September 7, 2023
As we mark the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords, significant progress has been made in deepening Arab-Israeli engagement. With us this week is Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a founding member of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus. Ernst joins guest host Benjamin Rogers, AJC’s Director for Middle East and North Africa Initiatives, to reflect on the achievements of the landmark deal, its importance to the United States, speculation over Saudi Arabia, and the crucial role of the Senate in advancing peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.
- (0:40) Joni Ernst
- How much do you know about Abraham Accords? Take our quiz and put your knowledge to the test!
- Meet 3 Women Who are Driving Change in the Middle East
- 'Golda': Behind the Scenes with Israeli Director Guy Nattiv on the 1973 Yom Kippur War
- Noa Tishby on the Abraham Accords: The Middle East Realizes Israel is Not the Enemy
Follow People of the Pod on your favorite podcast app, and learn more at AJC.org/PeopleofthePod
You can reach us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please be sure to tell your friends, tag us on social media with #PeopleofthePod, and hop onto Apple Podcasts to rate us and write a review, to help more listeners find us.
Transcript of Interview with Joni Ernst
Manya Brachear Pashman:
As an organization, AJC has been engaged in the Middle East for more than 70 years. In fact, a senior AJC delegation first traveled to Morocco in March 1950. Since then, there have been several more milestones. AJC's own Jason Isaacson participated in the Madrid Conference in 1991, a historic effort by the international community to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; and AJC opened its first Arab world office in Abu Dhabi in 2021.
This week, Benjamin Rogers, AJC's Director for Middle East and North Africa Initiatives, explores one of the most significant developments in the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict – The Abraham Accords. The conversation marks the Accords third anniversary on September 15. Benjy, the mic is yours.
Thank you so much, Manya. And I remember the day well, I had been in the Gulf just a few months prior December 2019, talking about these issues, talking about normalization, talking about cooperation. But to see the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Israel, the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain, on the White House lawn, signing an agreement of friendship, an agreement of cooperation. It was an electrifying moment. As we prepare to celebrate the third anniversary of what is possible,when Israelis and Arabs come together and set aside their differences. I can think of no better person to help us reflect on this moment than our guests today. It is my honor to welcome Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, founding member of the Abraham Accords Caucus to our program today. Senator, thank you so much for being here.
Of course, it is an honor, a privilege and a pleasure to be with you today. I'm celebrating as well, I think it's a phenomenal achievement for the United States and for our friends in Israel and those Arab nations.
And I think that's a great starting place for our conversation. Share with us a little bit about your story. What was your reaction when you learned of these agreements? How did that translate to saying, Hey, I'm going to work with my colleagues. I'm going to sit down with Senator Lankford, Senator Rosen, Senator Booker, and we're going to be the founding members of the Senate Abraham Accords caucus?
And it goes back quite a ways. My own personal journey, I had served in the Iowa Army National Guard and had deployed to the Middle East for Operation Iraqi Freedom and, and having that experience serving in our United States Armed Forces, we have the great privilege and honor of serving with many members from other countries as well. And we have an understanding of those nations and what they're trying to achieve and how we can promote stability in certain regions. So from that basis, then I served in the Iowa State Senate, and when you think of Iowa and Israel as maybe not a natural connection, but we have a huge Christian community across the state of Iowa that is very supportive of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel.
And so from that platform of the Senate, I was able to move into the United States Senate with a broad basis, not only the military perspective, but then also how Iowa and Israel can come together collaborate on things like agriculture, cultural exchanges, and with that basis, then finding other members of the Senate that had similar goals and objectives. And that came together really, with the incredible, really the incredible advent of the Abraham accords. And so we were able to start the caucus, those of us that have very strong feelings about stability in that region and partnership in that region. So coming together with Senators Rosen and Volker and Lankford, it was a really wonderful way for us to celebrate the Abraham Accords, and bring others from the United States Senate and House into that fold as well.
Amazing. I was struck by what you said, you don't necessarily think of commonalities between Iowa in Israel. But the interfaith component, the agriculture cultural component, I know you're also you talked about a little bit of security, I know, energy is a huge issue. Can you walk us through how these issues that are, you know, seemingly local, actually have larger, regional and international importance? How cooperation could maybe help your average person in Iowa City say, hey, look, this makes sense to me. I get what we're trying to do here.
