Here’s my chat with author and Mideast savant Joel Rosenberg about the diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, possibly presaging Israeli relations with additional Arab nations.
Rosenberg is a Jewish believer in Christ who has joint US-Israeli citizenship and is a former political consultant turned popular novelist of international intrigue. He is also an analyst of Mideast affairs who prominently participates in fostering US evangelical relations with both Israel and Arab nations.
You will learn much from Rosenberg’s unique and mostly hopeful insights.
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of Providence, A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of speaking with Joel Rosenberg, best-selling author and speaker, analyst of Mideast affairs, speaking to us today I believe from Jerusalem, although he can correct you if I’m wrong. And I’m going to ask him most especially about the latest dramatic diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, but also a little bit about his overall work in the Mideast and what motivates him theologically. So Joel, thank you so much.
ROSENBERG: Thank you Mark, great to see you, at least virtually, and from half a world away. But I enjoyed meeting at the State Department, I’ve been following your work for a while, and look forward to seeing you either in Washington, or I’ll say next year in Jerusalem, because I’m not sure it’s going to be this year. We’ll see how the COVID thing plays out, but it’s certainly wreaked havoc so far. So, keep praying not just for the peace, but the health, of Jerusalem.
TOOLEY: Yes absolutely. Well I didn’t do justice to your bio, but give us just a few more details about your background if you could.
ROSENBERG: Well Mark, I’m a failed political consultant. I noticed that you didn’t mention that. That’s actually what I did for the first years of my professional career. I helped a lot of people lose their elections. And they may have done well years after they got away from me, but I wasn’t much help. And that includes a series of US and Israeli officials, including the current prime minister, Netanyahu whom I worked for twenty years ago. I haven’t seen him personally in ten, so you can draw whatever conclusion you want from that. But I was part of his comeback campaign team back in the year 2000, in the fall, and as anyone who follows his career knows, he was checkmated from running at that time. It took him nine years to come back, nine more years, and I played no role whatsoever.
I shifted from political work, mostly in communications and messaging, into making things up for a living. And I became a novelist, writing political thrillers, many of them Middle East based—not all of them, but most of them—and weaving my faith in as I felt was appropriate, and trying to raise some spiritual themes, as well as war, and terror, and mayhem.
And more recently—well, two last things—fourteen years ago my wife and I established a non-profit organization in the United States called the Joshua Fund. This is a ministry to educate and mobilize Christians in North America and all over the world to bless Israel, but also her neighbors, in the name of Jesus. And over the years, this ministry has invested more than fifty million dollars in humanitarian relief, Holocaust survivors, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, strengthening churches, pastor training and equipping and encouragement, here in Israel, in the Palestinian territories, and in five neighboring Arab countries—Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq to the east, and Egypt to the south. So, I founded that, was the president for many years, and then a number of years ago shifted to be the chairman. And I’ve got a great team who runs that.
And then more recently—actually right now, on September 1—we are going to launch two new websites. One’s called All Israel News and one is called All Arab News. And what there really isn’t—there’s a lot of great websites and news systems out there—although there’s a lot of bad ones too—but there’s not really a one-stop shopping site or sites that not only link all the most interesting, incredible news in the region, but then also provide original reporting, exclusive interviews, polling, and try to provide context, from an evangelical Christian perspective. So, All Israel News, All Arab News, September 1.
TOOLEY: And if I recall correctly, you had a spiritual conversion after your political life and preceding your entrance into life as a writer.
ROSENBERG: Well, I came to faith at the age of eight years old, actually. I had, let’s say, spiritual wrestling when I came to the end of my failed political life, and I was like, “Lord, I think this is what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve been no use to anybody. What do you want me to do with the rest of my life? I don’t want to help people lose. I want to make a difference.” And I think I really processed that, wrestled that through. Although I’ll tell you, Mark, I’m one of the few Jewish people that was born and raised in the United States that did not get the financial gene. I’m not your accountant, your stockbroker, your hedge fund manager, nor am I a doctor, a lawyer, or the head of a movie company. I sort of didn’t get the classic Jewish skill sets. Though I am Jewish on my father’s side, gentile on my mom’s side.
But yeah, I really decided by going into the field of making things up—the political thrillers—that I needed to be free to say whatever I wanted, and more importantly, what I thought God wanted me to say. I had to be able to compete with the best of the best on the New York Times bestseller list, and the other major lists. And I had to really thrill people as I wrote—it can’t be a tract—but, political thrillers deal with death and the fear of death, and nobody in the Tom Clancy books that I used to read, or others, ever seemed to care. I mean nobody wanted to die, but there’s I think a lot of spiritual themes that come up in the lives of people who put their lives on the line every day—intelligence, security, military, so forth. So, I’ve been trying to do that. It’s challenging, I would just say that it’s challenging to compete against everybody else and not have sexual content like other people do, not have the language, and then try, organically in the story, to have at least some level of spiritual engagement, at least with some characters. I don’t want to make it seem weird, but I do want it to be organic as I think it is in life.
