays confidences nor mires in minutiae as Clinton-era envoy Dennis Ross did in “The Missing Peace.” His style is humble, accessible and colored more by his legal background than a diplomat’s “slick slogans and pithy phrases.”

Greenblatt takes a holistic approach. He puts Israel’s founding in the context of so many other states that became independent at the time and asks why Israel alone has become the target of fanatical hatred. He highlights how supposed truisms about United Nations resolutions, the status of the West Bank and the legality of settlements are often wrong. For example, while armchair academics may insist settlements violate the Geneva Conventions, he cites the writing of their author to show this to be nonsense.

Rigid but inaccurate interpretations constrained past diplomacy. The U.N. ironically impeded peace, for example, by applying a different definition of refugee to Palestinians than to any other nationality. Had the U.N. applied the Palestinian definition of refugee after India’s 1947 partition, it would today count an additional quarter billion refugees.

Such U.N. manipulation led Palestinians to believe time was on their side. Aid absent accountability created moral hazard. As Greenblatt explained, “A self-governing and independent Palestine would mean that the billions in donations that currently pour into the coffers in Ramallah and Gaza … would finally come to an end.” By rejecting peace, Palestinian leaders could profit without responsibility. Among diplomats, a penchant for process over results compounded the problem. Summits rehashed old debates but seldom advanced any. Too often, the State Department lost sight of the forest through the trees. The result was a mistaken diagnosis of what ailed the region: pervasive violence and a multitude of threats that extended far beyond Palestinian grievance.

Greenblatt upended other assumptions. Previous administrations aspired to be “honest brokers” but neutrality is not a virtue when the security of the Middle East’s only democracy and Jewish state was at stake. While almost every previous president had promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — simply a recognition of reality — Trump meant it. Doomsday predictions of upheaval never materialized.

Greenblatt treats readers to unique anecdotes and insights otherwise lost amid polemical news coverage dominated more by cynicism and Trump hatred than insight. For example, while pundits and peace process alumni trashed Trump’s Saudi summit, it convinced Trump that Arabs and Israelis could bond over common interests if Washington stopped allowing a Palestinian veto. Over subsequent trips, the frustration of Arab leaders about Palestinian waste and corruption grew clear, especially as they believed they could better spent that money on their own countries’ development.

Greenblatt also describe the evolution and logic of the Bahrain conference that unveiled a $50 billion investment plan for the Palestinians. The plan aimed for Palestinian viability without uprooting anyone from homes, something Greenblatt recognized would lead to civil unrest. Pundits ridiculed it and Palestinians ultimately boycotted, but they miscalculated. Both Arab states and Israel were serious about moving forward with or without the Palestinians. Simply put, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan got tired of waiting. Greenblatt estimates they could sow $70 billion in new trade and investment over the next decade. The peace dividend could increase by an order of magnitude if other countries join in.

President Joe Biden entered office determined to abrogate Trump’s foreign policy initiatives. That the Abraham Accords are the sole survivor is a testament to their logic and strength. Greenblatt is right to conclude, “promoting the Abraham Accord should not be a partisan project.”

Greenblatt modestly says he was no expert. He is wrong. “In the Path of Abraham” is a must-read for anyone interested in Israel and the Middle East, and a how-to manual for future diplomats.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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