Right. And we exist in a global economy. Of course, we, as the United States are blessed with an abundance of resources. But when we're able to partner with other nations around the globe, we find new ways of using the resources that we have at virtually at our fingertips. And what we have seen just in the exchanges and the ideas that are shared between entrepreneurs and Iowa, entrepreneurs and Israel, Israel being a huge startup nation. It has been a fascinating journey for me just explore from the realm of agriculture, the types of irrigation methods that are used in Israel. One of the visits that I had to Israel is visiting with a young entrepreneur that had developed left, a type of bandage, skin type bandage a liquid that could be applied on the battlefield. But the source of that one of the sources for that bandage, that liquid bandage that would seal the skin together, actually comes from hogs that are sourced from Iowa.
So I mean, we're all connected in so many interesting and fascinating ways. But when you talk to Iowans about this, they get it, they understand how connected we are, through our everyday activities. And I love it that we've been able to work strongly and partner with Israel, now expanding that opportunity as well, and to the other narrow Arab nations of that region. It's just an incredible time period of time that we're witnessing right now.
So that's great to hear it. Can you say a little bit more? What, when you found her the caucus? What were the hopes? As you know, we've been, as we're about to celebrate three years on what are some of the successes, AJC has been engaged with you a lot on bills like the defend act, the MARITIME Act, the Regional Integration Act, what, how, what is the role of the caucus? What is the role of the US Senate in saying, Hey, we're here to support the Abraham accords?
Well, you outlined a number of those goals and objectives. But the first reason bringing us together, one was to celebrate the great accomplishment of the accords. That was the baseline. But then we built off of there because between the four of us in the United States Senate that founded the caucus to Republicans to Democrats, understanding that this is an extremely bipartisan move, and how do we not just celebrate the existence of the accords? But how do we become tools to further engage with those nations, maybe expand the chords? And, you know, what we'll say is normalization of relations. And maybe sometimes that's not the right word, but just this incredible collaboration between those countries?
How can we be a part of that, and really sphere, the legislation that we're working on in Congress to benefit the United States, first and foremost, always, you know, looking for ways that we can, can protect ourselves further articles. But also do that with our friends, Israel, and other Arab nations that have joined the courts or are considering joining into the courts. So we have been able to focus primarily from my perch on the Armed Services Committee then on things like the defend act, where we are working with Israel, the members of the Abraham Accords, and integrating air and missile defense systems, giving these nations a common operating picture, where they can literally save minutes seconds on an impending attack coming from, of course, main adversary in the Middle East Iran. So if we can all work together and save lives on the ground, so much the better for all of those nations. So we did have the main parts of that bill, the defend act, it was passed through the National Defense Authorization Act.
This year, Senator Rosen and I also have the MARITIME Act, which is yet another step forward for our caucus, our objectives of securing that region. And it does basically the same thing that you'll see with the defender Act, which was primarily focused from the air protecting from the air. Now we are focusing on the maritime domain, and making sure that as we see naval traffic through that region, that they are protected as well. So we just continue to take steps to protect that region protect buses as United States citizens, but always looking for ways to further our goals through the Abraham accords.
That's remarkable. And in reading the legislation, being engaged with the region. You hear all these things about the Middle East, there's the Middle East is disconnected, the Middle East is not united. But then you look at some of the sources and you look at the potential and you look at the ability for all these countries that maybe would be traditional adversaries are now saying, hey, we need to worry about things like heroes. We need to worry about things like security, we need to worry about things like stability, we're going to come together, we want to work with a larger architecture. And it's been remarkable from our standpoint, to see the US as a major driving force for that.
Yes. And you mentioned security, stability, they go hand in hand, and what I have witnessed and in traveling through that region, and of course, getting to know leaders throughout that region, is that they are so interconnected, they really are. And the Abraham accords really provided a path forward for them to do more together. There has been a lot of work in this area for decades now. But we're finally seeing a real breakthrough, rapid advancement of cooperation between these nations. And because of a number of these nations coming together in the Accords, we say that, maybe there's a little bit of competition now as well with some of the other nations and in the region. And I say that and maybe top of mind, we should be thinking, What about Saudi Arabia, you know, so I, I do want to say, we hope that they will join in more, and I hope that they are on that glide path to get there.
It is something that I have spoken with, with many of the leaders in Saudi Arabia. And we hope that we'll continue to see that really positive movement forward. But we want to see a strong foundation to build upon and which is what we're doing right now. But it can always improve. And that's what we want to see is continuous improvement, not just with the United States. And its existing allies and partners right now than many others that we hope to bring into the fold as well.
So, since you brought up Saudi Arabia, and that's been top of mind on the news, can you share a little bit more with us. What does it mean, from your perspective, to have the Saudis as part of this process? What does it mean, from a US security standpoint? What does it mean from Chinese influence in the region? What are some of the pitfalls there? But where are the opportunities, that clearly, there seems to be a lot of hope for?
