The Role of American Policy and Personnel in the Israeli-Emirati Deal

An American National Security Council veteran explains how the U.S. pressured Iran and built trust to broker last week’s accord, and the effects it will have throughout the region.

David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, speaks during a briefing on the Emirates deal at the White House on August 13, 2020. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, speaks during a briefing on the Emirates deal at the White House on August 13, 2020. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

Aug. 20 2020
About the author

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.

In the wake of the historic agreement brokered by the U.S. between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver spoke with the American national-security expert Richard Goldberg, a veteran of the National Security Council, to understand how he interprets the strategic underpinnings of the deal, the role that the Trump administration played in bringing it about, and what it reveals about America in the Middle East.

This transcript has been lightly compressed and edited.

Last week, Israel and the United Arab Emirates concluded their historic, U.S.-brokered peace agreement. Tell us how we got here.

This agreement was a long time coming. It represents a generational shift after many decades of conflict. It’s a major step between two nations that thought they would always be enemies but now realize that they share mutual adversaries, commonalities and, frankly, a future that’s interdependent—not just for reasons of security, but also because of their economic needs over the course of this century. In a world of constant technological change, Israel has become a hub for research and development, economic and technological innovation, and startups. The UAE and other Arab governments want their countries to have the same things, and understand that they need to wean themselves from their dependency on oil, and that cooperation with Israel can help them do so.

Why do you think that the Emirates were the first to take this step? Why not Bahrain, for instance, with which Israel has been in dialogue with for quite some time?

There have certainly been rumors that Bahrain has been moving toward some sort of a peace treaty or nonaggression pact with Israel. Below the radar, there has been dialogue between Jerusalem and Manama for years, with delegations going back and forth between the two countries. Bahrain has been very outspoken in its support for normalizing relations with Israel. Thus many people really thought that Bahrain would go first.

But I think Bahrain didn’t want to be the one to make the first move. Their country is located very close to Iran, and has a sizable Shiite population, so the government fears Iranian influence both through propaganda and through cultivating potential revolutionaries. Because of these vulnerabilities, it doesn’t want to be the first to make peace with Israel. But it might be happy to be the second.

It makes a lot of sense that the UAE was willing to take this step before the other Gulf states. Its economy has been liberalizing. Israeli representatives have even appeared there to take part in international forums. We know that security ties between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi have been quietly strengthening for years, just as they have been between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

What role did the Obama administration play in this development?

There was a widespread perception in the region—and not an unfounded one—that the Obama administration was hostile to America’s traditional allies in the Persian Gulf. The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was part of a strategic realignment in American Middle East policy based on the assumption that there are a lot of bad actors in the region in conflict with one another, and that instead of supporting the least bad side, or the one that most shares U.S. interests, Washington should cultivate relationships with all of them. A corollary to this approach is that the conflict between Iran and its neighbors is an age-old sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, and the best thing America can do is help achieve equilibrium between the two groups.

An additional element of the Obama administration’s view is that Iran feels legitimately threatened by Israel’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, and that here too America’s responsibility is to achieve balance. (This is not my view, obviously.) The final assumption is that the Palestinian issue is the core conflict in the Middle East.

From the perspective of Israel and most Sunni Arab states, the United States committed to funneling billions of dollars to Iran, their mortal enemy, and then said, “Okay, you’re on your own now. Good luck.” The natural result is that the Israelis and the Sunni Arabs came together for a security partnership, which opened the door for other forms of dialogue and cooperation, and broader realization of how much they have in common.

In this context, the Palestinian cause is no longer a top concern for the Sunni Arab world. I think this has been increasingly clear to anyone involved in diplomatic dialogue in the region. Moreover, Sunni Arabs have come to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a prison of their own creation, and one that they are growing ever more frustrated to be trapped in. In 1948, and for many years thereafter, the Sunni Arab powers hoped to reconquer all the territory of the new state of Israel while turning the plight of the Palestinians into a political weapon to keep the conflict raging—mostly by putting Palestinians into refugee camps and not allowing them to integrate into the various Arab countries.

