On February 23, I departed for the Middle East, along with Avi Berkowitz, Jason Greenblatt, and Brian Hook. The trip included our first visit to the Sultanate of Oman. Strategically located along the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Oman shares a border with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen. Across the Strait of Hormuz is Iran, a mere twenty-one miles away. Upon arriving in the afternoon, we headed to the hotel and waited for a call from the palace with instructions on what time to arrive for dinner with the sultan.
In the lobby of the hotel, we bumped into New York Times columnist and Middle East expert Thomas Friedman, who was there to give a speech. Over coffee, he revealed that he had followed my efforts closely and appreciated that we were approaching negotiations differently. Whereas our predecessors had tried to play the role of neutral brokers, we were unapologetically standing with Israel on the policies where we agreed, knowing that it would build trust with them. He reminded me of his first rule about the region: “In the Middle East, you get big change when the big players do the right things for the wrong reasons.” He insisted that if we weren’t planning to offer the Palestinians a state, our efforts would never bear fruit. Not wanting to show my hand to a journalist, I said that we were still working through the issues and trying to capitalize on our strong relationship with Israel.
“In the Middle East, you get big change when the big players do the right things for the wrong reasons.”Thomas Friedman
Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said
Shortly after our coffee, we received a call from the palace. It was time to meet Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, a towering figure in the Middle East. A fourteenth-generation descendant of Oman’s founding monarch, Qaboos was the longest-tenured leader in the region and the only founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council still living. Since overthrowing his father in a British-backed coup d’etat in 1970, he had implemented significant reforms at a methodical pace. Over his nearly half-century reign, he had abolished slavery, recognized women’s right to vote, built modern infrastructure, and transformed his country from a land plagued by poverty and isolation into a prospering and diverse economy respected by its neighbors. Like most Arab nations, Oman did not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but the sultan had recently hosted Netanyahu for a visit. This was big news, and even surprised the US intelligence community, which interpreted the overture as a sign that our efforts were changing the sentiments in the region.
As we entered the palace, an official escorted us into a magnificent reception room, where we met three high-ranking ministers dressed in traditional Omani attire with muzzar-style turbans and heavily jeweled daggers on their belts. We exchanged niceties as we waited expectantly for the sultan. Half an hour went by, then an hour. We tried not to show our hunger and exhaustion as we made small talk, but maybe we should have, because they did not give us any indication of when the sultan would arrive. Finally, at 10:00 p.m., two hours after our expected start time, an official announced that the sultan was ready. We were escorted into a windowless mahogany-paneled conference room lined by chairs. Not a trace of food was in sight. Not even a dining table. Hook whispered to Avi, “I guess we aren’t having dinner.”
The sultan, a small-framed man with a neatly cropped beard and a regal turban, greeted us warmly. His proud and unhurried bearing seemed to convey a battle-tested aura earned from five decades in the world’s roughest geopolitical neighborhood.
As we introduced ourselves, I asked questions about the history and personalities in the Middle East. Whereas most of the leaders in the region tended to be animated and even emotional, I was impressed by the sultan’s calm demeanor, especially as he told a story about one of his neighbors who tried to kill him, but then coolly stated that they had resolved their issues and he didn’t hold a grudge.
His matter-of-fact statement astonished me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. He had survived by picking his battles wisely and taking steps forward at his own speed. He knew his strengths and vulnerabilities, and he was focused on the long game.
Al-Aqsa and Temple Mount: Most crucial element to Israeli-Arab peace
When we reached the topic of the Palestinians, the sultan shared a view that I had heard from nearly every leader in the region. Yet he captured the essence of the issue with impressive precision and clarity: the most crucial element of Israeli-Arab peace was access to the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Going further than other leaders, he expressed his disappointment that for years the Arab media had spread a false narrative that Israel wanted to destroy the mosque. This lie was commonly believed in most Muslim nations, and it needed to be addressed. The sultan clearly sympathized with Abbas, explaining how, for years, Arab leaders had deliberately stoked the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to deflect attention from their own domestic shortcomings and rally popular support.
He was candid about the fact that, in the past, Arab countries had publicly put pressure on the Palestinians to stand up to Israel and not be traitors. Then, to my surprise, he admitted that these public statements often contrasted with what Arab leaders would say privately, when they were much more willing to admit the benefits that Israel brought to the region. He predicted that the hypocrisy would end only when leaders said publicly what they said privately. As our discussion continued, the sultan placed some blame on Abbas for his inability to find solutions and for his role in perpetuating the conflict. “We are supposed to learn from history,” he said, “but you can’t live in history.”
“We are supposed to learn from history, but you can’t live in history.”Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said
I was shocked by what I was hearing. Coming from the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world, these statements gave me hope that the sultan would support our peace plan or, even better, establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He told me about how much he had enjoyed his dinner with Bibi and how he saw tremendous opportunities for Oman and its neighbors to collaborate with Israel.
