Heritage Director of the Center for National Defense and Israel Expert Robert Greenway explains what has happened and what we should do.
John Popp: From the Heritage Foundation, this is Heritage Explains.
Mark Guiney: Most Americans are following the events currently unfolding in the Middle Eastern nation of Israel. This past Saturday, members of Hamas, the terrorist group currently governing the Gaza Strip, crossed the Israeli border and through a variety of means, murdered what now appears to be upwards of 1,000 Israelis. Videos of the atrocities committed, including the murder of innocent children, the rape of Israeli women, and desecration of bodies have circulated widely on social media. This amounts to the largest mass murder of Jewish people since the Holocaust. In moments of such savage violence, it is often difficult to separate fact from emotion and prudence from the desire for vengeance, but today's guest on Heritage Explains is perhaps uniquely equipped to do just that.
Robert Greenway has more than 30 years of experience in public service, culminating as the senior US government official responsible for developing, coordinating, and implementing US government policy for all the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council. He's a highly decorated veteran of the United States Army Special Forces with six combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among many, many other achievements, he was instrumental in the defeat of ISIS and a principal architect of the historic Abraham Accords, the most significant diplomatic breakthrough in Middle East Peace since 1994, and he's currently the director of the Center for National Defense here at the Heritage Foundation. Robert Greenway, welcome to Heritage Explains.
Robert Greenway: Thank you, glad to be here.
Guiney: So in the introduction of the episode, the listeners heard a lengthy introduction of your long career service to our country, so thank you for that. But just to get us started, I wanted to ask, what started you off on this path of public service?
Greenway: Well, I started in the Army. I can't remember a time in which I don't recall I wanted to serve and serve in the Army specifically, and so followed that path. And 20 years after that career stayed in public service, but as a defense civilian, wanted to still remain within the family and continue to work, but have a little more control over my time and spend some more time with my family. I missed quite a bit of my daughter's early life, missed a lot of time with the rest of my family, my wife included in that of course, and wanted to stay engaged, and while serving as a defense civilian was asked to serve at the White House in the National Security Council and having seen the implications of bad policy decisions from all kinds of angles, usually from having being the person who has to unfortunately execute a lot of these decisions, good, bad, and otherwise, you really can't refuse it.
And so, to be part of the solution I think is important. It's an obligation. And my experience was, I think, useful to me in that it wasn't an academic exercise. All of these decisions and policy debates were very real. They have very tangible outcomes to individuals, myself, friends, people I know. And as a result, I think it informs your judgment. And so, four years of the Trump administration working on Middle East, North African security affairs was a huge opportunity and a tremendous gift, and so is I think being able to serve here at Heritage.
Guiney: So, in your career you have worked a lot with America's relationship with Israel, and in fact, one of the landmark accomplishments of the last administration was the Abraham Accords, of which you were the principal architect, which had to do with the relationship between the United States and Israel. Israel of course has a very unique relationship with the United States. Could you explain that relationship for folks who may not understand?
Greenway: Sure, Israel has, since its founding in 1948 and we're celebrating the 75th year of Israel as a nation in its contemporary form, recognizing that this goes back obviously thousands of years, the United States' relationship has been central to it. We've supported it from the very beginning, and that's been essential because it's been contested since it arrived and since it came and took on its current form, and US support has been essential to its survival. Not only are there more Jews living in the United States than anywhere else in the world, except for Israel, we have a strong bond on the security front. It's the region's only democracy and it's the largest recipient of foreign aid because it is our principle investment, and that investment over these last few decades in particular has proven to be an incredibly wise one. It is one of the most vibrant economies, it is one of the most technically advanced economies, and it has produced tremendous amounts of innovation which the world and the United States have principally benefited from.
And it is a bulwark for us in a region that is often turbulent, that has a great deal of risks, as we've seen just this weekend unfortunately, and it is a bulwark against it. And so, it's a sort of American forward presence in a very turbulent part of the world with which we have tremendous interests. As it stands now, Israel experienced the deadliest day in its 75-year history. On more or less a day after the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. It has lost more innocent lives as a result of this most recent attack than it has in its history, and it has been likened to Israel's 9/11, and I think that's accurate on a number of different fronts. If you look at it by a proportion of population, they've lost easily 10 times per percentage of population than we lost at 9/11.
And I'd hasten to add that because there are 200,000 Americans at any given time in Israel, it's not surprising, but tragic that there were 14 Americans among those that were killed, possibly held hostage at this point and undoubtedly wounded, and it is just beginning, and so this is far from over. The Israelis have responded by mobilizing over 300,000 reserves. Everyone is obliged under the age of 40 to serve in active duty and if called upon to serve in the reserves. So, a good chunk of the population now has been put under arms and is prepared to conduct operations in Gaza to respond to this and also to thwart any efforts from Hezbollah in Lebanon to attack south or uprisings potentially in the West Bank. So, they're prepared to deal with the threat as it stands now. They will be methodical in how they approach it, but this could escalate and that is the real risk.