The result? Two more wars, which the Arab powers again lost. Fast forward a few decades, and Palestinians have taken on their own narrative, one created for them by these Arab powers. And they now hold the cards in that they get to determine the agenda. The conventional wisdom for many years among Arab rulers was that if they were to betray the Palestinians, if they were to cease to stand with them and against Israel, they would face serious domestic problems.

Just to clarify: you’re saying that the Arab nations who originally outsourced to the Palestinians the task of destroying Israel are now trapped because until the Palestinians believe that Israel has suffered enough, they can’t form real relationships with Israel. And now those Arab nations are regretting that.

Exactly. These are not democratically elected governments. They’re not afraid of losing elections; they’re afraid of unrest in the streets, of being overthrown. And their populations watch the news every day on Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets and see Palestinians suffering. They’ve been fed a steady diet of hatred of Israel, often by their own rulers. And then these rulers start to understand that Israel is not going anywhere, that it’s the strongest military and economic power in the region. They need its help in defending against Iran, especially with America in retreat, but they’re prevented from doing so by the Palestinian problem—which these regimes have themselves created.

And, as I mentioned before, it’s not only about Iran. It’s also about economics. Look at the Vision 2030 plan that Mohammad bin Salman rolled out for Saudi Arabia, which is based, quite correctly, on the fact that oil won’t sustain the kingdom forever. It needs to innovate, to develop high-tech sectors that offer people opportunities, rather than leaving them dependent on government subsidies that come from petroleum revenue that will one day start to dry up. But economic progress requires trade, and that means opening a country to its neighbors, especially the prosperous ones. People need to be able to travel in and out of Israel.

All these changes of perspective are taking place in Arab capitals simultaneously in 2016, in part under the influence of President Obama’s policies. And then the system receives another shock: Donald Trump is elected after saying that the nuclear deal is the worst deal in history, and signaling that he will be much more pro-Israel than his predecessor. Once in office, President Trump starts rebuilding relationships both with Israel and with the Gulf states.

The White House then appoints people very close to the president to make this a reality—Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt especially. Amazingly, unlike most anything else in the Trump administration, their work doesn’t leak out for years.

During this time Kushner, Greenblatt, Brian Hook, and others are building relationships—and in the Middle East personal relationships are everything—and showing that the U.S. commitment to its allies isn’t just rhetoric. I think the Israel-UAE agreement is a product of the trust the White House managed to establish.

Why then does it take until August 2020 for the deal to happen? In my opinion, it’s partly because the presidential election is fast approaching. The UAE and the other Gulf states want to hedge against the possibility that Trump will lose, and that, in foreign-policy terms, a Biden presidency might amount to a third term of the Obama administration. Meanwhile the behind-the-scenes relationships between the Sunni governments and Israel are no longer so secret. Iran already criticizes Arab governments for talking to Israel and for supposedly abandoning the Palestinian cause. The costs of normalizing relations with Israel are largely sunk at this point. Abu Dhabi realized that it’s time to collect the benefit.

I’m struck by your observation that there were no leaks—not from the American side, and not from the Arab or Israeli side either. That is amazing. Why?

It is amazing. A little less so with regard to the authoritarian governments in the Arab world, where there’s no real free press. But it’s almost unbelievable that there weren’t leaks from Israel or the U.S. The old joke I once heard from a very high-ranking Israeli politician is that in Israel, “off the record” means you can print it in two weeks.

The only explanation is that these deliberations took place at the highest levels, without much delegation of responsibility to the staffs, which is usually where the leaks come from. It’s likely that most of the interactions happened among a small group of very senior people who have all come to trust each other.

Do we know who the principals were in each of these three parties?

On the Arab side, you have the crown prince of the UAE, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and the crown prince of Bahrain—and their ambassadors in Washington. On the American side: the president, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Ambassador David Friedman, Brian Hook, and a handful of other key players both in Washington and Jerusalem. And in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu and a few of his closest advisers, including the outgoing ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. I’d guess that you could count on two hands all the people who really knew all the details at any given moment.

