Review: ‘In the path of Abraham’ shows how peace possible between Israel, Arab states
In December 2016, days before US President Barak Obama left office, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that there would be no “separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace.”
Kerry’s prediction that no Arab countries would follow Egypt and Jordan in making peace deals with Israel in the absence of a Palestinian state was the international consensus at the time.
“Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality,” Kerry declared.
But when Donald Trump took over the presidency, this hard reality turned out to be not so hard after all.
In September 2020, the UAE and Bahrain publicly signed landmark agreements formalizing their relations with Israel – the Abraham Accords. By contrast, the parallel US-led attempt to negotiate an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the Peace to Prosperity Plan (PPP), failed earlier in the year. But this did not prevent the Abraham Accords from going ahead, and the conclusion of similar agreements with Israel, Sudan and Morocco only weeks apart. Now the Abraham Accords appear a permanent feature of the regional landscape, resulting in the forging of an increasing number of political, commercial and cultural agreements between Israel and these four Arab countries.
Jason Greenblatt, appointed by President Trump’s as his special envoy for the Middle East, was one of the chief architects of the Abraham Accords. In his new book, Greenblatt set out how he and his Trump administration colleagues successfully demonstrated that that peace was possible between Arab states and Israel, even if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remained stalled. The book sets out the thinking behind this decoupling of the Palestinian and Arab negotiating tracks and argues that the Abraham Accords are a template for ultimately cementing Israel’s place as fully accepted partner in the region.
Greenblatt and the other key figures involved in talks with Arab leaders, including Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner, were aware of profound changes that took place in the region, where Israel was no longer regarded as the “Pandora’s box” from which all political, economic and social troubles emanated. They recognized that the regional revolutions and civil wars of the last decade were unconnected to Israel and that the external actor exacerbating insecurity and instability in the region was not Israel, but Iran. Arab states, he writes, were also looking for a way to “pivot to” Iran. They therefore strongly welcomed President Trump’s robust opposition to Tehran, in particular his repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal.
While Arab sympathy for the Palestinians and support for them to achieve a state of their own remained strong, Greenblatt found widespread Arab impatience with the Palestinian leadership in both Ramallah and Gaza and an unwillingness to continue giving them a veto over forging beneficial ties with Israel. These factors, Greenblatt explains, made the region ripe for a new US policy on regional peace based on a switch from the traditional “inside-out” approach – working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue before any movement on wider regional peace, to an “outside-in” policy – putting regional peace making first.
Greenblatt sees no contradiction between firm support for Israel’s security as the basis of any peace agreement and a just and, crucially, realistic settlement with the Palestinians. While this “realistic” approach to peace making found a welcome in the wider Arab world, it did not appeal to the Palestinian leadership. For the Trump team, major changes, like US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, were simply a recognition of reality. But for Palestinians it was an unjustified reward to a perceived intransigent Israeli PM Netanyahu.
While the PPP contained clauses Greenblatt knew Palestinians would find hard to accept - such as Israeli control of the Jordan Valley and of existing settlements in return for Palestinians gaining some land in Israel – he insists the plan was drawn up in good faith and offered a path to a safer and more prosperous future for Palestinians. He regrets that the Palestinian leadership expressed the hope that the plan would be “born dead,” even before seeing it.
“What kind of leadership that wants a better life for their people would say such things?” he asks.
While admitting that Israeli-Palestinian talks are, for now, “on the back burner,” Greenblatt clearly relishes the success of the iconoclastic approach of the Trump team to the traditional norms of Middle East diplomacy, and its success in concluding “warm” peace agreements between Israel and Arab politicians, business leaders and peoples. His achievements have won praise even from Arab countries which are yet to publicly make peace with Israel. The foreign minster of Qatar, where the Al Jazeera channel has fiercely criticized the Abraham Accords, credited Greenblatt with a “sincere devotion to achieving peace” while admitting to differences over the way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Greenblatt’s book deals with issues more than the personalities. It is a high-minded work, not a tell-all account of the ups and downs of the negotiating process. Readers will look in vain for any juicy anecdotes or scandalous off-the-record remarks let slip by negotiators. He also does not go into detail of talks. When the Abraham Accords were signed, it was widely reported that the US had offered Netanyahu UAE recognition of Israel in return for his suspending Israeli annexation of the West Bank. But there is no mention of this in the book.
Greenblatt accuses the Obama administration of having conducted “ostrich diplomacy” in concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran that allowed Iran to foment terrorism and instability in the region by providing sanctions relief in exchange for what was merely a temporary halt to Iran’s nuclear program. He is concerned that the Biden administration could be falling into the same trap and notes that it initially tried to deny the significance of the Abraham Accords, though now displays a more positive attitude.
The widespread international hostility to Donald Trump has tended to overshadow his administration’s extraordinary success in concluding the Abraham Accords. But in time, both the current US administration and the wider world will doubtless come to appreciate the positive influence of burgeoning political, economic and cultural ties between Israeli and an increasing number of Arab states.