Guiney: So could you tell us, who is Hamas? And we've all seen a lot of these videos, pictures of a lot of the devastation that's happening over there. Give us a sense of who the people are who are perpetrating this.
Greenway: So, Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood among the Palestinians that live in Gaza, but it's not confined to Gaza. It is an acronym, it means the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was established in 1987, and its purpose is to oppose what they term as Israeli occupation. They don't recognize the state of Israel and they call for explicitly in their charter, which was a year after their founding in 1988, affirmed again in 2015, it calls for the destruction of Israel as a state and as a nation and as a people. They mean it, and they've acted several times to advance that cause. And they are a designated terrorist organization, not just by the United States, European Union and many other nations because of this reason, and under the previous administration, the Trump administration, we made a conscious decision to stop all direct and indirect funding to it as a result.
I'll make one other statement, which is critically important. They are a wholly owned subsidiary, a franchise of Tehran. They are almost exclusively funded, supported, trained, equipped, and provided the ability to manufacture weapons themselves by Tehran, and they don't act absent direction or control, especially at the scale we saw this weekend, absent Tehran's guidance. And so, it's important to remember here that in this case we're not dealing with just Hamas, we are dealing with the organization that controls Hamas and funds and supports it and that is in Tehran.
Guiney: And when you say Tehran, you're talking about the nation of Iran.
Greenway: The Islamic Republic of Iran, that's correct.
Guiney: We at Heritage lay some blame for what has occurred due to American support of Iran over time through various administrations. What does that support look like?
Greenway: So again, there's no question here that by allowing Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran to have access to resources, and I'll come back to in what ways, that those resources have inevitably gone to Hamas, but not just from Tehran. We have directly funded through USAID organizations and through UN aid organizations under this administration, we've resumed and opened up funding to Hamas and other organizations, inevitably recognizing, and internal state deliberations have demonstrated that they recognize that there's a risk that these resources would go to be used by Hamas for terrorism, and so they have. Now, Tehran has been approached a number of different ways by successive US administrations. Under the Obama-Biden administration, their principle objective was returned to and establish the joint comprehensive plan of action, the Iran nuclear deal, flawed for a number of reasons we don't need to elaborate on today, but know that the principal objective was to integrate Tehran into the region and make them a part of the community and economy of nations to convince them not to engage in terrorism and develop a nuclear weapon.
That was the overarching idea, an idea that is deeply flawed and not supported by any facts unfortunately, and as a result, it didn't achieve those ends. Under the Trump administration, we chose very deliberately to confront Tehran as the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism and for good reason, and we denied them access to resources. We withdrew from the JCPOA, which returned to us maximum sanctions leverage, which became the maximum economic pressure campaign. We denied them oil exports, we denied them access to foreign exchange reserves held as a result of oil sales, and we denied them the ability to move resources externally in export, not just oil, but also petrochemicals and metals, their three of their top four exports. Now, the Biden administration has reversed that course entirely. They have allowed Iran access to foreign exchange reserves, they have allowed them to receive funds and payments from Iraq in the form of $10 billion for electricity.
They've allowed them to export a record degree of oil sales. To give you an example, they were exporting about 400,000 barrels a day in 2020, and got less than $7 billion of revenue for it that entire year. This year they're on track for over 3 million barrels a day and probably over $70 billion in revenue. Last year they made $50 billion in revenue. All of those resources poured into the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism cannot but result in terrorism, and that is the point. And now they're able to provide that windfall to their surrogates and proxies, including, but not limited to Hamas.
Guiney: And Hezbollah would be another one of those proxy groups.
Greenway: And their largest and probably the most effective among them, and one of the oldest that was formed after the crisis in civil war in the late-'70s and early-'80s by Iran, and it has since been the exclusive provision of resources. The only other exception is criminal behavior in the Captagon drug trade, which is the equivalent of the fentanyl problem we have in the United States, but they are a wholly owned subsidiary franchise, again, armed, equipped, trained and supported by Tehran. And as a result, I believe Tehran wants to escalate the conflict and Hezbollah could well be involved. And if the United States doesn't keep them out of it, I think that could happen and it would be a regional escalation.
Guiney: How has the Biden administration reacted to this situation?
Greenway: Well, first I think they've refused to confront the error. The error was they are feeding the animal that is now biting us and Israel, and they refuse, I think, to confront that reality. It would force them to accept the fact that they made the wrong decision from the very beginning and it would force them to endorse a president they hate and his policies they reject, and I don't think they're prepared to do either. And this has been, I think, the pattern and it's unfortunate because everyone in the region will tell you the same thing. You can't expect to integrate Israel into the region while you're working to integrate Tehran into the region because Tehran is the biggest threat to everyone in the region. This is what was behind... Not the sole, but important contributing factor of the Abraham Accords is everyone recognized that Iran was the greatest threat to peace and stability in the region.
