White House is alienating Gulf allies, says former Trump Middle East envoy

Jason Greenblatt, ex-Middle East special representative, says Biden making expansion of Abraham Accords harder, and gives money too easily to Palestinians

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

File: Former US Special Envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, speaks at an OurCrowd investor summit in Jerusalem, February 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Former US Special Envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, speaks at an OurCrowd investor summit in Jerusalem, February 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Biden administration has misjudged its approach to the Middle East, a senior official from the Donald Trump White House said in an interview as he joined the leadership of an Israeli think tank.

“It alienated the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and wasn’t particularly great with the United Arab Emirates,” said Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East special envoy who became senior director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs last month.

The Biden approach, which includes taking America’s Arab allies to task over their human rights records, has made it harder for Israel to add new countries to the Abraham Accords, in Greenblatt’s telling.

“I think they put a wedge between us and the countries that — in particular Saudi — that might have been interested in moving forward,” he told The Times of Israel.

“We need countries around the world whether we are on the same page on human rights or not,” said Greenblatt. “I’m not saying ignore it. I’m not saying don’t engage on it. But the notion that we could simply write off countries because we don’t agree with whether it’s human rights or anything else, I think is an unrealistic approach to the benefit for the safety, security, and benefit of the United States or any country for that matter.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Greenblatt’s remarks.

Greenblatt was the architect of Trump’s Mideast plan that many saw as favoring Israel. He worked as the White House’s special representative for international negotiations until resigning in October 2019.

US President Donald Trump, left, turns to give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019, after signing the official proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. From left, White House adviser Jared Kushner, US special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP/Susan Walsh)

He joined Israeli venture capital firm OurCrowd in 2020 to focus on cultivating investment from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.

Two years later, he published “In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East-And How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It,” arguing that the policies of the current US administration risk undoing the achievements of his former boss.

Several Gulf officials who worked closely with Greenblatt in laying the groundwork for the Abraham Accords endorsed the book.

In the Path of Abraham by Jason Greenblatt. (Courtesy)

Calling him an outsider, Bahrain’s envoy in Washington Sheikh Abdullah Al Khalifa said that Greenblatt “approached his role of achieving peace between Arab nations and Israel with zeal, passion and sincerity.”

“While Jason and I have different views about certain issues, including the best route to a just and peaceful settlement for the Palestinian people, he and I share common ground in our passion to help make the world a better place,” said Qatar’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

Qatar and Israel do not have diplomatic relations.

Caution in the Gulf

With the distance between the White House and the Saudis, Greenblatt isn’t optimistic about Riyadh normalizing its relations with Israel anytime soon.

“I think Saudi Arabia itself is busy with its own things, right?” he said. “The amount of projects and social change and other changes that they’re doing in their country is mind boggling. I go back there quite often and with each visit I’m surprised. So while the Abraham Accords would be nice for the kingdom, I don’t think it’s their priority at the moment.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to establish diplomatic ties with the Saudis, even saying that he could get it done within the year.

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

While Saudi officials have privately expressed interest in such an agreement in recent years, the prospects of Israeli-Saudi normalization remain unclear.

Riyadh has presented extensive demands to the United States regarding major improvements to their bilateral relationship, especially around defense guarantees, as a prerequisite for a deal. The policies of Netanyahu’s government, which has already garnered several blistering condemnations from the Gulf kingdom over its policies toward the Palestinians, has made normalization less palatable to both the palace and the street, but some observers say Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, is still open to a deal by the end of the year.

“He’s certainly a courageous and creative leader, and he might pull it off, but I don’t think it’s in the top list of things that the Saudis need to get done or want to get done in the next year,” Greenblatt explained.

There have also been signs of moderate discord in Israel’s ties with the Gulf states that have recognized Israel. There have been no high-level visits in either direction, and the two Gulf countries – the UAE especially – have repeatedly and openly condemned Israeli leaders and policies under the new government.

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, applauds as Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, right, and UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed al-Khaja exchange signed copies of the custom agreement between the countries, March 26, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ambassadors from Israel’s Gulf allies avoided an iftar dinner hosted by the Foreign Ministry in April to send a message to Jerusalem.

The data also shows a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s newly allied nations.

“I think the UAE takes a much more cautious approach to business,” explained Greenblatt. “Israelis have a different, let’s call it excited attitude, and they think everything is quick and fast and easy.”

“I think Israelis have come to realize that it’s going to take more time, relationship building, trust building before those things come true, even though there is plenty of business that continues to grow,” he continued. “Emiratis just have a different culture of how they approach these things.”

Despite the noticeable lack of high-profile Abraham Accords initiatives, Greenblatt remains optimistic about the overall trends: “There’s a difference between public diplomacy, photo ops, things like the Negev Forum, which are very nice and interesting and useful, and the things that happen on the ground on a daily basis in terms of tourism, business opportunities, friendship and culture moving forward.”

Handing out cash

Greenblatt argued that Biden has done some things right in his approach to the Palestinians.

“I’m happy to see that the Biden administration does not believe that this is the time to try to push a peace effort with the Palestinians,” he said. “I fully agree with him on that. So I don’t think the old views are coming back in that sense.”

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

But the lawyer criticized the Biden administration’s decision to restore funding for the Palestinian Authority. After Donald Trump cut off most US funding, Biden allocated nearly $100 million for the Palestinians weeks after coming into office.

Greenblatt said the White House was “handing out money like it’s candy.”

“Handing out US taxpayer money like it’s candy for the Palestinians is neither good for the Palestinian people, nor good to develop any form of potential for peace down the road,” he maintained.

The former Trump aide also had qualified praise for Mahmoud Abbas, the octogenarian leader of the PA. “I think deep down he probably does want some form of peace. It may not be the peace that Israel could agree to, but I think he does not have either the courage or — probably the best word is — the strength to be able to do it.”

He also blasted Abbas in Newsweek last week, saying that the PA leader’s speech the first-ever United Nations Nakba event “demonstrate that at this stage of his life he is incapable of paving a path to peace or a prosperous, secure future for Palestinians, Israelis, and others who are affected by this conflict.”

US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, left, speaks to residents as he inspects damaged Palestinian property during a visit to Huwara, on February 28, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)Greenblatt said that one of the reasons he wrote the book is to argue against “stale” views on Israel and the Palestinians that prevail in Washington.

“When I started at the White House, there were people, mostly diplomats and other government officials throughout the world, who had a very specific view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli-Arab conflict,” he recounted. “And they’d come into my office and explain those views, and it turned out many of those views were stale. So I wanted to share what we learned, why we did what we did and who we were.”

Despite his dim view of the Palestinian Authority, he hopes that a new generation of Palestinian leadership could assert itself once Abbas is out of the picture.

“I think it will take time for their voices to be heard and there may be a lot of them,” he said. “There may be a silent majority.”

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