Thursday, Jul 11, 2024

Exclusive Interview with Jason Greenblatt: Life in the Path of Abraham, on Trump’s Terms

Jason Greenblatt was sitting in his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in 2016 a week before Pesach when he was summoned by his boss. Donald Trump was running for president, and with the New York state primary weeks away, he invited several dozen Jewish media outlets for a meeting.

Greenblatt, the chief legal officer of The Trump Organization, had been working for Trump for nearly two decades when he was sprung the job of a lifetime.

“Jason has been with me for many years, he is a very religious person, to put it mildly,” Trump told the crowd, which included me. “…He really knows it, he would understand it better than me, know it better than me, so I do rely on him as a consultant on Israel.”

In an interview, Greenblatt said he was unaware of the title that would consume the next five years of his life, but he wasn’t surprised by it. He, along with ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Jared Kushner, developed a peace plan that, while unsuccessful on the Palestinian front, enabled a startlingly warm peace to descend on Israel and a growing number of its Arab neighbors.

During that race, Greenblatt played defense for the candidate when he got into trouble on Jewish issues, even penning an op-ed in the Washington Post vouching for Trump. He noted that Trump was respectful of his Shabbos observance and would be a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.

Greenblatt’s assurances have stood the test of time, with Trump arguably leading the most pro-Israel administration of any presidency. But a new controversy is erupting around Trump, and Greenblatt is allowing the former president to speak for himself on this.

“I thought the Palestinians were impossible, and the Israelis would do anything to make peace and a deal,” Trump told Israeli author Barak Ravid earlier this year, revealed in his Hebrew-language book on the Abraham Accords of which excerpts were released last week. “I found that not to be true.”

According to Ravid’s book, Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East, the former president harshly criticized Binyomin Netanyahu, who had made his close friendship with the president a centerpiece of his politics, for congratulating Joe Biden in the hours after he was declared the victor in the 2020 election. He said he hasn’t spoken to Netanyahu since.

“Nobody did more for Bibi. And I liked Bibi. I still like Bibi,” Trump said, referring to him as “the man that I did more for than any other person I dealt with. But I also like loyalty. The first person to congratulate Biden was Bibi. And not only did he congratulate him, he did it on tape.”

Conversely, Trump said he believed that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “wanted to make a deal more than Netanyahu. And I will be honest, I had a great meeting with him… And we spent a lot of time together, talking about many things. And it was almost like a father. I mean, he was so nice, couldn’t have been nicer.”

Trump has been silent ever since the excerpts — and audio, which Ravid posted — were published.

Greenblatt noted that Trump was upset that Biden, in his opinion, stole the election, and urged people who supported Trump in the past to look at what he achieved during his four years in the White House. But he acknowledged that Trump will have some explaining to do if he ran again.

Greenblatt is publishing a book of his own, In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East — and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It. The publishing date is June 21, 2022, but it can already be preordered on Amazon.

Greenblatt, 54, learned in Yeshiva University, Alon Shvut, and New York University School of Law. Following his departure from the Trump administration in October 2019, he opened Abraham Venture, which seeks to follow up on the Abraham Accords.

I didn’t get a chance to read your book yet, obviously, since it’s not out, but I appreciate the chance to discuss issues that I’m sure are in it. Let’s start with the recent headlines that have been brutal to Trump for what he said about Netanyahu — I’m referring to Barak Ravid’s book. He says that Trump actually soured on Netanyahu years before the election. As an insider, are these Trump’s true feelings or is there context missing?

Look, Barak has a left-leaning approach. He’s an excellent reporter and he has good sources, but I do think that the news being reported now is taken out of context and it’s of a completely different time. I think what people should be focused on is the four years of the Trump administration policies towards Israel, things he actually did, things he achieved. Starting from how he’s supported Israel’s position generally on Judea and Samaria while still trying to achieve peace, to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, moving the embassy, all the way to the Abraham Accords.

You know, people are now trying to take one or two quotes of President Trump that were said now after an election that he believes was stolen, perhaps some tension over what one could argue was Prime Minister Netanyahu getting out and congratulating Joe Biden before it was over. But those are just slices in history compared to four years of policy that’s black and white, that people saw week in and week out, and four years of policy and support for the State of Israel. None of that would have happened if President Trump didn’t support those policies.

I want to focus on two points before we go further. One, Trump described Mahmoud Abbas in glowing terms, calling him a father figure and someone who could be trusted. Two, he said he always thought Israelis wanted peace while the Palestinians were the problem, and now he sees that’s not the case. If Trump runs again, I’m sure a lot of voters who supported Trump in the past will now be thinking carefully before voting for him.

