Berkowitz: 'We feel pretty good' about normalization with other countries

The special representative for international negotiations spoke with Yaakov Katz in a video interview at the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference

Avi Berkowitz, special representative for international negotiations, The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. (photo credit: LIOR LEV)
Avi Berkowitz, special representative for international negotiations, The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference.
(photo credit: LIOR LEV)
Arab states have a choice in the Middle East – between a path of peace and tranquility or a path of war and terrorism with Iran, Avi Berkowitz, special representative for international negotiations, said Thursday at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference.
Berkowitz said he is optimistic about the chances that more Arab countries will normalize ties with Israel in the near future.
“We feel pretty good about where things are headed with some countries,” Berkowitz told Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz in a video interview. There is a coalition of Arab countries and Israel when it comes to Iran, he said, adding: “The president [Donald Trump] has laid out a two-track opportunity in the region.”
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“You can follow the one that we laid out last Tuesday with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain – one of peace, tranquility and working together,” he said. “Or you can follow the path of Iran – state-sponsored terrorism and proxy wars and militias and Hezbollah and Hamas. And I think there’s a real coalition that’s building together to say, ‘We’ve seen both sides, and we prefer the former rather than the latter.’”
Iran is “always in the background” in discussions between the White House and countries in the Middle East, Berkowitz said.
“Brian Hook is a member of our team for exactly that reason,” he said. “[Hook] is the former envoy to Iran and is still a member of our team. So it’s something that can’t be avoided when we talk about Israel and the Middle East more broadly.”
The UAE “deserves a lot of credit” for being the first country to normalize ties with Israel since Trump laid out his “Peace for Prosperity” vision in January, Berkowitz said.
“They came to Jared [Kushner] and said, ‘We would like to be first’ [to normalize ties with Israel following the plan], which is a very courageous act,” he said. “You need parties that are willing to take courageous steps, and had they not been ready to be first, we may not be where we are.”
Also at the conference, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said orchestrating peace between Israel and Gulf states is strongly in America’s interest.
“Peace for Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world, is important for American national security because we believe in a strong sovereign State of Israel,” she said. “We have close partnerships with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; we have troops there, military, economic and diplomatic relationships for a long time as well. Anytime we can bring our friends and allies together, it is positive for the US.”
Ortagus commended Trump for taking a different approach to the old problems of the Middle East.
“He looks at them like a businessman, as someone not encumbered by the foreign-policy thinking that so many people in Washington are espousing – tired, old, stale ideas,” she said. “It’s refreshing to work for someone like that. He empowers [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo and [Senior Adviser] Jared Kushner and others to not just accept conventional wisdom the way it’s been told for decades, and it was proven to work this time.”
Part of the peacemaking philosophy of the Trump administration is that “You only get peace through strength. You don’t get peace through appeasing enemies,” Ortagus said.
Peace between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain marks “a completely new day for the Middle East,” she said, adding that the Trump administration’s peacemaking team “believes this is the start of something big.”
Regarding being in the White House Oval Office for the phone call between Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Ortagus said: “You know you’ll have exciting moments when you take on this job. But it felt incredibly surreal – hard to put into words what these moments feel like.”
“Young Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini children will grow up in a world where it’s normal to visit each other’s countries,” she said. “It’s one of the most significant things we’ve accomplished in the Trump administration, and I’m so happy to be part of it.”
On her many visits to the Middle East with Pompeo, Ortagus said she found that young people in the UAE and Bahrain are enthusiastic about making peace.
“Young Arabs want to think about the Israel-Palestinian issue differently than has been thought of in the last 30 to 50 years,” she said. “They recognize the old way of doing things was tired, didn’t work and didn’t help the Palestinian people.”
Asked about the Palestinians’ rejection of Arab countries’ normalization with Israel and of cooperation with the Trump administration, Ortagus said its “Vision for Peace” includes a Palestinian state.
“We were able to get Israel to agree to [a map of] a Palestinian state for the first time,” she said. “The only people who brought a Palestinian state to the negotiating table is the US.”
The Palestinian leadership should be blamed for its people’s languishing in statelessness, Ortagus said.
“The Palestinian people should be angry not at the Emiratis, Bahrainis, Israelis or Americans, but their leaders,” she said. “They should ask why their leaders want to live in this past era of doing business. The Middle East is changing, and Palestinian leaders need to step up for their own people. The only people who have failed them are their own leaders.”