When we finished walking the sultan through the plan, I asked if he thought we had a chance at peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If we don’t start, we we will never accomplish or change anything, he said. Abbas has his limitations, but his heart is in the right place. Then regret crossed the Sultan’s face as he spoke: I feel badly for the Palestinian people; they carry with them the burden of the Muslim world.
Dinner with the sultan
For more than two hours, the sultan shared stories and gave insights from his unique perspective. I was so wrapped up in the conversation, I had forgotten my hunger. My team, however, was growing tired. Avi and Hook were fighting to keep their eyes open and readjusting in their chairs to stay awake. The meeting finally wrapped up after midnight. As we stood to leave, the sultan asked: “Shall we eat?” There was only one acceptable answer. I could see the deflated looks on the faces of Avi, Hook, and Greenblatt as I answered in the affirmative. They just wanted a little sleep before our 8:00 a.m. departure to Bahrain.
The sultan’s staff opened the doors into a magnificent dining room, lined with grand columns and archways. At the center stood a hand-painted marble table, adorned with gold trim. Three tuxedoed waiters stood behind each chair. The sultan of Oman was legendary for hosting dinners more formal than those at Buckingham Palace, but nothing could have prepared us for what followed. Glistening silver plate covers dotted the table, accompanied by voluminous menus with descriptions of thirty different courses, separated by categories such as “soup” or “fish,” written in elegant English and Arabic calligraphy. I expected to choose a single selection from each category, as is common in America. Before I could decide, however, a waiter delivered cold avocado soup, followed by cold lamb jelly soup and tomato basil soup. As each new dish arrived, the sultan described where he had discovered the original recipe. “Will you have some?” he asked, over and over. I couldn’t refuse my generous host and sipped from each. After serving seven different soups, the waiters began to bring the seafood courses: grilled prawns, shrimp scampi, fresh lobster, grilled kingfish, fried cod. After fourteen courses, I peeked at the menu and saw that we weren’t even halfway done. I tried to avoid nonkosher food and took small bites so that I could make it through the meal as the sultan continued to explain the dynamics in the region. On multiple occasions, I was so engrossed in the discussion, I forgot to try a new dish. Eventually I noticed Hook and Avi glaring at me, and caught on: the waiters would not serve the next course until we stopped talking. The guys wanted me to shut up so we could keep the dinner moving.
As the sultan regaled us with stories of conquest and intrigue, he displayed a remarkable grasp of history. When a date slipped his mind, he looked to one of his ministers. “Was that in 1942?” “No, it was 1943,” came the prompt response. This routine happened several times. “Was that in 1973?” “No, it was in 1974.” For months, this was a running joke for my team. Hook would ask, “Was that in 1942?” Avi would shoot back, “No, it was in 1943.”
Four hours and thirty delicious courses later, we finished the meal. It was after 4:00 a.m. I couldn’t have been more delighted by the productive and riveting discussion. In six hours, I had built a new relationship and gained tremendous insight into the world’s most complex diplomatic issues. I felt I had a new partner. As the sultan walked us to the door to bid us farewell, he casually asked: “Would you like to see my car collection?” Knowing that he owned one of the best car collections in the world, with more than three hundred antique vehicles, I was about to agree. Then I looked at Avi, who shook his head. “We better not,” I said. “I will look forward to seeing it on our next visit.”
As soon as the doors of our SUV shut, I turned to Avi and Hook with a smile. “I wanted to see the car collection.” They lost it. “That was eight freaking hours of opulence torture!” Avi said. “We haven’t slept in thirty hours, and we take off for Bahrain in less than four hours.” I sympathized, but we had traveled halfway across the world to meet with the sultan of a country, and he had clearly appreciated our company. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have kept us so long. I was happy to forgo a few hours of sleep to build greater trust and give us a better chance to make peace. Plus, I had enjoyed every minute of the experience. When else would we have the chance to talk through the night with the sultan of Oman? As it turned out, this would be our only meeting. The sultan died of cancer in January of 2020, at the age of seventy-nine.
ON THE flight to Bahrain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the previous evening’s conversation with the sultan. One line played over and over in my head: I feel badly for the Palestinian people. They carry with them the burden of the Muslim world. It made me wonder who had appointed Mahmoud Abbas, with his incompetent band of negotiators, to represent the entire Arab world on the issue of the al-Aqsa Mosque.
A eureka moment
This led to a eureka moment: maybe the reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hadn’t been solved was because it is two separate conflicts, not one. There is the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians about where to compromise and draw the borders in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Then there is the broader conflict between Israel and all Arabs about access to the al-Aqsa Mosque. For decades, conflating these two issues had made the conflict unsolvable. If we focused on each issue individually, perhaps progress would be possible.
Two years after the Allies defeated the Nazis in World War II, the United Nations called for separate Jewish and Arab states, while retaining international control of Jerusalem. The Jewish people in Israel supported this plan, including its Jerusalem proposal, but the Arab world rejected it. When British rule ended in 1948, the Jews declared their independence, announcing it on May 14. The next day, the nations of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon attacked.