It’s an excellent question. And this is a little bit of the problem of selective quoting — I don’t want to say only quoting soundbites, because that suggests that Barak Ravid did something wrong; he didn’t, he seems to have put the whole tape out — but sentences on a complex topic like this and on individuals as complex as President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu are never enough. In my book, I do touch on them — I devote a whole chapter to Bibi Netanyahu and I devote a whole chapter to President Abbas.

When you meet President Abbas in a diplomatic meeting, he comes across as being sincere, he comes across as being devoted to peace, but you’d have to sort of dig deeper and understand the entire picture — what he’s hoping to accomplish, where he hopes to go, what he really thinks about Israel — and you don’t get that in even a 20-minute meeting or a 30-minute meeting. You have to have countless hours of time with him and his advisors and then you sort of understand where you are.

So definitely, he presented to President Trump in the limited amount of time that they gave him as somebody who’s sincere about peace. My own conclusions are different after spending a significant amount of time with President Abbas and his top advisors, and you’ll be able to read about that in the book.

As far as Bibi Netanyahu, it’s also a bit different. There’s no question Bibi Netanyahu would love peace for Israel — I mean, who wouldn’t? But Bibi Netanyahu’s job as the prime minister — as Naftoli Bennett’s job is today — is to protect the State of Israel, security wise and everything else that goes along with that. And that, too, has so many layers of criteria. So if Bibi Netanyahu insists on certain things — not just about security, but a lot about security — that doesn’t mean he’s anti-peace. That just means if he’s going to agree to any kind of peace deal, he’s going to do it in a way that makes sense for the State of Israel and to protect the people in Israel.

As to where that fits into the quotes that President Trump gave, I can’t say. I’ll let President Trump speak for himself. But I’m the person who for nearly three years spent countless hours with Prime Minister Netanyahu; I understand what he was trying to do, and I think he was sincere about the peace effort under certain criteria.

Speaking of Naftoli Bennett, he’s now on the first state visit of an Israeli leader to the United Arab Emirates. Obviously, this is an outgrowth of the Abraham Accords, which was initially meant to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Was making peace between Israel and the Gulf Arab nations sort of an opportunity that came up once the Palestinians didn’t come through, or was this part of the initial plan?

I wouldn’t say it was initially in the sense of the first couple of months — meaning, we needed to study the file and understand it, and the hope was that the Palestinians would be part of a bigger picture of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and some of its Arab neighbors.

Obviously, we didn’t have any designs of being able to achieve what people wrongfully today call “peace in the Middle East,” as if all the Arab countries and Israel would sign on day one. That’s not in the cards — you have too many countries that themselves are failed states like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen. So that is not possible.

But as time wore on, and as we observed how the Palestinians conducted themselves, we came to the realization that we could try to do one of two things. One, the peace with the Palestinians and the Arab countries who are willing to join, or two, peace with the Arab countries who are willing to join without the Palestinians, if the Palestinians wanted to leave themselves out of it. And that’s the goal we had all along. We didn’t know if we would achieve it; we didn’t know if we’d even come close to it.

But if you take a look at the peace plan itself that was released, I think eight months before the Abraham Accords were announced, you see that a big part of that peace plan is normalization with the Arab countries. It made no sense to release a peace plan that was just between Israel and the Palestinians. It made no sense for Israel; it would be almost totally illogical.

So the goal always was, “Hey, Palestinians, join. And if you don’t join, we’re not going to stop our work anyway.” And that’s evidenced by the fact that once they cut us off in December 2017, once President Trump recognized Jerusalem, we kept working.

Who came up with the name Abraham Accords?

You know, I don’t know. I wasn’t there at the time. It’s obviously a very apt name.

When I left the White House in October 2019, I formed a company and I called it Abraham Venture, for obvious reasons. I was a big promoter of peace in the Middle East, and throughout my three years at the White House, whenever I was in the Arab countries, I just kept coming back to the idea that we have a lot of things in common — religiously, culturally — and I had no trouble telling them I was a frum Jew. It’s all because we all ultimately descend from Avrohom.

Are you disappointed that the Biden administration, while they did not stop promoting the Abraham Accords, didn’t refer to it by that name?

Right. My book is very much about that, too, which is that it took nearly a year from when the Abraham Accords were signed — which corresponds to the first seven or so months of President Biden’s first year — before they started using the name. They never used the name; they always tried to downplay President Trump’s achievements. They always referred to them just as “normalization agreements” or whatever. So that was disappointing.

I think at some point — and maybe it had to do with the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan — they felt they needed to lean into this, as they should. And at least now, they use the name and they say that they are trying to further it along. And good for them — that’s what they should be doing. And that, again, is very much part of what my book is about.

