How Trump Defied the Experts and Forged a Breakthrough in the Middle East

President Donald Trump announces that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have reached a peace deal that will lead to the full normalization of diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern nations at White House in Washington, D.C., August 13, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The UAE–Israel deal showed that the conventional wisdom was wrong.                                   

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P erhaps the most impregnable piece of conventional wisdom over the last three and a half years was that there was no way that Jared Kushner could possibly move the ball on Middle East peace.

Understandably enough. After all, Kushner already had a vast policy portfolio in the Trump White House and no prior diplomatic experience. The idea that he could succeed where people who had devoted their careers to working on this problem had failed seemed far-fetched — at best.

But here we are, with Israel and the United Arab Emirates signing a historic normalization agreement at the White House. Bahrain has now also agreed to normalize relations with Israel, a move it couldn’t have made without Saudi assent.

All of this is what Joe Biden might call a BFD. When the three leaders — President Trump, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — were considering their handiwork over the phone, according to a senior administration official, “MBZ said, ‘Hey, 2020’s been a really tough year. This has got to be the best news of 2020.’ And the president said, ‘Yeah, what do you think, Bibi?’ And Bibi said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the best news in the last 20 years.’”

And it all happened against an overwhelming tide of criticism. The senior administration official marvels that Kushner stayed the course “when he was obviously hit like crazy in the media.” “All the experts said that he was wrong. Rex Tillerson rode him like crazy.”

The way Kushner himself puts it is, “The last three and a half years, I think I’ve been the only optimistic person on the region.”

A top U.S. negotiator explains, “When you’re working on something and someone tells you, ‘There’s no chance of success on this,’ but you’ve actually heard it from the mouth of the people who are in charge of making these decisions that they’re ready to do something, you think to yourself, ‘Well, one of us is crazy. I’m pretty sure it’s not me. So I’m just going to keep going forward here.’”

Trump’s Bold Moves Set the Predicate

The story of the diplomatic breakthrough is, at bottom, one of Trump making bold moves in the region, which set the conditions for new thinking to work, even as elite opinion was starkly — and, of course, unapologetically — wrong every step of the way.

Rather than ending any possibility of peace in the region, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem forged a tight relationship of trust with Israel that made everything else possible.

Rather than alienating our allies, pulling out of the Iran deal drew our allies in the region closer to us.

Rather than causing a war, as even some of Trump’s ideological allies feared, the killing of Soleimani sent an unmistakable message of resolve. “I think that the Soleimani killing was a huge boon,” says the senior administration official, “because it showed that the president was bold and was serious, and I think that shifted the Middle East massively.”

A Fresh Approach

Of course, all of this ran exactly counter to Barack Obama’s strategy in the region. As a State Department official puts it: “When we came into office, the United States and the prior administration had alienated our Gulf partners, Israel, and the Palestinians, which is really hard to do. They had tried to accommodate Iran and to strengthen Iran as part of a larger gamble that it would moderate Iran.”

Trump’s Riyadh speech enunciated a change of approach. “We were going to counter Iran, we were going to stand with Israel, and we were going to stand with our partners,” the official says. After the speech, “we were in some huge hotel lobby talking to a bunch of Arab foreign ministers that I knew, and they just said, ‘Oh, finally somebody who gets the region,’” he recalls. “Obama just kept looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope.”

Besides Jared Kushner, the core team working on the strategy included Kushner associate and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, Iran envoy Brian Hook, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

Kushner took a modest tack at the outset. “The first year, we weren’t going in and telling people how to do it,” he says. “We went and really listened to people saying, ‘How did you think it should get done?’ And I think that that made a big difference.”

What was clear was that the prior consensus approach hadn’t worked. Kushner recalls going to the U.N. Security Council with a presentation:

And what I showed them is that every time the peace process failed, two things happened: One, the Palestinians got more money, and two, Israel expanded settlements. And so I said, “Why would either party ever make a deal if both sides were getting what they wanted?”

The beginning of a fresh approach was to build the trust of the Israelis, hence the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the relocation of the embassy, and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

This also made an impression on Arab leaders. Trump “ended up winning the respect of Arabs because he’s a guy that keeps his promises,” the State Department official says. “They’ve seen all these other presidents come into office, and none of them move the embassy.” Kushner notes that relocating the embassy and other moves were “all things that showed people that Trump isn’t going to be dissuaded by threats of violence.”

Moving On from Palestinian Rejectionism

Then, the administration made the Palestinians good-faith offers on economic development and peace that ended up underlining Palestinian rejectionism and opening up a different path forward.

The administration held a conference in Bahrain last year, the centerpiece of which was a $50 billion economic plan for the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinians didn’t even bother to attend. “It showed that everyone was interested in helping the Palestinians,” Kushner says. “But the Palestinians looked like fools for not showing up. So over the course of this, we really exposed the fact that the Palestinian leadership was not interested in actually making peace, they were just keeping the conflict going.”

The administration’s plan for a two-state solution, including a detailed map, was also categorically rejected by the Palestinians. As Abbas put it, “we say a thousand times over: no, no, no.”

The usual M.O. would be for Washington to try to push the Israelis to give the Palestinians even more. Not this time. “When the Palestinians complained and there was a huge problem,” says the senior administration official, “we didn’t stand down.”