And that has opened up an entirely new world, Mark, for me. First, you don’t expect your novel even to do well. You just hope when you write your first novel, that your mother can find it at a bookstore within a hundred miles of your house. That’s sort of your objective. Anything beyond that is a little—it has a little bit of [inaudible] with it. But then if you’re trying to also engage people in what really is happening in Israel and the Middle East, and how does it affect Americans, and Canadians, and others, can you also engage them somehow spiritually? And that’s not the easiest needle to thread. I’m not saying I’ve done it right all the time, or maybe any of the time, but that is what I’ve been doing for almost twenty years. And I’ll be going back out into more journalism also with All Israel News and All Arab News. But it’s been a fascinating journey to see what type of doors have opened, who is reading these books, and what kind of conversations can you get involved with, either personally, or in the media, or at various events, that actually do engage faith, geopolitics, national security, foreign policy. These are the things that Mark—you grew up I’m sure like I did, with everybody telling you, “Never talk about religion and politics.” And of course, I’ve spent my entire career doing at least one, and then now the last twenty years, both. And I think it can be done, and I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it’s central to who I am, both of those things.
TOOLEY: Well please tell us your thoughts on the Israel-UAE peace and diplomatic deal. Obviously, it’s been years in the making, and Iran has been the unintentional friend of this rapprochement between Persian Gulf states and Israel. But what are your thoughts?
ROSENBERG: Well, both as an American and as an Israeli, I’m a dual citizen. It means I get to vote twice. It’s like voting in Chicago. But anyway, I’m thrilled. And Israelis are ecstatic. Because we haven’t had an Arab-Israeli peace deal in almost twenty-six years. The last peace treaty was with the Kingdom of Jordan in 1994, October of ‘94. And before that, you have to go back to 1979, the original peace deal between Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. So, all three are huge, and the fact that we haven’t seen one in almost more than a quarter of a century is a game changer. This is a big deal.
And it’s interesting because—sort of a personal angle on it, Mark—almost two years ago, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, a gentleman by the name of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, commonly known in the region as MBZ, he invited me to bring a delegation of American evangelical Christians to come visit him. I had been doing that; I’ve been invited by the King of Jordan, King Abdullah, to bring such a delegation to him, and we’ve done that. President el-Sisi had invited me to bring a delegation, and we’ve actually led two to see him and his top people, as well as Christians in both of those countries, and Muslims. But both those countries—for the Egyptians it was the first time they’d ever invited evangelicals to meet with a president, as far as the palace knew, ever. Obviously, Jesus was in Egypt in his young childhood, and there are certainly many Christians in Egypt, but in terms of evangelicals meeting with an Egyptian president, they were not aware that ever happened, and they’ve touted it as the first ever. King Abdullah had done these things in the past, though very low key, but the United Arab Emirates had never done it, and that’s why they wanted to do it. Obviously, a few months after we were there in October of 2018, then in early 2019, they brought His Holiness Pope Francis, the first time that a Roman Catholic pontiff had set foot on the Arabian Peninsula aside from Iraq, but really in a Gulf State, that was big. We were first.
And I’ll just say very quickly, that we had four days in the country almost, and met with just a wide range of leaders, including local Christian leaders. And there are more than 700 Christian churches freely operating. I wouldn’t say with full freedom of religion; I would say with freedom of worship. There are some restrictions, cultural and some legal, but we had two hours with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and what was off the record at the time was that he told us flat out, “Joel, I am ready to make peace with Israel.” We were stunned. And that led to a very robust conversation about why, and what would that look like, and what’s the road map for you all between here and whenever you get there. It was a fascinating conversation. So, I’ve maintained very close working ties with a lot of his inner circle, including the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, whom I met with twice in Washington last month, and [had] multiple calls and multiple texts. And especially as we were getting ready for this All Arab News, I wanted all the Arab ambassadors that I had worked with to know that we were getting ready to launch this, as well as All Israel News, and it was clear with each call, that something big was brewing. He didn’t give away the full thing, but he took me right up to the line, and it was fairly easy to deduce what they were about to do. My sense of it, in terms of timing, was that it was going to be later in the fall, maybe October. So I was surprised that it happened now, but thrilled. I think it’s a huge breakthrough.