The first time I met you was when I was in Trump Tower before the New York primary, when Donald Trump met Jewish media. At the time, Trump introduced you and David Friedman as people who would be involved with Israel policy if he was elected. You were there; Friedman was not. Were you surprised he said that? Were you told in advance?

I wasn’t told in advance. But I had had many conversations with President Trump about Israel, even before he announced his candidacy. So it made a lot of sense to me that he would want to include us as advisors, people whom he knew and trusted. At that point, I had worked with him for 18 or 19 years, and he knew how much I loved and supported Israel, so it made a lot of sense.

Weren’t you nervous about accepting this job? I’m not comparing anything, but take a look at Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa who was kicked out of his shul when he was part of a UN team that criticized Israel a few years ago. You came out with your reputation intact, but it could have ended up very differently and you would have to face your friends in shul.

So, there was a great deal of nervousness on my part for lots of reasons, including the one you say. But I basically had a choice. I could help shape and guide and create policy regarding Israel and peace with somebody who I knew very, very well, someone who I’d worked for 18 or 19 years — or I could look the other way and not take on that mantle of responsibility, and take chances for a country that I love very much, both the United States and Israel.

The ability to serve the United States is just an unbelievable, amazing blessing. So I felt that the benefits far outweighed the detriments. I don’t want to say I wasn’t concerned that things would go in the wrong direction, because you never know — the US government is very big, no matter who the president of the United States is, but I wanted to be one of those soldiers who would fight to make sure the right policies were implemented.

How did it feel going from someone a couple of years ago who was one of the hockers in shul about Israel to actually being able to help implement policy on that?

What I made sure to do right away was to really work hard and study the file. I knew I came in with preconceived notions, reading what I read in Jewish newspapers, the kind of education that I received, my many trips to Israel, and my time studying at a yeshiva at Alon Shvut, which is in Judea and Samaria.

But I knew that I was also hired by President Trump, if you will, to see if peace could be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arabs. So I couldn’t not learn everything about it, including everything from the other side.

I spent much of 2017 meeting everybody — Palestinians, Arabs, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis of all stripes, religious, secular, right, left — so I could hear everybody’s thoughts. You obviously have to meet the leadership, but you can read what they think in the papers. The meetings are useful, but there are usually no surprises there. But you want to hear from the people.

So I think I studied up thoroughly. I also listened to all — well, not all, but many — of the people who were involved in past efforts, governmental people, think tank people. And that’s when we started to shape the plan, based on everything we learned.

So you can’t be accused of not putting yourself fully into it before you even took the first step.

Right. Any accusation like that would be a false accusation.

I remember hearing you say that you did not like the term “Deal of the Century.”

I don’t know who really said it. I don’t think it was President Trump. But whoever thought of it, it ended up becoming a negative term — the Palestinians themselves and some others used to say it in a way to insult President Trump and his administration. Ultimately, once the peace plan was revealed, they called it the “slap of the century” or the “steal of the century.” So it’s just a negative term.

I’m really anti-slogans — slogans are used by people to manipulate. What I always called it was a “comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and its Arab neighbors” — that, at least, makes people understand what we were trying to achieve. The “deal of the century” just doesn’t do it justice.

Obviously, once the term Abraham Accords came out, it replaced that name.

The Abraham Accords is a magnificent thing, and hopefully other countries will join it as well. But the peace plan itself that we have put forth for the Palestinians, and potentially for the other Arab countries, is still the most comprehensive peace plan ever put out. It goes beyond just one or two pages of ideas, and bakes real depth into a peace plan. People may hate it, depending on where they stand on it, but it allows people to understand a logical way to achieve peace as opposed to lofty statements like a “just solution for the Palestinian cause,” which means nothing.

So I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant. It did fail; that’s true. It failed before it even started because the Palestinians disengaged — but it’s not the first time the Palestinians disengaged. They have disengaged from president after president after president, including President Obama, who many could argue was as pro-Palestinian as you can get.

I guess you could say that, ultimately, if you ever read in the papers that peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been achieved, it would probably look closer to your plan than it would to some of the plans proposed by previous presidents.

I think that’s right, which is why I don’t think the plan is irrelevant. And I think that is because it’s based on a reality, as opposed to what the Palestinians claim is Israel going back to the so-called 1967 borders — as if they were borders, as if Israel could take a security risk like that, and as if the Palestinians had that land before Israel did, which isn’t true, but unfortunately is what many people think is the case.

It took a long time until it was rolled out. The administration waited for one election in Israel, then another. I once heard you retell anecdotes in an off-the-record briefing how people tried prying details out of you. You said your daughter’s school had a class project on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, with the obvious assumption that she would ask you for help.

