David Friedman on How the Abraham Accords Came Together Behind the Scenes

The historian Martin Kramer interviews the former American ambassador to Israel in order to discover how the historic Middle East deals came together.

Then-U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman on May 14, 2018 in Jerusalem. Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images.

Then-U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman on May 14, 2018 in Jerusalem. Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images.

March 30 2021
About the authors

Martin Kramer is a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

David M. Friedman was the United States ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021.

Kramer: I’d like us to do two things. The first is to get your take on how the Abraham Accords came to be. We both know that no two people will tell the same story in the same way. You’ll probably write a memoir, which will tell the full version. But I think our present audience would have one or two questions about what happened. Then we’ll do some speculation about the future.

But before we go there, though, let me open with this question. By profession, you aren’t a diplomat or a policy expert. I take it you think that’s an advantage. Tell me why.

Friedman: I think there are a few advantages, and I don’t mean any disrespect to the diplomats, because many of them have done outstanding work over the years. But the Middle East, especially, was due for some unconventional thinking. Most of U.S. policy in the Middle East, whether during a Republican or Democratic administration, was driven by conventional wisdom that proved to be not particularly valid.

In the Middle East, value is placed on direct communication, on being strong, even being blunt, and on communicating very directly what the United States wants or expects or is willing to do. So the first thing I decided, when I took this post, was simply not to meet Einstein’s definition of insanity: not to do the same thing yet expect a different result.

Not being burdened with many years of having studied or worked for other diplomats, not having an allegiance to any particular point of view, gave us an open field to chart our own course of which we’re very proud. So the primary advantage is not being wedded to the past.

Second, as somebody who had basically a commercial, business career, a problem-solving career—whether it was Jared or me—we looked at things like we did in our past lives, asking: what do we want to accomplish? What are the things standing in our way? How do we resolve obstacles? What do people want? What do they need? What can we live with? What’s reasonable? What’s not?

It’s the way people have transacted business for years, and we did bring a lot of that to our approach.

Kramer: Was there one piece of conventional wisdom which particularly struck you as needing deflation?

Friedman: Among a lot of things that we thought were wrong, the most wrong was the indulgence of the Palestinian cause, to the point of negating accountability. So, for example, there would be this equivalence created between building settlements and committing acts of terrorism. You can be pro-settlements or against settlements, but you cannot possibly equate settlements with the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians. Or the cold-blooded murderer of soldiers as well. You cannot equate those two.

We thought that the U.S. and most of the world were giving the Palestinians a pass on egregious human-rights violations. They were given a pass on the inability of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ever to coalesce on anything. They were given a pass on terrorism, on pay-for-slay. They were given a pass on not creating any of the institutions that were necessary for autonomy: financial transparency, anti-corruption measures, a system of justice, commercial laws that would enable people to invest. None of these things were there, and yet people were talking about a Palestinian state. It was the cart before the horse.

And it was leading to the absolute worst place: a dysfunctional terrorist state, right between Israel and Jordan. That was the path that I thought we inherited. That is such a bad outcome that we needed to reverse that and reverse it quickly. It wasn’t like steering an aircraft carrier, with the benefit of thinking miles ahead. We had to change that rapidly.

That was what I thought was the primary mistake of Democrats, but it was true of Republicans as well.

Kramer: I want to set aside the Jerusalem and the Golan recognitions, only because time is short. They were important, perhaps historic. But they weren’t as potentially transformative as two initiatives that you were deeply involved in. One was the “Vision for Peace” between Israel and Palestinians, and the other, the Abraham Accords.

I want to start with the first. A little over a year ago, when the “Vision” was launched, Prime Minister Netanyahu said the following:

Mr. President, I believe that down the decades and perhaps down the centuries, we will also remember January 28, 2020, because on this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria that are vital to our security and central to our heritage.

But January 28, 2021, the one-year anniversary, really went unnoticed. I don’t know what the centuries or the decades will say, but at present it looks like one more plan added to an ever-growing pile.

Jared Kushner admitted at one point that the “smart-money bet” was against the success of the plan, but that if we were going to fail, “we don’t want to fail in the same way that others have failed.” But maybe it is the same failure. All these plans look the same: a “Great Father”—the British Royal Commission in 1937, the UN in 1947, Bill Clinton at Camp David—proposes a plan to divide the land. The Jews accept it with reservations, the Arabs totally reject it, and it gets left on the shelf, so that only historians remember it.

If you think that’s the wrong way to look at it, why?