So, sorry, that was a more long-winded answer than I had intended, but it’s been an interesting front row seat. We played no role really, but having a front row seat to the unfolding of a new major chapter of history, specifically as an evangelical—not even so much as a novelist, certainly not as a failed political consultant—but as a follower of Jesus, that has been amazing, and humbling.
TOOLEY: And what is the overall motivation for the UAE and potentially other Persian Gulf states to follow this path?
ROSENBERG: Well, you’re asking what’s the UAE’s motivation, or the motivation of others?
TOOLEY: Well, starting with the UAE.
ROSENBERG: Well, I think the UAE made a strategic decision a number of years ago, well several strategic decisions. First, they made a decision right at 9/11, that they were going to be not with bin Laden; they were going to be with the United States. And they made a decision very quickly to dispatch troops to Afghanistan and to engage the enemy, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That was a big deal for an Arab Muslim country. To be fighting against Muslims. And many of them were Arab Muslims—not all, obviously there’s other ethnicities in Afghanistan—but that was a big deal. That was a strategic decision, not to do what Arabs states have done for many years, which is, “Look we want to sell you oil, we want you to defend us if we’re threatened by Saddam Hussein or whomever, but we don’t really want a close relationship. We want a standoff-ish—you stay over there; we’ll stay over here.” And Israel’s alliance with the United States was part of that, to be honest. But they made a decision to change that.
Then, they made a series of other decisions. And they have tried to make a very high tech, high finance, modern—I wouldn’t say Western country—but a modern, twenty-first century, high-tech country. It’s a trading country; eighty-eight percent of the people that live in the United Arab Emirates are foreigners; they’re foreign workers. Only twelve percent of the population are actual Emiratis with citizenship; everybody else is a foreigner working there. So that, plus all the trade that comes in and out of their ports, has made them need to be more connected to the world and wanting to be more tolerant, even if they have major theological, and political, and foreign policy differences with their neighbors, with us, and so forth. But they wanted to move down that that path, and I’ll just say that they have kept taking steps that have been very significant. And I think when they got to a point where it’s going to be an anniversary year—it’s the youngest of all the Arab states, only receiving its independence from the British in the early 1970s—and they were going to have a big year of a celebration of the founder, Sheikh bin Zayed, the father of the current crown prince. And they decided to name that the “Year of Tolerance.” This was 2019. And so we were one of the projects. They decided, “Let’s show that we have churches; the Saudis do not. We have good relationships with evangelicals, and Catholics, and other streams of Christianity, but we haven’t actually invited them ever at a leadership level. They operate, they do business here, they minister here, whatever, but—.” So an evangelical delegation and Pope Francis.
As you know, that’s one of the challenges with evangelicalism, at least in the modern ages. We don’t really have—well first of all we don’t have a pope, but second of all we don’t have Billy Graham anymore. He was the ambassador of evangelicalism for half a century or more. So now it’s all much more diffused. So who would you invite? I don’t know why they decide to invite an Israeli American Jewish evangelical with two sons who served in the Israeli army, including one right now. As I told the crown prince, you could throw a dart out the window in America and tap any one of those other sixty million evangelicals to lead a delegation such as this. But I think they were, again, sending a message. And they were baby stepping, but these were not—I wouldn’t even say this was baby stepping—they were taking significant steps, obviously, bringing the pope. And not just secretly, quietly, [with a] handshake. They gave him the biggest stadium in the country and said, “Fill it and have a mass.” That’s extraordinary. I don’t know if they would have invited Billy Graham to hold a crusade. First of all, they wouldn’t call it a crusade—that would be one problem. The actual invitation to receive Christ [inaudible], I’m not sure they’re ready to sort of endorse that yet, but again, these are big steps, so. They don’t want to be lumped in with the lunatics. They’ve made their choices. They pursue a moderate form of Islam. They’re devout, but they don’t intend to let themselves be fed as radicals or extremists. And they’re concerned, as I think many Arab leaders are, that American governments might get them, but the American people do not. And they have to, and I agree with them, I’ve told them, “You really need to do a much better job engaging with the American people, not just Washington.”
TOOLEY: And as you noted in your Twitter feed this morning, the Saudis are initially critical of the UAE-Israel breakthrough, but possibly are laying the groundwork for their own breakthrough, you suggest.
