The list of memoirs by those involved in American Middle East diplomacy during the five and a half decades since the Six-Day War features a diverse array of officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Their books reflect the fact that every American president during that time, from Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump, attempted at one point or another to cut the Gordian knot of the Arab–Israeli conflict. And the publishing industry has over the years shown an insatiable appetite for books written by these figures in which they recount their almost always unsuccessful endeavors—with only a few limited exceptions, such as Henry Kissinger’s negotiation of cease-fire and forced-separation agreements after the Yom Kippur War or the Carter administration’s subsequent role in finalizing the peace between Israel and Egypt.
The four memoirs published this year by former Trump-administration officials involved in Middle East diplomacy might be glibly dismissed as just another bunch to be added to the remainder pile. But these books—by Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and Friedman aide Aryeh Lightstone—are different from their predecessors.1 They reflect the fact that, although none of these men had any Middle East expertise before being tapped by Trump to serve him, they can all claim to be part of a genuine foreign-policy triumph of a kind that eluded more experienced and far more celebrated foreign-policy grandees.
Their signature achievement is the 2020 Abraham Accords. The accords began with an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize relations and led to three more countries—Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—joining the deal. This broke a decades-long logjam during which the countries in the region were held hostage by Palestinian intransigence and a Western fixation about how to create peace.
Even Kissinger’s and Carter’s successes were, at least in the minds of those involved, essentially limited, since they fell short of achieving a wider peace that would eliminate what they seemed to think was America’s biggest problem in the region: the Arab and Muslim world’s resentment over U.S. support for Israel, and its anger about the lack of a Palestinian Arab state. The American foreign-policy establishment called the shots on Middle East issues in every White House and State Department up until January 2017. And its members believed that the conflict between Jews and Arabs over possession of the tiny strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was the key to getting Arabs and Muslims to drop their hostility to the United States.
The Middle East experts who served in each of those administrations, as well as those who filled Washington’s think tanks and mainstream and elite media, shared the belief that there was only one way to achieve that goal. They pushed a policy that would exert the right amount of pressure on Israel to cede the land it had won in a defensive war in 1967. This, they said, would result in a Palestinian state that would make everyone in the region happy.
That was particularly true of those in the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama in the period following the 1993 Oslo Accords, which provided a framework for the establishment of such a state. The American officials involved in the efforts to bring those agreements to fruition held varying estimations of how much pressure to put on Israel—along with some guarantees for its security—to attain that goal. But they did not differ on the question of whether sovereignty for the Palestinians was crucial to advancing U.S. interests in the region. And they were equally united in thinking that the land-for-peace formula that was the conceit of the Oslo mindset was the only way to make it happen.
And they all failed. In their memoirs, none of these leading lights—former secretaries of state Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, as well as numerous lesser officials tasked with fixing the Middle East, such as Aaron David Miller, Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Kurtzer—display any doubt about their investment in the basic Oslo formula. Like almost all of the experts who produced literature about Middle East diplomacy in the past three decades, these notable figures worshipped at the altar of land-for-peace, and they never took a moment to wonder whether they might have been idolators kneeling before a false god.
That is the context in which the books by Kushner, Friedman, Greenblatt, and Lightstone must be read. Though these works were greeted with either silence or mockery by those who habitually review books about the Middle East—the New York Times books section ignored three of them and skewered Kushner’s—historians will find them startlingly useful as they try to decipher why the “peace process” failed while the Abraham Accords process succeeded.
Donald Trump’s election campaign and unlikely Electoral College victory had already broken numerous precedents. That continued once he took office, as he chose relatives and personal associates for major policy jobs. Son-in-law Kushner, bankruptcy lawyer Friedman, and personal legal counsel Greenblatt all fell into this category. From the moment they were anointed, Kushner and Friedman became the subjects of controversy and the recipients of a blizzard of abusive criticism. And all three were Orthodox Jews.
While Jews had previously filled important roles in the State Department and the National Security Council and had even served as ambassadors to Israel (as was the case with Indyk and Kurtzer), they had all been ardent believers in the myth of land for peace and the necessity of “saving Israel from itself.” Trump’s personal circle came from a different sector of American Jewry: pro-Israel activists who believed that the foreign-policy establishment had wronged Israel and had led the Palestinians to believe they could continue to cling to their delusions about destroying the Jewish state without facing significant pushback or penalties from Washington. A key part of the narratives of the Trump deputies is the story of how they struggled to overcome not just the more conventional appointees to the administration’s policy team—such as the first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the first secretary of defense, James Mattis—but the vast army of permanent foreign-service officers and bureaucrats who regarded them as hopeless amateurs. Or worse, as Zionist ideologues with dual loyalties who should have no place working in the federal government.