Friedman: I think it’s too soon to know how to look at it. A year is not a long time in this conflict. I’m certainly not ready to accept failure.

I think that the reactions we got back in January 2020 were quite astounding. Remember the reflexive position of the Arab world regarding the Palestinians up to that point. The first thing that happened was the European Union tried to condemn our plan, and six countries blocked that resolution, including Italy, the Czech Republic, and Austria. And then Mahmoud Abbas went to the UN Security Council, betting that he was going to get a fourteen-to-one vote condemning the plan and isolate the United States as the sole veto. What happened? The Tunisian who put up a resolution condemning the plan got fired the next day; he was recalled. They couldn’t even muster a majority.

I wouldn’t call it buy-in, but the plan certainly had a high level of respect and tolerance from a lot of countries that generally don’t side with Israel. This is more than just focusing on Palestinian rejection.

The principles are also significant. There was nothing principled about the [1947] Partition Plan. That was just a real estate carve-up. The map that’s attached to our plan, while it’s significant and meaningful, and unprecedented in the history of Israel, is one of the least important aspects of our plan. The important aspects of our plan are, how do we deal with Israel’s security? How do we protect Israel from the possibility of a terrorist Palestinian state? What does Palestinian autonomy really mean? What does the United States expect from the Palestinians before it will put its stamp of approval on a Palestinian state?

That the United States and hopefully the world will never put their imprimatur on a failed terrorist state is a very important concept. No one ever put that out before; it goes back to my point about accountability. So the principles are significant.

The most important response was from Saudi Arabia. They came out and said: we appreciate the effort. We think that negotiations should continue, under the auspices of the United States, not under the auspices of the Quartet or the United Nations. So here you have the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Muslim world, saying that this plan is a good start.

Were the Palestinians receptive? No. But the Palestinian leadership, I think, would have been receptive to absolutely nothing. There was no piece of paper that we could have written that the Palestinians would have been receptive to.

So what do we have when you put it all together? A plan that the majority of Israelis support, and most Israeli politicians support; many in the United States, at least in the Republican party, support; and many nations—in Europe, the Gulf, the Middle East, the Kingdom of Morocco—think has a lot of promise.

We’re a year into it. We don’t have a deal, but we’ve sure gone a lot further than most other plans. And again, in contrast to everything else, this is actually a plan that protects Israel’s security, and that many Israelis will support. So I’m not giving up yet.

Kramer: I think you’re absolutely right, that the plan does have an element that you don’t find in the previous partition plans. There’s a bar that the Palestinians have to reach in order to exercise self-determination.

But I want to ask a follow-on question based on a quote that you gave concerning the endgame. You’ll tell me if the quote is accurate.

Here are the facts that never go away. First is that nobody wants to establish sovereignty over the entirety of Judea and Samaria and provide citizenship to the millions of Palestinians who are there. Second, there is no way in the modern world that a country, especially a country as great as Israel, could possibly be a country with two classes of citizens where one votes and the other doesn’t. It can’t be done.

That doesn’t sound like a complete deviation from traditional U.S. policy.

Friedman: No. I think that sounds like something I would say, and I think it’s basically a long-winded way of saying that as between a one-state solution and a two-state solution, a two-state solution is really the only means of resolving the conflict. That doesn’t mean that the status quo can’t go on for some period of time. But as between those two choices, I certainly agree that a two-state solution is the only practical means.

In that way, we don’t depart from our predecessors. But the way we do depart is by creating a means for Israel to protect itself under any scenario. Ten years ago, nobody expected the Arab Spring, no one expected the Syrian civil war. We do expect all these things to happen. And we have created a security paradigm within our plan that can accommodate all those things.

That’s why when I sat down with security experts, whether it was Amos Yadlin or Amir Eshel or Benny Gantz—not just with Netanyahu—they all said, this is the plan of the security establishment of the state of Israel. No one ever did that before. Our predecessors came up with gadgets, gimmicks, and sensors along the Jordan River and things that were supposed to make Israel feel comfortable but that didn’t. I think that’s the most important thing.

As for the point about governance, whether in two states, or whether there are some other ways to skin the cat: the mind can wander and come up with lots of other ways. But I do agree that you cannot have two classes of citizens in a country. You cannot do that. It’s immoral, and that’s why we called our plan a realistic two-state solution, with emphasis on the word realistic.

Kramer: Were you disappointed that there were some Israelis who took issue with aspects of the plan?

