When he hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House in May 2017, President Trump boasted of the ease with which he would achieve the Israeli-Palestinian peace that had eluded his predecessors in office.
Three and a half years later, the promised peace seems further away than ever. Trump’s plan, crafted by son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, landed with a thud in February and all but disappeared.
Instead, Trump moved the goal posts, last week claiming to have succeeded with a deal that others “were unable to make . . . for 40 years.”
The agreements, called the Abraham Accords, normalized relations between Israel and three Arab states, with more said to be ready to sign on. Trump hailed it as bringing an end to “blood in the [Middle East] sand,” although two of the countries involved — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf — have never fired a shot at Israel.
The third, Sudan, participated in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Like the others, however, it has engaged in under-the-table arrangements with Israel for years. The accord makes no mention of the Palestinians.
Some experts were dismissive of the administration’s role, if not of the agreements themselves. It was “the latest in a long chain of unintended consequences” that fell into the administration’s lap, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote in Foreign Affairs. The American Conservative described it as “Potemkin Diplomacy.”
But others, even many who found it painful to credit the Trump administration’s foreign policy on any level, said it was an undeniable achievement.
Aaron David Miller, who served six Republican and Democratic administrations as a senior diplomatic adviser on Israeli-Palestinian issues and others facing the region, called the deal “significant and redemptive.”
“They deserve credit, even though they jumped on a bus that had already left the station,” Miller, speaking in an interview, said of the administration.
Jeffrey Feltman, a regional expert who served as a senior Middle East official at the State Department and as undersecretary of policy at the United Nations, said he doesn’t “think we should overstate the importance . . . of relationships” between Israel and Arab states that have come “out of the closet into the open.”
“But nor should we dismiss it as insignificant,” he said. “It does make it easier for the United States to deal with a variety of friends and allies in the Middle East.”
Far more significant in Feltman’s view, if considerably less flashy, was a little-noticed achievement last month — when Israel and Lebanon, after years of painstaking U.S. diplomacy, agreed to work together to resolve their disputed maritime boundary in the Mediterranean Sea. Senior officials from both countries held their second meeting on Wednesday.
Brokered by the State Department, the talks marked the first serious undertaking by the two countries, which have engaged in repeated shooting wars for decades, to address disputes that have existed since the creation of the state of Israel.
The administration barely mentioned the hard-won diplomatic success amid the White House ceremonies and news conferences surrounding the normalization deals that offered an immediate payoff in the weeks before Trump’s bid for reelection.
The U.S.-blessed accord followed years of Israeli efforts to forge ties with the Persian Gulf states. The countries have surreptitiously shared intelligence for decades, especially as their shared concerns over Iran’s expansionist activities have grown. More recently, they have made their contacts more open in the sports and humanitarian arenas.
The Arab countries received significant sweeteners from the administration for signing up. Sudan was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. With head-spinning speed, the administration on Thursday sent Congress notification of its intent to sell up to 50 F-35 jets to the Emirates, just days after Israel publicly dropped any objection to the purchase.
But in the short and medium terms, the impact the deal is likely to have on Middle East goals Trump set out at the beginning of his administration — including forging a fair and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians and stemming Iran’s influence — may be negligible.
Much of the region remains in turmoil. Under Trump, the dismantling of the Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria, begun by the Obama administration, was completed. But at least 10,000 militant fighters remain across the two countries, and the group is seeded across north and West Africa and in Afghanistan.
In Syria, war continues between the forces of Bashar al-Assad and isolated opposition forces and al-Qaeda affiliates. The influence and territorial hold of Assad’s allies, Iran and Russia, has significantly increased. Hundreds of U.S. troops remaining in Syria have clashed with the Russians there, while in neighboring Iraq, Iran-allied militias have repeatedly attacked U.S. forces. Trump’s withdrawal plans from the region, as well as from Afghanistan — some of which are supported by Democratic nominee Joe Biden — are more retreat than victory.
Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-backed war in Yemen has not abated. Iran continues its aid to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and, despite crippling U.S. sanctions, has escalated uranium enrichment outside the bounds of the Obama-negotiated nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018. Libya, farther afield along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, has become a proxy war for regional and global powers.
