Robert Greenway: ‘The Abraham Accords are an opportunity for our European partners to build a new relationship with the Middle East’

August 04, 2022


In an exclusive interview with European Jewish Press, Robert Greenway, one of the architects of the Abraham Accords which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab nations,  said he expects other Arab and Muslim countries to join. ‘’It’s just a matter of when.’’ His non-profit, bi-partisan private organization, the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, is committed to strenghtening the ties between member countries  ‘’so that prospective members can see the benefits and it’s easier fot them to make a decision.’’

Nearly two years ago, the Abraham Accords were signed at a White House ceremony on September 15,2020. They are a series of treaties normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, facilitated by the U.S. administration] between August and December, 2020. In the span of five months, these four Arab states joined Egypt and Jordan in making peace with Israel.  These historic accords charted a new course in the history of Arab-Israeli relations and are transforming the region for the better. 

Since the normalization, relations between Israel and the other Abraham Accords member states have grown significantly in various sectors.

One of the architects of the accords, Robert Greenway, who served as Deputy Assistant to former President Trump and Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the National Security Council until January 2021, and is currently President and Executive Director of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute in Washington, firmly believes that the accords will continue to spread and prosper and that those who made the decision to join will reap the benefits.

In an exclusive interview with European Jewish Press, Greenway said he expects other Arab and Muslim countries to join. ‘’It’s just a matter of when.’’ His non-profit, bi-partisan private organization is committed to strenghtening the ties between Abraham Accords members  ‘’so that prospective members can see the benefits and it’s easier fot them to make a decision.’’

He was recently n Brussels for meetings with public and private leaders to provide them an assessment of the Abraham Accords and the opportunity they constitute for European partners. Europe can build a new relationship with the region, with Israel and other member countries. ‘’This can take many forms, including cooperation on energy, food security, healthcare and technology. A sort of NATO alliance for the Middle East is not only possible but also necessary, he said.

Regarding the prospect of Saudi Arabia normalizing its relations with Israel, Greenway believes that the Unites States and Europe’s approach to pursue a stronger relationship with Iran, which the Saudis see as the principal threat to regional peace and stability, complicates the process of normalization. But he thinks it’s rather a matter of when and not if. The same for other Arab and Muslim countries ‘’who are looking at theur long term economic goals and regional stability.’’

Greenway said he was encouraged by the EU’s recent decision to resume the meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council. ‘’The Abraham Accords provide additional opportunities to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,’’ he added. He noted however that a shift in Palestinian leadership and elections that will bring a new generation of leaders that work for the best interest of the people could lead to a change of approach towards the Abraham Accords.

Here is the full interview:

Could you describe the objectives of the Abraham Accords Peace Institue ? 

Over a year ago, in May 2021 we completed  a review process in which we determined what was going to be of the most utility in advancing and  sustaining the Abraham Accords. Those who were all negotiators of the accords came to the conclusion that it would be important for us to remain engaged and continue the work which we started to strenghten and expand the ties between Abraham Accords (AA) member countries in a private capacity in the framework of a non-profit US-based organization structured as a charitable organization. We decided that it was necessary for a couple of reasons. First is that relationship between the AA members were still very young, new. While there was some contacts between them in the past, it was not substantial and the contacts did not  cross all sectors of government and private economy. So in consultation with all AA member countries we agreed that it would be important for us to remain involved. And because they recognized that the US played a central role in bringing the accords, it would be critical for us to continue to do so with the current US administration and support their efforts to sustain the accords. I would also say that our focus is chiefly in two areas: the economics and cultural, people-to-people contacts.

In the economic space, it encompasses trade and investment between the accords member countrie. Our believe is that it’s important for all the AA members in their long term objectives to be better integrated with each other, the region and global markets, and in the relationship with Israel.

It was critically important to reaching their goals and second that this integration would form the basis of an alliance that would be defendable. Because in the past, other approaches have been made starting with the security aspect. But those are harder to retain over time as the benefits for each member country is not always apparent. So we wanted to establish a strong economic relationship that over time would lend itself to be defended and secured by the individual member countries and we thought it would be be enduring.

Secondly in the cultural space, governments agree that they can form agreements with each others but peace comes from people-to-people contacts between the individual countries, so this is the second part of our focus.