Friedman: I couldn’t imagine people wouldn’t take issue with aspects of the plan. It’s an incredibly controversial subject. And it was an 80-90 page document. It was going to get significant commentary, which was good.

What was unfortunate was that by the time our plan was done, the Israeli political season was really getting into high gear, and it never ended. It still hasn’t ended. So instead of having serious, sober conversations about some of these issues with all the protagonists—and many of them had legitimate points—there was a lot of grandstanding, politicization, and demagoguing. That made it much more difficult.

Once all the reactions came out, Yuval Steinitz, a high-ranking member of the Likud, told me: the left thinks you’ve killed the Palestinian state, and the right things that you’ve created one. So you must have done something right, to get that kind of reaction from both sides.

That’s the reality. People care deeply about this, and they should, and they’re entitled to, and I hope the conversation continues—not between me and anybody, but between the players, the stakeholders. The Israelis really need to decide where to land this plane. I think we’ve given them a good template, and we would support something along those lines. But this is Israel’s decision.

Kramer: Let’s move on to the unqualified success. The plan in some ways was traded for the Abraham Accords. It was taken off the table, so that the Emiratis and Bahrainis, presumably with a Saudi nod, could break the ice with Israel. In my more cynical moments, I wonder whether the plan wasn’t conceived, at least at some levels and by some persons, as a throwaway for precisely this purpose.

So maybe you could straighten out the chronology for me. A senior U.S. official was quoted as saying that the U.S. had been talking to both sides, Israel and the UAE, for eighteen months. It was the annexation or sovereignty issue that finally “created the atmosphere which was conducive for getting a deal.” That means that those talks would have taken place even as the deal was being formulated and proposed. So were you juggling these two options at the same time, even before you released the Vision?

Friedman: Of course we were, and the proof of it came the day we announced our plan. There were detailed responses from the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The ceremony on January 28, 2020, where we rolled out the plan, was attended by the ambassadors to the United States of the UAE, Oman, and Bahrain. They all stood up, the president called them out, they got a rousing standing ovation.

Anybody who was paying attention knows that this was more than a series of bilateral discussions between us and Israel. The bilateral discussions were incredibly important. And it was very important to us that we get Israeli buy-in, not just from the prime minister but from Gantz as well, so that it had the broadest level of acceptance on the Israeli side.

We also knew it was going to be incredibly controversial. This piqued the interest of the Arab world. When the Palestinians ran to the UN, and failed, a lot of our allies in the Gulf said: you know what? The Palestinians really have lost their veto, this may be the opportunity to move closer to Israel. We saw that coming, we knew that was in the works.

And we were trying, independent of the peace plan, to move the Gulf closer to Israel, because we thought it was just such a natural series of alliances. The question was, what would bring it over the top?

From my perspective, I saw two possible outcomes. One was that we’d have a historic recognition by the United States of Israeli sovereignty over some portion of Judea and Samaria, which I thought would begin to move the plan down the playing field. And I thought that would be an important move. But I also thought that because of the controversy the plan was generating, it might smoke out the best possible offers from those who saw suspension of the plan as the cover they needed to normalize with Israel.

So we were triangulating towards an outcome, either one of which would have been acceptable—acceptable to me or to Jared. Jared and I were really the ones who were moving this in a direction. Obviously, my primary contact is with Israel. Jared has enormous contacts and credibility in the Gulf.

So we’re moving down this path. And then, back in June, there was that famous letter from Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington. He writes a letter in the Israeli daily Yediot Aḥronot, saying: guys, this annexation really is going to set us back and maybe there’s another path. That was a public statement; we knew that was their view beforehand.

So the question was, from my perspective, what options does Israel have in lieu of sovereignty? Then we had a back and forth. My feeling was that if we could get full normalization—not tourism, overflights, trade offices, but really the full Monty, embassies, ambassadors, the full range of cooperation that you expect between two countries that are friendly and at peace—that was good with me. Given where the Israeli public was at the time, suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the polls showed that there was not a huge interest in sovereignty. It was not high on their agenda, understandably so, given the ravages of COVID-19. If we could suspend sovereignty—not cancel it, I don’t think cancellation would do justice to the importance of the issue—its suspension for a while would give peace a chance and move forward.

And frankly I thought that for the president, for the interests of the United States, a once-in-a-generation peace deal with an Arab nation, notwithstanding that the Palestinian issue had not been resolved, would be a massive game-changer. So as we saw that triangulation moving towards that peace, we started moving closer and closer to it. I started sharing the opportunity more and more with the prime minister. I think it was a consensus that this was—I hate to use the phrase—kind of a no-brainer. This is what we ought to be doing.

