Ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been warming below the surface for decades, but a major turning point came in 2015, as the US and other world powers negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran.
Both Israel and the UAE made their opposition to the agreement known to the Obama administration. Israel made its position very public, while the UAE kept it private. Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer tried to convince his Emirati counterpart Yousef Al Otaiba to join Israel’s open campaign, to no avail, though the UAE continued its opposition behind the scenes.
Dermer and Otaiba – who, despite being not Jewish, deserves a place of honor in these pages, too – carried on a remarkably close relationship in Washington. A Huffington Post article that year said the two “agree on just about everything” except for the Palestinians. Dermer even invited Otaiba to Congress to hear Netanyahu’s speech there, but the Emirati ambassador said no. His office also denied to the Huffington Post that he and Dermer were friends.Read No. 2: The Vaccine Hunters >>>
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In hindsight, it’s clear that the friendship that could not be publicly acknowledged helped lay the groundwork for the historic normalization between Israel and the UAE, Israel’s third-ever peace treaty with an Arab country and the first in 26 years.
As the ambassadors liaised in Washington, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen was quietly hopping around to visit moderate Sunni Arab states.
The Mossad has always been a major part of quiet Israeli foreign policy with moderate Arab countries, and the United Arab Emirates was no exception. Any likely future new deals with Bahrain and Oman would also involve the Mossad, and Cohen has already been in touch with top Bahraini officials about the next steps.
In July 2019, Cohen made a rare major public speech in which he explicitly stated that his spy agency had been behind much of the progress with the moderate Sunni Gulf countries.
This was not just another theoretical, optimistic statement. Cohen’s critical involvement in the Sudan normalization meeting in February and in coronavirus diplomacy in March were also huge in moving escalating Israel-UAE ties across the finish line. In June, The Jerusalem Post was first to report on close Israeli-UAE cooperation to combat the coronavirus, but the seeds were planted by Cohen under the radar in March.
Cohen’s constant communications, many quiet meetings and corona diplomacy helped the spymaster seize the diplomatic moment.
However, the third side to the UAE-Israel-US peace triangle played a key role.
US President Donald Trump has made a point of looking at the Middle East in a very different way from his predecessor.
Special Adviser to the President Jared Kushner, a former businessman with assets in real estate and media; US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer; and Special Envoy for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, a Harvard Law student and aide to Kushner, do not come from the Washington foreign policy “swamp” that Trump promised to drain. As such, they bucked conventional wisdom and saw Israel’s place in the region in a different light.
As opposed to the previous administration that looked at Iran as a rising regional power and sought to work with it, the Trump administration wanted to isolate the Islamic Republic and stop it from destabilizing the region and sowing seeds of terrorism around the world. And there were no better partners for that than Gulf states and Israel, Iran’s enemies.
Once it became clear that Gulf leaders, such as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known respectively as MBZ and MBS, did not hold a grudge against Israel and, in fact, were working with them against Iran. Kushner, who had a good relationship with both, saw no reason why America’s allies against Iran couldn’t work with each other, and began pressing the issue.
Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Berkowitz proved to be a White House wunderkind, playing an instrumental role in getting the Israel-UAE agreement off the ground. Kushner deals with a number of major issues for the Trump administration, while Berkowitz would often do the necessary groundwork. Over the past year, he gained the trust of administration officials from the UK to Saudi Arabia who knew that he spoke on behalf of Kushner, perhaps the president’s closest adviser. He traveled to the region multiple times, from Israel to Bahrain, Oman and Qatar for sensitive talks to promote the administration’s agenda to create a united front of Israel and Arab countries that could counter the Iranian influence in the region.
In January, this team also rolled out the “Peace to Prosperity” economic plan for the Middle East, including a map designed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Palestinians boycotted the ceremony and refused to engage with the team, citing as their reasons Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy there.
Kushner was the lead on that project, but Friedman’s fingerprints were all over the plan and played a key role in trying to nail down a detailed map for Israel to extend its sovereignty to communities in Judea and Samaria. Friedman was also responsible for taking in the very diverse opinions from within Israel’s government and society about how to implement that plan, and working with the peace team members in Washington on how to encourage Israel to proceed.
In the end, the administration’s decision was that it would be better for Israel to have peace in the immediate term with the UAE, a paradigm-shifting move. Normalization between Israel and another Arab country exemplified what Kushner and Friedman had been saying publicly for years; that the Palestinians’ recalcitrance does not mean that other countries should be begging for their approval. The Palestinians do not get veto power over what happens to Israel or the UAE or anyone else, and if they’re not able to move forward, the rest of the Middle East might just leave them behind.
Twenty-nine days after normalization with the UAE was announced, Bahrain followed suit, and another Arab state may be on the way. These five played a role in what could end up being a realignment that will benefit Israel, the Middle East and the world.Omri Nahmias contributed to this report.