Kushner’s Breaking History is largely a defense of his role in Trump’s administration, and it’s not always persuasive. But the parts about the Middle East have the ring of truth. Greenblatt’s In the Path of Abraham is intensely personal and has a pleasing sincerity regarding his struggles, occasional victories against the bureaucracy and Palestinian intransigence, and breakthroughs with Arab states. But it suffers from the fact that Greenblatt left the administration at the end of 2019 before the Trump peace plan was unveiled and the Abraham Accords came into being.
Friedman’s Sledgehammer is the best-written and most cogent analysis of the problems faced by Trump’s amateurs. His deputy, Lightstone, a rabbi and Jewish-outreach professional, can’t tell us much about Trump, but in Let My People Know, he gives readers a useful behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties that he and Friedman had in trying to serve the United States at an embassy where everyone else on staff was unsympathetic to their goals and supportive attitude toward the host state.
Like most memoirists, Kushner is the hero of his recollections. He boasts about his achievements in getting criminal-justice reform passed, implementing Covid emergency measures, achieving a trade deal with Mexico, and making gains toward Middle East peace. Those accounts are mixed with copious score-settling with those who cynically promoted the Russia-collusion hoax and with figures such as the convicted felon Steve Bannon and the White House Chief of Staff General John F. Kelly, both of whom feuded with the son-in-law/senior adviser.
Friedman and Greenblatt came to Trump through his business dealings. Friedman was one of New York’s most successful bankruptcy attorneys and had served the real-estate mogul in various cases. Greenblatt was an in-house Trump Organization attorney. Both had earned Trump’s trust and, like Kushner, his respect for sticking to their Orthodox beliefs even when it meant stopping in the middle of crucial business negotiations to observe the Sabbath or holidays. The three men tell stories about how the famously callous and imperious Trump supported their religious observances and came to understand Israel and Zionism through them. Even discounting their desire to portray their boss in a good light, the portraiture here contradicts the liberal narrative of Trump as a boorish anti-Semite. Seeing the former president through the prism of this coterie of Jewish associates, and considering that he saw American Jews through their perspective as well, helps explain Trump’s inability to understand why most American Jews are politically liberal and don’t make support for Israel their overriding concern.
All wound up in struggles with Tillerson and to a lesser extent with Mattis over control of foreign policy in the Middle East. It turned out these were fights that those seemingly more important figures were doomed to lose—not so much because of their inability to shake off establishment conventional wisdom but because they didn’t understand Trump as well as their amateur opponents did.
What is often forgotten in the praise for the Abraham Accords is that Trump came into office ready to chase the white whale of peace with the Palestinians, just like every other president. His belief in his skill as a dealmaker knew no bounds, and he thought that the age-old problem of Palestinians and Israelis would yield to his prowess as if it were a Manhattan real-estate transaction. He could, he thought, produce what he called the “ultimate deal.”
The difference between this vain ambition and that of previous presidents was not so much Trump’s ego or his general lack of knowledge about the situation. It was that his Middle East team had a far more realistic understanding of the situation than the experts who had preceded them.
Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman did not all see the problem exactly in the same light. All were pro-Israel. Kushner’s views were more centrist. Though he writes about Benjamin Netanyahu staying in his room when his family hosted him on a visit to New Jersey, he was more in tune with the prime minister’s chief rival, Benny Gantz. For their part, Greenblatt and especially Friedman had strong sympathies for Netanyahu and the Israeli right. Yet, as they all write, each understood that the problem with past peace attempts was the Oslo mindset and a failure to understand that the Palestinians were still acting on the conviction that sooner or later the international community and the Americans would ditch Israel and hand them complete victory. It wouldn’t take them long to help educate Trump about the Palestinians.
Prior to joining the administration, Friedman had helped raise funds for West Bank settlements and had nearly had his appointment blocked because of the incendiary language he used to describe American Jews who are highly critical of Israel (he called the left-wing lobby group J Street “kapos”—a reference to Jewish collaborators with the Nazis, an attack he had to retract and apologize for). And as this history might suggest, he was a U.S. ambassador to Israel like no other.
Every previous envoy sent to the Tel Aviv embassy regarded himself as an American pro-consul whose job was to give orders to the leaders of a client state. Friedman had other ideas. He was determined to right what he saw as the wrongs of past U.S. policies toward Israelis. And he knew, with the help of those such as Kushner and Greenblatt working in the White House, how to do it.