Well, let me start with the pitfalls. And I think it's pretty obvious that the largest pitfall is if we ignore Saudi Arabia, if we don't engage with Saudi Arabia, they will find another partner, and that partner is China. And so we don't want to see that happen. I think the natural alignment is for the United States and Saudi Arabia to come together. And I have always been of the thought that the Abraham accords would not have happened, if behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia had not given a signal that it was okay. So I do believe they had somewhat of a role in the Abraham accords. And I hope that they will continue working on a relationship with Israel, while maybe they won't come fully into the courts, but they will lend their leadership to the accords. And so I think that as we look forward, on the flip side, you know, that if we can avoid the pitfall of Saudi Arabia engaging completely 100% with China, we can avoid that we can move ahead in this region and have the participation of Saudi Arabia. I want them to look to the west for their partnerships. I think that's incredibly important. So I do engage heavily with leadership from Saudi Arabia, I do engage with the Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Reema. We have had many, many phone and in person conversations in the US in Saudi Arabia, just continually working on the areas that we can't work on. There are things that we disagree on. But one thing I find with Ambassador Reema is that we can be very blunt and upfront with one another and have those discussions respectfully. I have the greatest respect for Princess Reema. And the position that she is in in negotiating in the best interests of her country. I am always going to talk and negotiate in the best interests of the United States. And the best interests of the United States are that we continue to be The best ally for Israel, and find a way for us to work with Arab nations as well, again, going back to having strong security and strong stability in that region and all partnering together against a common adversary Iran.
This has been an absolutely fascinating discussion. We're three years out, and we're talking about Israeli Arab relations, as if this was commonplace as if this was how it's always been. If there is, you know, you do have to stop yourself. And I think an anniversary is always a good moment to say, Things did not always used to be this way. So with that reflection of the past, I know you spoke a little bit about the future. But where do you see the future of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus going? If you were to look, you know, three years out, what position do you hope we are? The US, its engagement with Israel, its engagement with the Arab world and its engagement in trying to create a more interconnected Middle East?
Well, I'm incredibly pleased with where we are today on this third anniversary. And if we look another three years, what are my hopes Senator Joni Ernst, from the state of Iowa, you know, co founder of the Abraham Accords Caucus, where do we want to be? My vision in three years is that we will have all of this, those military type protections put into place that the defend act is fully implemented, the maritime act is now passed and implemented, and that we are integrating our military resources with one another. So this is a step forward, if we can bring Saudi Arabia into this fold, that we can start working with them on military platforms, as well, the Saudi Arabia of the sides, want to engage with these platforms, if we can get them to move away from China, and really work more with the United States, I can see greater sharing of this technology, with the Saudis. And I do think that that's important.
We have to have checks and balances, no doubt about it, we have to have those discussions. But if I can just say three years, this is what I want to happen. I want to have us all fully integrated, to make sure that the region is protected. And in turn, that makes us stronger in the United States, we know that we'll be protected as well for my brand. If we all are partnering together, I do want to say additional, you know, trade with that region as well. I think it's been incredibly important. As you look at UAE and Israel, the types of activities that they have been able to engage in whether it is just travel, education, and trade opportunities, there are so so many areas that are yet untouched, where we can go. And I hope that we see that in three years where we don't really differentiate ourselves as this group or that group, but that we're just common friends and partners. So I think that we've got a long ways to go. But I can act, I can, you know, actually say with this caucus, and the founders of the caucus, both in the Senate and the House, because the House members are really punching above their weight as well, is that we continue to bring members into the fold focus on this region and our opportunities there. And that we have a much more stable world because of the actions we have taken.
Well, Senator, thank you, thank you so much for your time. It goes without saying our AGC has a huge appreciation for the work that you're doing, for the work that your colleagues Senator Rosen, Senator Lankford and Senator Booker have been engaged on. We're grateful for your house colleagues and everything that they've been doing on pushing and securing the Abraham Accords as well. AJC's shares your vision of a more interconnected region of a stronger USA of a more united front against adversaries. And we are your partners in this and we look forward to working with you to realize the vision you just spelled out.
Well, I appreciate it so much and to you Benjamin and the entire team at AJC. Thank you so much for being such incredible advocates for the Abraham Accords, of course for Jewish communities all across the United States, and the work that we can all achieve together. It's pretty impressive. When we lean on each other and we move with a purpose. So thanks so much for all of the wonderful support.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for my conversation with Academy Award winning film director Guy Nattiv about his latest film Golda, which opened in American theaters last week. The film examines the Yom Kippur War, a transformative moment in Israel’s history.