ROSENBERG: Well I haven’t seen direct criticism. I think my tweets indicate that they have not indicated that they’re changing their own position or somehow rushing forward to give a bear hug to this process. I think the stakes are the highest for the Saudis. We also went at the invitation of arguably the most controversial leader in the world, certainly in the top five, let’s say if you had Putin, and the dear leader of North Korea, I mean if you add crown prince Mohammed bin Salman into the mix of some of the most controversial leaders in the world, he’s invited me twice to bring evangelical delegations, once in November of 2018, but then he invited us back again in September of 2019. So some of that was off the record, certainly as regards to Israel, but I can say that I sense that there’s—we can all see it in the reporting, what’s going on in the region—there is a warming towards Israel and towards the Jewish people. Bringing in a Jew, an Israeli, okay, an evangelical, but still it’s even more sensitive for the Saudis. They are taking baby steps. Again, for them it’s actually one small step for man, but one giant leap for the Saudi kingdom. These are big steps. The crown prince has indicated that he believes Israel has every right to be a secure state in the region. But they’re not going to lurch into normalization, because the stakes are very high. They are the epicenter of Mecca, Medina, Islamism historically—meaning political Islam—Sunni. And I think they—I sense they want to move in this direction, but they’ve got a population that is much more conservative, because they made it conservative. My term, not theirs, but they poisoned the well with anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism, for so long [that] it’s going to take some time to steer that ship differently. I think if you look at Bahrain, Oman, Morocco—some of these other countries are much more likely in the near term—I don’t want to predict how near—but I’ve got conversations with all of them, and I think they also could go down this road. I think the Saudis will get there. I wrote a political thriller that’s out this year called The Jerusalem Assassin, that’s about a Saudi leader coming to Jerusalem for a major peace summit with Israelis, as long it was hosted by the American president, but then all the bad guys come out of the woodwork to try to blow the thing up. So, I know they’ve read the book at the top levels, so maybe I’ve slowed down their process. I don’t think so, I think I’m reflecting, they’ve got a lot of things to weigh, and they’ve got to have a strategy to move forward step by step.
TOOLEY: And Joel, finally, it’s fair to say you are predominantly a man of hope, and I assume that you are, overall, hopeful for the future of the Middle East?
ROSENBERG: Well, yes. I will tell you Mark, that as a Russian Jew, my natural bearing is to be a worst-case scenario thinker, to see the world as, the glass is not only half empty, but cracked and leaking. That’s naturally the way I see the world. But as a believer in Christ with the Holy Spirit within me, yes, I am hopeful ultimately. But I will tell you, that I see the next few months and few years as—I think we’re going to see more peace agreements; however, I also see darkness. And I think it’s split between east and west. To the west you have the US, Israel, Sunni Arab alliance emerging. But to the east you have Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar is sort of playing both sides of the fence. It’s a problem, and it’s going to be a clash, and it’s something we’re going to have to negotiate, navigate our way through, both as Americans and as Israelis. So hopeful, yes. And ultimately, Christ will come and make it all right and he’ll reign from right down the street here in Jerusalem—looking forward to that.
In the meantime, we as followers of Christ need to realize that a lot of our brothers and sisters have struggled tremendously in this region, and continue to, whether it’s the genocide of ISIS, the horror show under Hezbollah, Iranian occupation in Lebanon, under Hamas occupation in Gaza, having no freedom to open up a church legally in Saudi Arabia. There’s a lot of challenges in this part of the world; it’s a messy neighborhood, but there are movements now, in the last few years, that are very encouraging.
And I’ll just—maybe I’ll end with this one. There’s a lot of challenges for Coptic Christians in Egypt. And I believe a lot of progress is made, but there’s a lot more that has to be made. And if you talk to American Coptic Christians, they are not as warm and encouraged by the reforms that Egyptian President el-Sisi has made, then by some—and I would think many, in my perception Egyptian Coptic believers. But again, decisions made at the top don’t always filter down in a country of 100 million people. But just as one example, the Egyptian president built a church, the largest in the Middle East, and gifted it to the Egyptian Coptic Christian population on Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve last year. President Sisi invited me to bring a delegation to be part of that, to be there at the opening. We did; we thanked him; we met with dozens and dozens of Egyptian Christians, both Protestant and Coptic Orthodox. These are moments of progress, but they don’t solve all the problems. So we need to keep understanding what’s going on in the Arab Muslim world, as for in Israel, and again that’s one of the reasons that I’m launching these two new websites All Israel News, All Arab News, again, to link to articles that you’re writing. We’re going to write original stuff and do original interviews, but I feel like there’s not a one-stop shopping place that drives more people to what you’re writing, and what Johnny Moore is writing, and others who are evangelicals, who have a heart for both sides of this conflict, multiple sides of the conflict. But not enough people, in my view, exactly know where to find those voices and to understand what’s happening and why it matters and how to pray differently and maybe in a more focused way than they have in the past.
TOOLEY: Joel Rosenberg, author and analyst of Mideast affairs, thank you so much for a fascinating conversation
ROSENBERG: Thank you Mark. Next year in Washington or Jerusalem.