As president, Trump was initially fooled into believing that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s claims that he wanted peace were genuine. But Friedman, who was the key player in every one of Trump’s historic pro-Israel decisions, helped disabuse him by breaking protocol and ensuring that his former client watched a video, compiled by Israelis, of Abbas’s statements fomenting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic violence. He also made Trump aware of the Palestinian Authority’s “pay for slay” scheme, by which terrorists who injured or killed Israelis received salaries and pensions paid to their families based on the level of violence committed. Friedman’s educational efforts infuriated the State Department but largely dislodged Trump’s illusions about Palestinian intentions.
This was best illustrated with Trump’s startling decision to authorize the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, with the implicit recognition of Israel’s capital that it signaled. Every other president and his aides had bought into the conventional wisdom that such a decision would set the region on fire—which meant the embassy had remained in Tel Aviv despite a law passed by Congress in November 1995 and signed by Bill Clinton mandating its relocation to Jerusalem.
In the White House, Kushner and Greenblatt were quick to advance an argument that Netanyahu had been trying to make to the Americans for years: Much of the Arab world was far more interested in the threat from Iran than the complaints and ambitions of the Palestinians. The vast experience of Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman in real estate helped them understand the position of the Palestinians in a way their predecessors could not. They saw the Palestinian position as the moral equivalent to that of an owner of a depressed property that had been intentionally run down and whose value was declining.
If the Palestinians wanted a deal with Israel—and there was little reason to think they did—they’d have to take less than what had been offered under the more generous terms of Israeli and American governments in the past. What the Palestinians needed was a cold dose of reality, and Trump’s amateurs were ready to serve it up with respect to Jerusalem even if Tillerson and Mattis were not.
Friedman’s dramatic account of the meeting in the White House Situation Room on November 27, 2017, in which the issue of Jerusalem was finally decided, provides a sense of the difficulties involved for Trump’s amateurs. Tillerson’s and Mattis’s objections carried weight with Trump, and White House Chief of Staff Kelly ensured that only Friedman would be there to oppose them. Kushner and Greenblatt were not invited so as to make clear that the decision would not be made at “the behest of three Orthodox Jews.”
Yet if the “adults” thought the odds were stacked in their favor, they were wrong. After Tillerson had read a briefing paper prepared for him by staff, Friedman embarrassed the secretary by pointing out that Tillerson mistakenly claimed Jerusalem was reunited in 1996 rather than in the 1967 Six-Day War and had also omitted the fact that a U.S. law passed by Congress in 1995 had already declared the city to be the undivided capital of Israel. For his part, Mattis claimed that Israel’s capital had to be Tel Aviv because that is where its defense ministry is located; Friedman’s brilliant riposte was that by Mattis’s logic, America’s capital should be in Virginia with the Pentagon.
More important, Friedman played Trump perfectly, telling him that if he was the tough and unique leader he claimed to be rather than a typical politician who breaks his promises as every previous president had done with respect to Jerusalem, he’d have to agree to the move. The gambit worked perfectly. Trump made the fateful decision and approved other actions that led to the establishment of a new permanent embassy in Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The title of Friedman’s book is a reference to the sledgehammer he used to help inaugurate an archeological park in Jerusalem’s City of David—but it also serves as a useful metaphor for Friedman’s effective work in helping to secure American support for Jewish rights in Israel’s capital.
The embassy move set the tone for Trump’s tilt toward Israel, but, at least until the fall of 2020, the end goal of all these efforts was to prepare the way for a peace plan with the Palestinians and not with Arab nations. The Abraham Accords happened in no small measure because the Trump team believed in an “outside-in” approach in which pressure from the Arab world would cause the Palestinians to see reason.
When not battling with the permanent foreign-policy bureaucracy, Kushner and Greenblatt were establishing relationships with the Gulf States. Their diplomats made it clear that these countries regarded Israel as a tacit ally against Iran rather than an enemy, as well as a potential First World economic trading partner.
Trump’s team played on this sentiment, even as they thought that simple pragmatism might compel the Palestinians to abandon revanchist fantasies and seek avenues for international investment. That was the basis of a “Peace Through Prosperity” plan that the amateurs worked on for a large part of their first years in the administration.