If we want things to become not just peace treaties (like it was between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994) but long-term agreements and relationships between countries that foster growth and development, then we need to take a slight different approach that encompasses the economic and the cultural aspects, not just security. We look at these agreements as warm peace agreements as opposed to the sort of cold peace that came from the preceding agreements. I also say that regarding Egypt and Jordan we considered their legagy as they have made peace earlier and I think that there is enthusiasm on the part of both countries to take advantage and capitalize on the opportunity and seek broader contacts with their neighbors for their own benefit. This is certainly beginning now and you have seen cooperation in other ways whether in the East Mediterranean on the energy front between Egypt and Israel or with the deals brokered with the assistance of the UAE between Jordan and Israel. So I think we are going to see a lot more progress in the coming months and years ahead as the new peace agreements will impact the previous ones.

What was the purpose of your recent trip in Europe ? 

It is not the first time. We have been to Europe several times to do a couple of things. The first is to provide our assessment of the AA and the opportunity that they constitute  to European partners. We think that the nature of the agreement and the opportunity that they provides are very real and require a recognition.  And as with our previous visits, for example to Paris earlier this year, we discussed it with a number of public and private partners to give them our perspective. And secondly, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we believe one of the most important opportunity for European partners with respect to the accords is to build a new relationship with the region, with Israel and with the other member countries. This can take many forms including energy cooperation to replacet the lost energy tot the European market but also to provide additional opportunity for cooperation on food security, healthcare and technology  among others….So it is a recognition of the importance of the accords, how they are transforming the region, but also a recognition of the opporunity that it provides for the European countries to work with the AA members and expand the ties between Europe and the Middle East.

Do you believe that besides  normalization between AA countries there is also room for multilateral cooperation not only on economic matters but also on security and defense ? Would a sort of NATO for the  Middle East be possible ?

I think it is not only possible but also necessary and we were committed in the previous administration towards the creation of a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). In our view, it was more broadly encompassing the economic cooperation, on  energy as part of it,  in contrast to what for NATO was established. But there is a similar logic in that. For decades we had assembled ad hoc organizations to address threats from terrorism, piracy, as well as from the threat constituted by Iran. And in the process of doing that we had to recreate a coalition of like-minded countries each time. That’s not an effective way to counter enduring threats. The US and many of our partners and allies in the region have the same view of regional peace and stability, security and  the threats to it.Cooperation and integration of our partners and allies in the region is the most effective way to address these threats in the long term. And I think they agree the difficulty is to determine under what conditions and what are the details associated with this cooperation. We made some progress on this front. We hope that the new adminustration or their successors will make further progress but in my view it is an inevitability because it is essential and also logical for the Middle East. It has the same logic that NATO has in Europe that  cooperation between countries make it more effective in countering threats. But as a non-profit private organization we focus ourselves to the economic and cultural and we leave the security and the diplomatic aspects to our counterparts in the governments.

There were reports before President Biden’s recent Mideast trip that Saudi Arabia would follow suit and also normalize  its relations with Israel. This didn’t happen ? Why is Riyad rather reluctant and still using small steps like permitting Israeli commercial planes to fly over Saudi territory ?

I don’t have to assess because we had and we maintain significant contacts with our counterparts in Saudi Arabia. We had many of these discussions before the transition while we were still serving in the previous administration. Ultimately, it is not a surprise that we didn’t see significant progress because of fundamental concerns that Saudi Arabia has regarding regional security more broadly. I think that their strategic view of the relationship with Israel and potential normalization is a derivative of their relations with the United States. And while the visit (of Biden tot he Middle East) rightly took a step towards putting that relationship back on track after recent frictions, I think there is still a good way to go in order to improve it and restore to what it was once and should be for the benefit of not only the United States but the Saudis, Israelis and global markets which require stabilization. And again it comes back to energy. But I think the question for the Saudis is really how the security situation in the region is likely to proceed. And as long as from their point of view there is a difference in approach by the United States and Europe that is pursuing a stronger relationship with Iran, which the Saudis see as the principal threat to regional peace and stability, they are concerned about any approach to mitigate that. So they are confused on hom the West is approaching the region under the current circumstances. In their view, we are feeding the biggest threat tot heir stability and security, undermining the global markets and at the same time attempting to build a broader regional alliance against that threat. They see this as a contradictory approach. I think this certainly complicates normalization with Israel. But I do think that it’s a matter of when and not if and we are hopefull that in the years to come there will be greater progress not only between Israel and Saudi Arabia but with other states in the region as well.