Also, in the past, the Palestinian objections would have been enough to keep the Arab states in the rejectionist camp as well. “Basically, you have a situation right now where Arab governments for over 60-plus years have been giving the Palestinians a veto right on their foreign policy,” says the official.

But the veto has given way. The State Department official explains:

Now, our message to the Palestinians was, “If you don’t like the map, then come to the table and let’s talk about it.” But they decided to give us the Heisman, and they decided to hang back, and the region decided, “We’re just not going to allow them to hold the rest of the region back.” So if the Palestinians leadership isn’t going to come to the table, well, then UAE will, and that’s what they did.

Also, the region had simply begun to move on. “I went around the region repeatedly just when we got into office,” says the State Department official of his discussions with Arab officials. “And one thing I kept listening for but I never heard was Palestinians. They want to talk about Iran. They want to talk about jobs. They want to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, on their list of five, the Palestinian stuff doesn’t even crack the top five.”

A U.S. negotiator describes his own conversations with Arab states prior to releasing the peace plan. “So as we’re talking through,” he says, “you see here’s the Palestinians not engaging, not willing to negotiate, not willing to talk to you, and then regional heads who honestly are more nervous about Iran than they are about anything else, and see Israel as a potential ally in that fight who are wistful at the lost opportunity.”

The Importance of Iran

The administration’s pressure campaign on Iran was a crucial backdrop. “My view was that it’s impossible to get any peace agreement between the Gulf nations and Israel if you have the wrong Iran strategy,” the State Department official says, noting that foreign leaders and ministers have told him over and over that they consider the Iran deal “a betrayal.” He dismissed Joe Biden’s statement after the Israel-UAE deal, in which he almost took credit for the deal by talking about all the meetings he had with the UAE and Israel when he was in office.

“There’s no way,” he says. “He could have had 30 more years in office and could have never gotten it, because they didn’t trust him. They don’t trust the United States when we partner with our adversaries and marginalize and distance ourselves from our friends.”

The common concern about checking Iran drew Israel and the Arab states together. Early last year, the administration held a conference in Warsaw of foreign officials devoted to Iran and other regional issues. “In Warsaw,” says the official, “we got the Arab foreign ministers and Netanyahu in the same room for dinner to talk about Iran, and it never happened before, and they just loved it, and there was all this enthusiasm among the foreign ministries. The Arabs were, like, ‘We got to keep this going.’”

Annexation Forces the Issue

The precipitating event in the Israeli-UAE deal was Netanyahu’s promise to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank. UAE’s ambassador to the U.S. wrote an op-ed in a top Israeli newspaper warning that annexation would endanger normalization. In the event, normalization gave Netanyahu a way to climb down from annexation, while the suspension of the annexation gave the UAE a diplomatic bragging point to go along with normalization.

“When he published that op-ed in Hebrew,” says the State Department official, “that was a big inflection point, and it caused everybody to kind of take a step back, and then, because we had been working with the Israelis and the Emiratis so closely for three and a half years, we were able to come in and kind of broker this agreement.”

The UAE made sense as the first domino to fall. As Kushner puts it:

They’ve always been the leader in the region. They’re the most technologically advanced, they have a very modern society. . . . They’ve been developing their relationship with Israel now for years, so we helped accelerate that from a security point of view. From an economic point of view, they’re the financial hub of the Middle East. So it was a very natural step for them to do. And obviously, they have a very courageous leader in Mohammed bin Zayed, who really wanted to be first.

The senior administration official recalls overhearing the Israelis talking, during the historic El Al flight to UAE carrying a delegation of U.S. and Israeli officials at the end of August. Although they were excited, they tried to dampen the expectations of what they’d initially be able to accomplish. “But when they got in the first meeting,” he says of the Israelis and Emiratis, “the two of them were discussing and they were, like, ‘Look, first thing we need to do is set up a banking system. We need to have a bank.’ The next day, they did it.” He adds, “They were like long-lost friends.”

The Israel-UAE relationship should continue to deepen. A U.S. diplomat points out:

This is a country that has no border with Israel, that has no real arguments with Israel and that has never been at war with Israel. And you can see already that it’s different. Israelis who have been there have already started talking about the warm greeting that they got.

The Way Ahead

Looking ahead, one can see that the leverage of the Palestinian leadership has demonstrably been reduced, since normalization was to be one of the prizes of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and there’s a sense that the region is moving on without it.

It’s possible that the new state of play could create an opening for political change among the Palestinians. Says the U.S. negotiator:

I think the Palestinian people look around and they say to themselves, “Wait a second. Why is it that those countries can sit at the table, but our leadership has chosen the path of just completely, obstinately sticking out, saying, ‘We’re not going to negotiate with you’?”

“Who loses in this?” asks Adam Boehler, who, as head of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, has been heavily involved in the economic diplomacy. “Iran and the Palestinian Authority leadership because their strategy isn’t working. Ultimately, it will be better for the Palestinians. The administration has been clear that we want to invest in the economic security of the Palestinian people, and I hope that this empowers them to demand needed change from their leadership.”

Regardless, one thing is clear: The conventional wisdom in the Middle East needs an upgrade.

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