Peace negotiations have often been conducted much more transparently, under the assumption that media and public attention would put pressure on the parties and push them closer to predetermined outcomes. Why do you think that these three parties—Prime Minister Netanyahu, his Arab counterparts, and President Trump—decided against that?

Well, I think it has been proven time and time again that this is a failed strategy, particularly during the Oslo peace process and what followed. When you have big summitry and elaborate pageantry, you think you’re building trust, but in fact you’re building distrust. Politicians tend to shape their politics based on the audience in front of them at any given moment, and they’re constantly worried about the perceptions of people back home. So leaders would say one thing in a room and then come home and say another thing to their population. Meanwhile, hordes of reporters would descend on the summit and be on the lookout for a staff member who could give them any sort of quote or off-the-record statement. The statement would show up in the newspaper the next day and cause consternation for the other parties, which would lead to friction with their interlocutors.

Don’t forget that not all parties involved necessarily want a particular outcome, and that people have political opponents who want to see them fail. The fewer people who are involved, the fewer opportunities for leaks or damaging news coverage, and the more opportunities to have frank conversations, to work out differences, to come out at the same time and say, “This is the agreement. It’s a done deal.” The people in charge get to own the story that way.

Are there other ways in which the current administration’s policies contributed to this development?

Yes. Let’s think about the level of commitment President Trump demonstrated to our allies. Under a different administration, if Netanyahu began talking about declaring sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, the State Department might go wild issuing statements of condemnation. Likewise, another administration wouldn’t have reversed the State Department’s determination that the settlements are illegal per se. Never mind moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. These steps have built up enormous capital with Netanyahu and the Israeli people writ large.

Something similar has happened with the Gulf States. Trump went straight to the Gulf for his first trip abroad as president. When Congress was pushing to cut off military assistance to Gulf allies and even to impose sanctions, Trump could’ve easily given into the political pressure—but he didn’t. Some of Congress’s concerns were legitimate, others the product of Iranian disinformation. But, despite bipartisan pressure, the administration has consistently stood by its Gulf allies. That matters to Arab leaders. In addition, the White House has created a lot of goodwill through its Iran policy. The combination generates significant trust and allows the president, or someone close to him, to get on the phone and say, “We have been by your side. We have stuck with you. This is the time to do something bold.”

What do you think the Palestinians might learn from this arrangement?

The Palestinians are probably somewhere between just being very upset and panic. They’ll panic if they see a cascade of other countries following the UAE. At that point, they’re going to understand that the leverage they’ve had for decades is diminishing very fast. That these countries have decided that they will no longer be hostage to the Palestinian narrative. Therefore, they better cut the best deal they can get as quickly as possible, because if they wait another 25 years and watch the Arab world integrate with Israel, they will be left behind. Even if Israel doesn’t declare sovereignty in the West Bank for 25 years, but maintains the status quo, at some point will anyone care what happens so long as people are treated with respect and dignity?

If what you said is right, what that means is that the administration has just created a new source of leverage over the Palestinians to try to force them to the negotiating table. In other words, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it’s precisely by ignoring the demands of the Palestinians that you can get them to make peace.

That’s right. And I’ll go one step further: not just ignoring their demands, but actually slaughtering their sacred cows. What do I mean by that? The decisions to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, to delegitimize and even to defund the agency set up for so-called Palestinian refugees that helps them maintain their permanent refugee status. Now a Sunni Arab state is making peace with Israel in spite of those steps being taken. What message are they taking away from that in Ramallah? That the Palestinians don’t matter as much as they used to in Sunni Arab capitals. Arab rulers are focused on their populations, on their future, their security, their economies.