So do you expect more Arab and Muslim countries to join? 

No question about it… I think it is a matter of when. There are number of countries that are looking at their long term economic goals and regional stability and in this respect most countries have strong alignment with Israel’s approach and the role it can play in regional integration. So I think it’s a matter of time before other countries join. My hope is that they will do so sooner rather than later and began to enjoy the benefits of economic integration by cooperating on a number of different fronts. There is no doubt that the AA will continue to spread and prosper and I do think for those who made the decision they will reap the benefits….Our organizations is committed to strenghtening the ties between existing members so that prospective members can see the benefits  and it’s easier for them to make a decision….

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how do you explain the decision so far of the PA to reject the Abraham Accords that would provide them with a mega economic support ? Do you think a change in Palestinian leadership could reverse this position ?  

I think it is a necessity that is going to happen. If you look at the demographics within the Palestinian community, there is an enormous segment of population that is young, around the age of  25. Out of necessity there will be a generational shift in leadership and hopefully elections to follow suit so you have a representative government among the Palestinian people that really work in their best interest. And I think that once this occurs, which I think will in time, then you will see a change in approach. But until then, we demonstrated that you don’t need to wait to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian file. There are plenty opportunities where European partners, the US and others can partner with AA member countries in order to improve the lives of the Palestinians in the meantime. There are tremendous opportunities that should be seized. We discussed these opportunities with our counterparts in Europe and we look forward to helping them make decisions that will help make progress on both fronts.

The European Union has had from the beginning a rather tepid reaction to the Abraham Accords, maybe because their were initiated by President Trump but also because the EU has long been considering that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Middle East problem and not Iran. Two weeks ago, the 27 EU Foreign Ministers  agreed to resume the meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council after a hiatus of 10 years due to disagreements on the Palestinian issue. EU’s foreign policy chief spoke of an opportunity ‘’to rethink the Middle East Peace Process’’. With these remarks, do you expect the EU outdated concept on the Mideast Peace Process to be reviewed because of the changes in the region ?

 I am encouraged by the EU decision. It  was the right decision and from our perspective the path towards Middle East peace has already change and the AA are recognition of exactly that. So there is teremendous opportunity for progress to be made in peace between Israel and its neighbors and this is an important and  significant development for the United States and also our allies and partners in Europe and more broadly. Bringing peace between Israel and its Arab Muslim neighbors in the region provides additional opportunities to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Bit Middle East peace I think has too long be confined in its definition to the condlict between Israel and the Palesinians. We lost a great deal of opportunity in doing so. I think the Abraham Accords have demonstrated that lasting and enduring progress can be made and has been made. There is a recognition of that in Europe and recent development is encouraging…. We look forward to supporting and assisting our partners in the private sector in Europe to help seize these opportunities and making a lasting contribution. There are a number of ways….

The EU is still pushing for negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Why  Europeans still do not understand the malign role of Iran in the region and human rights violations of this regime ? Would a change of regime in Tehran be also a game changer in countries where Iran has a big influence, like Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Gaza  and even Iraq ?  

As I alluded to before, it’s this contradictory approachn that confuses our partners in the region when the former agreement was brokered in the months and years before 2015. And it lingers now.

I understand the attractiveness of pursuing diplomacy as the first course to address these threats. The fundamental misunderstanding on the European part is because they don’t live in the region… Instead it would be expected they would depend on their partners and allies in the region fort that level of understanding just as the Europeans would prefer understand the Russian threat from their perspective because it is so close to them. The countries in the Middle East would ask no less as it pertains to Iran. They have to live with this threat on a daily basis. There has to be a broad recognition that the original deal never encompassed the totality of the Iranian threat. Secondly, so much of the deal has already expired that it makes re-entry even more complicated. And third, as long as Iran has not enjoyed the benefits without enforcement, there is very little incentive for them to return to the deal. The question is how the US and European partners and allies address the Iranian threat if there is not going to be a return to the deal ?  There need to be a discussion with the allies and partners in the region because they bear the risks. The sooner that occurs in my view the better. Once that takes place, you can count on the support of our partners and allies in the region. At that point you may see additional progress made on a number of fronts to include both the regional enduring security architecture and the Abraham Accords.

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