Surrounded by enemies and outnumbered by the Arab forces, the newborn State of Israel miraculously won what came to be called the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. At the outset of the Arab invasion, thousands of Palestinians fled the area, believing that they would be able to return and partake in the spoils of an impending Arab victory. But when their side was defeated, they could not return to their homes and became refugees. A similar scene played out during the Six Day War in 1967. Instead of calling for the over fifty Muslim and Arab nations to welcome these refugees and grant them citizenship, Egyptian general Gamel Abdel Nasser and his allies refused to admit defeat and pledged that one day the refugees could return to Palestine. These refugees became geopolitical pawns, used to promote the continued anti-Semitic quest by the then leaders of the Arab world to justify their opposition to Israel’s existence. This failure to resolve the refugee situation has continued for seventy years, leading to regional instability and turmoil. While all other post-WWII refugees have been resettled, today only displaced Palestinians still live in refugee camps across the Muslim world.
Following Nasser’s humiliating defeat, the Egyptian general directed significant ire toward Israel and the Jewish people. As a result of this and similar rhetoric from other Arab leaders, some eight hundred thousand Jews, who had lived peacefully with their Muslim neighbors for centuries, were driven from their homes in Baghdad, Cairo, Fez, Damascus, and Tehran. They all resettled, and many found refuge in Israel. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, Jewish refugees were not given special designation by the United Nations.
When I met with leaders who objected to Israel’s current position in Jerusalem, I would remind them that three times – in 1948, 1967, and 1973 – the Arabs had attacked Israel and lost. After the 1967 and 1973 wars, the United Nations passed resolutions that called on Israel to return any land gained through the wars to the Palestinians. Anti-Israel internationalists ignored the fact that Israel had agreed to the 1947 UN resolution that created two sovereign states, with international control of Jerusalem. The real violators of international order were the invading parties. In most historical cases, there is a consequence to losing an offensive war. And they had lost three.
After two years of exploring every angle of this seemingly unsolvable conflict, I felt like I had finally reached a conceptual breakthrough: perhaps the way to achieve peace and reduce regional tension was to narrow our focus to the issue of access to the al-Aqsa Mosque. I was optimistic that this approach aligned with the sentiment of the Arab people – not just that of their leaders. Months earlier, I had commissioned State Department focus groups in the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE. When Arab respondents were asked to describe the source of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the vast majority cited access to the mosque. The issue of territorial sovereignty, which was the fixation of “experts,” hardly came up.
If Israel would guarantee Muslim custodianship of the holy site, and expand access to Muslim worshippers, then we could address the issue of greatest concern to Arabs. And if these nations made peace with Israel, flights to Israel would open up, making it possible for hundreds of millions of Muslims to make pilgrimages to the mosque. In order to do this, our peace plan would need to demonstrate a serious commitment to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. We were ready to offer a plan that would require compromise, but still maintained Israel’s security while improving the lives of the Palestinians.
A detailed proposal would put Abbas in a tough negotiating position. If he accepted the offer and ended the conflict, he would risk losing billions per year in international aid. But if he rejected our proposal for a pragmatic two-state solution, which included a massive investment plan for the Palestinian territories, he would reveal his true indifference to the wellbeing of his own people. This would strengthen the argument I was making to the leaders of the Muslim countries – that it was time to focus on their national interests and move forward with normalization.
In the twilight of his tenure as secretary of state, John Kerry gave parting words of advice to a Washington audience. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world,” he said at the Saban Forum. “I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, ‘Well, the Arab world is in a different place now, we just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians.’ No, no, no, and no. I can tell you that reaffirmed even in the last week as I have talked to leaders in the Arab community. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
This was the conventional wisdom for decades, and I initially accepted it as fact. But as I listened and learned, I felt like the reverse might be true. If we could make peace between Israel and the Arab world, then more likely than not, a path to making peace between the Palestinians and Israel would eventually open as well.
As our flight approached Bahrain, I leaned toward Jason and asked him to make two changes to the peace plan. First, he should reframe the issue of access to the al-Aqsa Mosque, removing it as a subject of negotiation with the Palestinians and turning it into the centerpiece of broader normalization agreements between Israel and the Muslim world. Second, we needed to finalize the boundaries in Jerusalem and the West Bank in a rational way that was based on the modern reality, not a UN resolution from 1967. Both concepts were rooted in finding a pragmatic solution that could end the conflict and move beyond the failed paradigm of the past.
If the Palestinian leadership rejected this approach, which they almost certainly would, the Arab leaders would recognize that Palestinian intransigence was undermining their own interests in a time of increased common threats and shared opportunities.
Our dinner with the sultan of Oman, and my subsequent eureka realization, crystallized our strategy and paved the way for the Abraham Accords. As we pursued a new paradigm, we began to see an enormous opportunity that had been hiding in plain sight.
The Trump administration senior adviser’s book, ‘Breaking History: A White House Memoir,’ will be out early this month.