Abbas never seriously considered the proposal. He refused to accept that time was actually on Israel’s side. The Jewish state was growing wealthier and starting to be seen by the Arab world as a strategic asset against Iran. There were also the facts on the ground, which is to say, Jewish communities in the West Bank had become so large that their removal was no longer feasible or politically possible. Abbas ignored that Kushner and Greenblatt’s plan involved the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state and Israeli surrender of some territory in the West Bank (though not nearly so much as the Palestinians had been offered in proposals in 2000, 2001, and 2008).
Though the plan for a Palestinian state was ready in the spring of 2019, the successive stalemates in Israel’s Knesset elections meant that it had to be put on hold until January 2020. It was then that the key conflict between Trump’s amateurs erupted.
Friedman and Netanyahu believed that the plan allowed Israel to extend its law over the parts of the West Bank designated as “Area C” by the Oslo Accords—a region where Jewish settlements existed and relatively few Arabs lived. Kushner, who had by this time grown weary of the Israeli prime minister’s hard-bargaining tactics, was outraged by what he thought was a breach of the terms the two countries had agreed to. Kushner believed that the annexation of Area C could happen only much later, with specific American approval in the context of a final agreement.
Friedman writes of this as a misunderstanding while Kushner still considers it to be evidence of Netanyahu’s untrustworthiness. With his son-in-law egging him on, Trump expressed outrage about Netanyahu’s willingness to exploit the situation for his country’s advantage. Ultimately, Netanyahu had to back down; Friedman was also bruised by the dispute.
And yet the conflict served an unexpectedly creative purpose. It provided the leverage the United Arab Emirates needed to justify its decision to normalize relations with Israel. In the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United Nations, published an op-ed blasting the annexation idea. But while ostensibly critical of Israel, the column offered the possibility that the Arab world would open its arms to the Jewish state—because putting off annexation indefinitely would provide a rationale for normalization by Arab nations that were eager for an excuse to ditch the Palestinians.
Kushner and his chief aide, Avi Berkowitz, with the enthusiastic support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who had replaced Tillerson in 2018), went to work securing what would become the Abraham Accords. The UAE went first, but the Kushner-Berkowitz team also got Bahrain and then Morocco (at the cost of American recognition for its occupation of the former Spanish Sahara) to join in.
The establishment of Israeli diplomatic relations with these countries was by any objective standard a historic achievement. It added to the total of Arab nations that recognized Israel after more than seven decades of the Jewish state’s existence; only Egypt and Jordan, both former direct combatants in the wars against Israel, had normalized relations before this point. Even more important, as Kushner’s book makes clear, the normalization was also done with the acquiescence of Saudi Arabia. The accords demolished the claims that peace with the Arab world could only follow a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Trump’s amateurs proved that John Kerry’s notorious 2015 answer of “no, no, no, no,” when he was asked about the possibility of a wider peace, had been a function of the foreign-policy establishment’s tunnel vision and not a reflection of diplomatic reality. It provided the template for future peace agreements along the same lines with other Arab nations and could, in theory, prod a new generation of Palestinian leaders to seek an agreement with Israel and the United States that would be similar to the Peace Through Prosperity formula.
That the amateurs had arrived at this point by an indirect route, and only after years of struggle both inside the U.S. government and in futile attempts to engage the Palestinians, doesn’t detract from their achievement. But so deep is the contempt for Trump and Netanyahu within the ranks of the Washington establishment, and so entrenched are their preconceived notions about the Middle East, that not even the reality of the Abraham Accords and their significance are enough to change minds.
With the same cast of characters who so conspicuously failed in the Middle East under Bill Clinton and especially Barack Obama now back in control of American foreign policy, the familiar refrains about Israel needing to make concessions to encourage the Palestinians are once again in vogue. Though the Palestinian reputation for intransigence has made it difficult for even President Joe Biden’s team to find any meaningful way to appease Abbas and Company, Trump’s successor has failed to follow up on the Abraham Accords, thus squandering the opportunity for more peace deals and a united front against Iranian aggression and nuclear threats.
That is why the four books by Trump’s amateurs deserve to be read—and, despite their pedestrian renderings of everyday diplomacy (and Kushner’s deeply unattractive efforts at revenge and score-settling), understood as a useful guide to how Washington can break its addiction to policies that have been tried and proven to fail. Their authors may suffer from the opprobrium that the educated classes attach to anyone connected to Trump. But their successes deserve to be remembered and honored, and they stand as a lesson to all who will follow in their footsteps.
1 Breaking History: A White House Memoir, by Jared Kushner (Broadside Books); Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East, by David Friedman (Broadside Books); 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); Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace and What Lies Ahead, by Aryeh Lightstone (Encounter Books)
Photo: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem
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