The Arab states are not going to allow bad things to happen to the Palestinians, but they’re not going to be held hostage by ridiculous demands or obsessions over symbols like the embassy. That should resonate at some point with the Palestinian leadership, and might motivate it to do something. But it’s possible that it won’t. I’ve seen several instances in recent years when I really thought that someone in the Palestinian Authority leadership would say, “Okay. We need to get serious here. We need to climb down from our tree. Otherwise, history is going to pass us by.” But they never did.

If that continues, a generation will pass, and a new generation of Palestinians will grow up seeing a very different Middle East, and that will have consequences in 25 years.

And what’s the message for Iran?

Iran has to believe that this throws a major monkey wrench into its plans to create a Shiite crescent in the Middle East. But I think that Iranian leaders are still hoping that Joe Biden will win the election and return to the nuclear deal. I don’t think Arab states making peace with Israel will change the thinking in Democratic foreign-policy circles about Iran.

That being said, I believe that by making peace treaties with Israel, Arab countries can insulate themselves from a cutoff of U.S. assistance. If anything, their relationships with Washington will be cemented for another generation to come because we now depend on them for Middle East peace and integration going forward. Every Arab or Muslim country that signs a peace treaty with Israel before January of next year will have punched its ticket for U.S. protection and support for the foreseeable future—regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office. That’s bad news for Iran, which was hoping that the U.S. might revert to distancing itself from the Sunni Arab states.

But what if Trump is reelected? Definitely bad news for Iran. His administration’s maximum-pressure campaign is doing significant damage to Tehran’s ability to project force beyond its borders. Alongside that, the continuous drumbeat of military strikes by Israel on Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria, the interdiction of Iranian weapons going to Yemen and elsewhere, and other measures continue. An integrated Arab-Israeli security architecture fits perfectly into the president’s strategy of rolling back Iran in the Middle East.

So whoever wins the election, it’s not good news for the Islamic Republic; it’s just less bad if Biden wins.

Let’s go back to what the UAE can expect from this deal. How do they stand to benefit? Not only in terms of the security dimensions we’ve been talking about, but also in terms of trade and so forth, what does this mean for them in practical terms?

Most obviously, access to Israeli-made military hardware might be on the table for discussion, as well as cooperation on certain key security measures—these are Abu Dhabi’s priorities. I think that the Emirates also sees the deal as a guarantee that they will continue to receive American-made arms, which they depend on, and that U.S. troops will remain in the country.

On the economic side, there are a range of opportunities for the Emiratis to partner with the Israeli high-tech sector: energy, water, transportation, infrastructure, healthcare technology, and so forth. You will also see private-sector investors in America willing to invest in joint ventures between those countries. And the same will apply to any other country that steps up and says, “We want to sign a treaty as well.” I think the tourism industry will benefit. But the sky is truly the limit.

Looking at a map, you see the location of the Emirates, on the Strait of Hormuz—one of the most valuable strategic choke points for the flow of fossil fuels around the world, and crucial for confronting and containing Iran. Do you think that somewhere along the line there might even be some kind of Israeli military presence established in the Emirates?

The United States should propose, if not convene, a joint military exercise somewhere that’s safe, but close enough to Iran to send a clear message—perhaps in the Arabian Sea. I think that would be a game-changer. In the past U.S. officials have talked about whether it would ever be possible to include Israel in certain Gulf maritime operations, such as anti-piracy efforts and the protection of commercial shipping. One problem is that in the past it wasn’t clear whether the Israeli navy could operate that far from home. But even it could, would the Arab governments ever allow it? The answer to date has been no.

But it would be easier to do if this were an American-run exercise, where we get to invite, say, five countries to participate. Perhaps this could be done next year. Perhaps it’s better to wait for other Arab countries to follow Abu Dhabi’s lead. But we’ve already seen joint training between the Israeli Air Force and the Jordanians. And there have obviously been very quiet bilateral security dialogues between Israel and Arab countries, conducted through the intelligence services. So I think this is a very real possibility. Military personnel and equipment, operating together, with several Arab flags flying alongside the Israeli one, all under a U.S. umbrella—what a message that would be to Iran.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel-UAE Peace Agreement, Middle East, United Arab Emirates