And so, Israel shared this view with all of its neighbors, and as a result, we were able to make progress, independent of the Palestinian issue, which many in this administration and as in previous administrations thought were absolutely impossible. Famously in 2016, John Kerry was recorded as saying that there'd be absolutely no way you can make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors unless you made progress on the Palestinian issue, completely wrong. In much the same way, Jake Sullivan, the current national security advisor just 10 days ago was saying publicly that they had made so much progress in the Middle East that he is having to spend so little time on it than any of his predecessors in a generation, only to be proven completely wrong. You cannot feed the principle problem and expect to reap any benefits from it. We have isolated Israel in the region and tried to integrate Iran into the region and we're reaping the results of it. It has to be reversed.
Guiney: So some groups, particularly within our elite educational institute, the Ivy League, left-leaning politicians seem to be either coming out in support of Hamas or at least not condemning them. Were you surprised by that?
Greenway: Yes and no. In a sense, the only thing more horrific than the images coming out of what happened in Israel over this past weekend, the only thing more jarring is to see people publicly protest in support of what happened, and that is shocking, I think, to us all. But at the same time, I'm not surprised in that the same ideology has infiltrated colleges and university campuses and populations. I'd add too that the consequence of having a completely open southern border has allowed them to pour across the border. So, we've got over 150 individuals off the Terror Watchlist detained, who knows how many weren't, made it in and were not detained just this year, which is a record.
Guiney: I learned yesterday that during the Trump administration, that number was three.
Greenway: Well, it was zero in 2020, I think it was three in 2019, the year before it, but it was radically less than 150, and it's been climbing ever since because our border is open and again, detained is one thing, it's bad enough, but how many have made it across? We don't know. Yesterday, I think we saw numbers from CBP indicating how many thousands from special interest nations, those which have large populations of terrorists already resident within them have been already part of the detained population in the United States, beyond just those in the Terror Watchlist. They are here. Those demonstrations on college campuses are a message to us that we are here and that if this escalates, we will be part of that escalation. Who else would protest in support of the murder of innocent men, women, children, and infants? You'd have to be deranged at a level that's hard for me to comprehend, and yet they are here.
Guiney: Congress seems to be entertaining the idea of tying financial support for Israel to that of Ukraine and suggesting that if you want to support Israel, then by the same reasoning, you must also support, apparently unlimited, monetary funding for Ukraine. Here at Heritage, we don't share that view. Could you explain why?
Greenway: Look, I think every call for support, every commitment of resources deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. Trying to make these things equivalent only complicates the issue, and I think everyone sees this. Each instance of requiring a US commitment is independent and must be, I think, seen on its own merits. And in this case, the contrast between Israel and Ukraine couldn't be more stark. You can debate the merits of either, and that should happen, but what you can't debate is the immediacy and the commitment. And again, 14 Americans were killed this weekend in Israel. I don't know how many are currently held hostage in Gaza and underground tunnels by a designated terrorist organization, and there are over 200,000 Americans still in Israel that are vulnerable to escalation, and the terrorist groups themselves we know are present in the United States. You add all that up, you get a compelling reason, I think, to look at Israel and our support for it independently.
Guiney: This is indeed a dark moment, and there are many people who are looking at this and feeling rather hopeless about the future of the world. Given your experience, what would you say to those people?
Greenway: In these moments, I think it is dark and I think it's right to be introspective about it and realistic, but at the same time, I think it also can be clarifying. We now have the opportunity to confront the threat as it is, not as we'd like it to be in order to prevent further bloodshed. And the way to do that is to deal with the problem as it is, not as we'd like it to be. And that means we've got a problem here at home that needs to be taken care of, we've got a border security issue and a presence of a designated terrorist threat across the country in many different forms that has to be identified and it has to be dealt with. On the other hand, we've got Americans killed, potentially held hostage in Israel, that has to be dealt with. We have a partner and ally in Israel to do it with.
And that is cause for optimism because they're uniquely capable and equipped to do so, as are we, and together, I think we can confront this threat. And also you're seeing in the midst of the support for the barbaric and inhuman conduct of Hamas and Iran, you're also seeing a huge degree of support for Israel in its efforts to deal with this threat. And you're seeing that across the Arab world, the Muslim world, you're seeing it across Europe. One of the most striking images came from, of all places, from Rome, and the Arch of Titus, which was made and constructed to commemorate the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, was lit up with the Israeli flag, and that demonstration of support is historic on so many different levels. And it's a testament, I think, to the degree of which there is unanimity in dealing with this problem, and there is consensus, and there is support for doing it. And I think this is when the world rallies to confront evil, and I think we'll be able to do it, and I think that's cause for optimism.
Guiney: Robert Greenway, thank you so much.
Greenway: My pleasure.
Guiney: Thank you to Robert Greenway and Victoria Coates for their contributions to this episode. To read more by Robert Greenway, you can find his work on heritage.org or on X @rc_greenway. If you have thoughts, feedback, or suggestions for future episodes, send them our way at heritageexpla[email protected]. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next week.
Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It’s written and produced by Mark Guiney, Lauren Evans, and John Popp. Production assistance by Alexa Walker and Jeff Smith.