I remember the assignment, but not a lot.

During that time, people tried prying details out of you.

Oh, they did. It was a daily occurrence, both by the press and lots of other people. But I knew we were holding onto something very, very delicate, and it could only undermine our efforts if we said anything publicly to anybody.

Look, the Barak Ravid book is a good example. Whether those stories are true or not — and I’m not saying they’re untrue, it’s just that some of the people were less involved, some weren’t even involved, presumably, and some aren’t on the record, so I have no basis to know what’s accurate or not — you can see the hype, the negative energy that’s going on now because of these stories. Imagine if we were not as careful as we were during our time at the White House, if you were seeing this in the press all the time. It is hard to work on something this delicate with all those stories constantly bumbling around. So we were super careful about it.

You made the decision to leave the administration before the plan was published. Were you also involved in any way once it was unveiled?

Well, David [Friedman], Jared [Kushner], and Avi [Berkowitz] and I were good friends. And I wouldn’t say I was involved in the sense that I consulted for them in any formal capacity, but I was always available to them and had multiple conversations with them after I left.

But largely, the peace plan itself was finished. If I were to take a look at the peace plan that was unveiled formally in January 2020 and the peace plan I left in my safe in my office at the end of October, a couple of months before it was unveiled, I think in large part it would be almost the same. Were there some grammatical changes? Some stylistic changes? For sure. But it was substantively the same. I remember taking a close look at it for any kind of meaningful change, but I can’t swear to that.

After the peace plan was proposed, there were a couple of events in quick succession. Soleimani was eliminated in Iraq, and then came the pandemic. Do you think that if not for Covid, the administration would have had more time to focus on this, and things might have turned out differently?

It’s an interesting question. The answer is yes, but you never know. In other words, these kinds of things, whether it’s the Abraham Accords or anything like it, you not only need a tremendous amount of work in preparation until they happen, but they also have to happen at the right time. And there’s no way to predict that. If it wasn’t Covid or multiple Israeli elections, who knows what else would have happened?

So I don’t think these things didn’t happen at a particular time before for lack of time. I think that it didn’t happen because while many of the pieces were aligned and ready to go, people weren’t ready to do that, or something wasn’t there, or somebody wanted to take advantage of a particular thing.

This is why I’m a little bit against the snapshots that journalists like, where there’s one particular thing that happens and that caused it. There’s only partial truth in that. There are usually many, many things that happen that push the pieces into place. There are many, many people involved who helped push the people in place, including others who came before us. And then there might be the thing that actually snaps it into place — but you never know when that snap happens, and the snap can’t happen until all the other pieces are on board.

Aside for the actual peace agreement, there are a lot of different moving parts in the Abraham Accords. I once interviewed a blind Supreme Court judge from Michigan who spent his Covid quarantine in Dubai and Israel, and he was gushing about how the peace accords afforded him the opportunity to go to Arab kingdoms and talk about justice for the disabled. Are there any specific concepts in the Abraham Accords you think people will be surprised to hear about?

One of the most important outgrowths is that it is designed, and it is now growing, to connect people in a warm way. We’ve always said we’ve had peace between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan for many years now. And those are really important, I don’t want to downplay them for a second — they are important for the security of all three countries and for the rest of the region. There are some economic ties that are important, and hopefully will grow. But it is not nearly what it should be — connecting to people.

The difference with the UAE and Bahrain and Morocco now — I can’t speak for Sudan, because I really wasn’t involved — is that people in all the countries are excited about working together, doing business together, doing cultural events together. And that is one of the keys that is going to make this thing stick.

You spoke about how you came into this process with preconceived ideas based on growing up as a frum Jew and your many visits to Israel. What surprised you the most when you first started meeting with the other side, with the Arab side?

I guess I would probably say how warm and welcoming they were to me, and how respectful they were to me as a religious Jew. I would not have expected that from everything I had read. And by the way, it continues to this day, like when I go there for business or whenever I talk to people — that warmth is real and it’s genuine. I enjoy it.

And perhaps one of the things I shep the most nachas from, if you will, is when I have people who reach out to me, strangers who say, “Oh, I was just in” — pick an Arab city, Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Manama — and they tell me stories about how they felt comfortable in these countries being a Jew and how they were warmly welcomed. They were now able to attend business meetings or events they never in the lives believed they would attend.

They are living what I lived for three years at the White House, which I wouldn’t have expected. And it’s so beautiful to see that what I lived for three years — the warmth, the appreciation, and the friendship they showed me for three years — was real, because it continues today with total strangers who weren’t part of that process. It’s quite amazing.




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