Aug 13, 2020 - World

Behind the scenes: How the Israel-UAE deal came together

Trump, Kushner and Netanyahu (L-R). Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty

The breakthrough in talks between the U.S., Israel and UAE on a normalization deal came two months ago, White House officials tell me.

Behind the scenes: Talks had been ongoing for more than a year, but they gained new urgency ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's July 1 deadline to move ahead on West Bank annexations.

“We have been talking to both sides for 18 months but the annexation issue created the atmosphere which was conducive for getting a deal."
— Senior U.S. official

How it happened: The UAE issued strong public statements opposing Israeli annexation, and privately stressed that it would be disastrous for Israel's hopes of normalization with the Gulf states.

  • The most important development was an op-ed in the Israeli press in which UAE Ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba stressed that Israel had to choose between normalization and annexation.
  • At the end of June, Al-Otaiba approached Jared Kushner and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz with a proposal: the UAE would agree to normalization with Israel in return for an Israeli announcement that West Bank annexation was off the table.
  • Kushner liked the proposal, and Berkowitz began attempting to lay the groundwork.

The White House also had its own reservations about annexation, which Berkowitz discussed with Netanyahu in meetings over three days in late June.

  • The White House demanded that if Israel move ahead with annexation, it also take steps supported by the Palestinians, like transferring control of 5-10% of the West Bank.
  • Netanyahu didn't like what he heard. Sources briefed on the meetings say he was upset by the proposals.
  • But it was also becoming clear to the White House that Israeli leadership was divided on annexation. Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi both made it clear that they opposed immediate action.
  • Berkowitz proposed an alternative to annexation: the UAE normalization idea. Netanyahu said that if it was a serious proposal, he was willing to consider it.

In the seven weeks that followed, momentum grew.

  • Kushner spoke on the phone several times with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), the UAE's de facto ruler.
  • He and Berkowitz had at least two dozen meetings with Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and his Emirati counterpart Al-Otaiba.

Several days ago, an agreement was reached in principle but was kept secret even from Gantz and Ashkenazi.

  • The deal was finalized on Wednesday in a conference call between President Trump, Netanyahu and MBZ.
  • President Trump described the phone call Thursday, in characteristic style, as "like love."

But in the hours after the leaders' joint statement surprised the world, Netanyahu and MBZ offered different interpretations of its implications.

  • MBZ called it a "roadmap" to normalization, rather than a final agreement, while Netanyahu stressed that the suspension of his annexation plan was only temporary.

Where things stand: According to a senior White House official, annexation is off the table until further notice.

  • Kushner said in a briefing with reporters that he thought this deal would strategically be more preferable to annexation for Israel, the U.S. and the UAE.

What’s next: Trump hopes to hold a signing ceremony at the White House soon, with Netanyahu and a senior Emirati official attending.

  • Meanwhile, Israel and the UAE will hold direct talks on a series of agreements foreseen in the statement — like opening embassies, allowing direct flights, and deepening commercial ties.
  • Kushner said in a briefing to reporters that he expects more Arab countries to follow the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel — perhaps even in the coming days.

Go deeper: Netanyahu "still committed" to annexations despite UAE deal

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