We didn’t know then that we would get four more countries. But even the UAE alone, we thought, was such a significant move in the right direction.

Kramer: I suppose your task in this triangulation was also to reassure those Israelis who had been very enthusiastic about the plan. I want to quote one Israeli journalist who made the counter-argument and ask how you would respond to it.

Israel needs to start weighing the advantages and disadvantages of normalizing relations with Arab states. What benefit does Israel gain from open ties? Tourism? Is that an Israeli interest? Does Israel want Persian Gulf tourists streaming into Jerusalem? Is it a burning Israeli interest to forge cultural ties with regimes that treat women like chattel? From Israel’s perspective, there are many downsides to maintaining formal normal relations with regimes that do not share its values.

Why is it wrong to look at it like that? Make the case for the transformative potential of the Abraham Accords.

Friedman: I think it’s straightforward. The Abraham Accords make Israel more prosperous, more secure, less exposed to the dangers within the Middle East. I don’t know what’s wrong with peace, prosperity, and security.

There are lots of countries that don’t share American values, and we try to encourage them to come closer to us. We don’t cut them off because of that; we have national strategic interests that we have to vindicate.

And that’s true of Israel as well. The Emirates are just across the Straits of Hormuz from Iran. To have an ally of the quality of the Emirates—probably the best military apparatus in the Arab world—to have them aligned, at peace with Israel, is enormously important.

This is also a very important signal from Israel to the Palestinians, Hamas, and Hizballah. Israel isn’t going away. Israel is a permanent member of the Middle East community of nations. Get on board. There’s huge opportunity that’s going to be made available within the Arab world from Israel, and in Israel from the Arab world. Get on board. Don’t take these ancient grievances and die by them; take the future and live with it.

Everything I’ve seen since tells me that these are game changers. Then you add Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco. Let’s just take Sudan as the easy example. That was the corridor for the massive inflow of terrorists and their weapons into Hamas, Egypt, Sinai. That’s ended, I hope—I think it’s ended. The value of that is enormous.

Kramer: I want to end by looking ahead. You are now a member of the club of former ambassadors. You’ll become a pundit. So let’s do this. Tell me what the Biden administration should do in this corner of the world over the next four years. And then tell me what you predict it will do.

Friedman: You know the saying about prophecy after the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. It’s given to babes, and I haven’t been one for a long time.

But I always view one word as being critical in the Middle East. It’s strength: the strong prosper and make peace; the weak, unfortunately, find themselves at great peril. So our policy for four years was very much to project American strength within the region and to support the exercise of strength by our allies.

In the last four years, we had some terrible terrorist attacks, we had a couple of significant incursions from Hamas, and one kind of pop-gun out of Lebanon. But it’s been a pretty quiet four years, thank God.

I think it’s because we sent the clear message to the region that if Israel is attacked by its enemies, there’ll be no restrictions whatsoever on Israel defending itself. We’re not going to impose any hypothetical notions of proportionate force; we’re going to tell the Israelis to do what they think is right. And if Israel’s view is that it needs to end this war as quickly and decisively as possible, it has our support. That message is what kept a significant level of peace in the region for the past four years.

Joe Biden is the president. I’m not looking to pile on, and I certainly wish him well. But this past week, when the Iranians attacked Americans in Iraq, and we fired back into Syria at an Iranian installation, our government was quick to make the point that this was a measured and proportionate response to avoid escalation.

Now, here’s how I interpret that, and how I think most people in the Middle East interpret that. When it comes to Iran, the United States, with a $750 billion military budget, is going to shrink its influence to the exact same size as Iran, which has about a $30 or $40 billion military budget. So we’re taking over $700 billion of our budget—we’re moving it off to the side and making it inapplicable to our fight with Iran.

What a terrible message that is. The Iranians just laugh at that. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, we have to be far more strategic, active, and much stronger. It’s all about strength. Strength keeps people safe and at peace here. That’s my concern about a Biden administration.

I hope I’m wrong. I think they’re smart enough to know that there was great risk created in the Obama administration that hopefully we’ve mitigated. But again, what they will do, I don’t know. I certainly wish them success. But I’m nervous.

This interview was conducted at the Tikvah Fund in Jerusalem, and broadcast to online attendees of the Jewish Leadership Conference on March 14, 2021. The transcript has been minimally edited for clarity.

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