The Kushner-authored Palestinian peace proposal released early this year was widely seen as the culmination of years of administration favor bestowed on Israel, from moving the U.S. Embassy to the contested city of Jerusalem to stemming aid to the Palestinians and greenlighting the annexation of the Golan Heights. The deal itself invited Israel to annex up to 30 percent of the occupied West Bank and is already advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Palestinians refused to negotiate with the administration and rejected the proposal out of hand.
The Gulf states themselves were tired and frustrated with the Palestinian situation as the be-all and end-all of their regional priorities, but feared that annexation — effectively eliminating their long-standing demand for a fairly delineated Palestinian state — would force their hand. Instead, the UAE, in the spring, offered normalization in exchange for Israel taking annexation off the table.
The White House saw an opportunity. Trump had long sought to cultivate the Gulf Arabs, and “the Palestinians offered [him] nothing but trouble,” Miller said.
“What Trump actually deserves is a prize for being the accidental diplomat,” Indyk wrote. “If he had not pushed annexation in his plan,” the Emiratis would not have “offered full normalization to block it.”
The Trump administration quickly adopted the Emirati proposal as its own, including the extra UAE price of the United States allowing, and Israel acquiescing to, the long-sought Emirati purchase of the F-35s, the newest and most sophisticated stealth combat aircraft in the American arsenal.
“There is no downside for the Emiratis on this,” Feltman said.
The accords symbolize “how the Palestinian cause has fallen in terms of Arab leaders’ perceptions of what’s important to them,” he said. “We all knew that the Arab leaders were fatigued with the Palestinians. They are much more concerned with Iran than with the Israelis.”
News of the planned sale initially sparked controversy in Israel, where Netanyahu has denied any link between the jets and the accords. But a consensus has emerged that the risk of imbalance can be managed, especially in light of the UAE’s new status as a friend.
With additional incentives, Bahrain and Sudan came on board. Trump has said he expects as many as 10 other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to join the accord.
No previous White House had been willing to bypass Palestinian resistance and decades of international and U.S. support for a Palestinian state to offer a deal directly to the Arabs, said Dore Gold, a former Israeli diplomat who in 2015 launched his country’s first formal presence in the UAE, a small office within a U.N. energy agency.
Gold views the growing nexus of connections between Israel and the Arab states as a kind of “Middle Eastern NATO,” an alliance that eventually could counter Iran in the way that united European countries faced the Soviet Union after World War II.
Polls indicate up to 80 percent of Israelis approved of abandoning plans to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank in exchange for signing the UAE deal, and enthusiasm for the accords is sky-high across the political spectrum.
“There’s no question that the idea of normalization with Arab countries is supported by both the left and the right,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv pollster. “The right feels like they didn’t have to make any concessions to the Palestinians to get it, and the left loves peace agreements.”
Israel and the UAE have fast-tracked their new bonds, with tech companies already announcing joint ventures and airlines gearing up to offer more than 100 weekly nonstop flights by the end of the year. Neither country will require visitors to obtain a visa. Israeli travel agents are already promoting “Passover in Dubai” packages.
“Before, we were in the Middle East without being a part of it. This is a complete game-changer,” said Jon Medved, an Israeli venture capitalist who has already signed a $100 million deal with an Emirati investment firm.
The rapid thaw, which means that UAE residents will have an easier time visiting Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem than residents of the West Bank, has left Palestinians feeling abandoned by their Arab neighbors.
“There’s been a very emotional reaction on the part of the Palestinian public, a huge level of anger that the Arabs would leave them to their fate,” said Khalil Shikaki, a Ramallah-based pollster and analyst.
Most Palestinians share their leaders’ portrayal of the agreements as a betrayal, Shikaki said, but they are equally angry at Abbas for not addressing the warming trend between Israel and the Gulf States that has been evolving semi-publicly for years. A majority believes that the deals, along with others expected to follow, put a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue out of reach, perhaps permanently, he said.
“Why would the Israelis even think about making concessions?” Shikaki said. “The status quo becomes more beautiful for them by the day.”
Hendrix reported from Jerusalem.