Dec 13, 2021 - World
How It Happened

Netanyahu's cold feet almost killed the Abraham Accords

Photo illustration of Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Donald Trump on stairs at the White House enclosed in a circle graphic.
Photo Illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

This story comes from a brand new season of the “How it Happened” podcast. Subscribe to listen.

The day before a historic diplomatic deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was to be signed in August 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to back out.

Why it matters: The Abraham Accords would be seen as both Netanyahu's and Donald Trump's biggest foreign policy achievement. They came about through brinksmanship, tension-filled meetings, angry phone calls and agile diplomacy, all sparked by Netanyahu's threat to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

  • I spoke to a dozen current and former U.S., Israeli and Emirati officials to unravel these previously unreported events.
  • We tell the full story in a new season of Axios' “How it Happened” podcast.
  • The reporting comes from my new book “Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East," out now in Hebrew.

Setting the scene: In May 2020, the U.S. was in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and a brutal election campaign.

  • Netanyahu, meanwhile, had finally managed to form a government through a power-sharing deal with his archrival, retired Gen. Benny Gantz.
  • But their coalition agreement included a ticking time bomb, insisted upon by Netanyahu: a July 1 deadline to start the process of annexing parts of the occupied West Bank — a violation of international law that could kill the two-state solution for good and potentially destabilize the region.
  • World leaders scrambled to stop Netanyahu. Jordan said the annexation would undermine its peace agreement with Israel. The Palestinians severed security coordination. European diplomats threatened sanctions.

One Arab country came to the forefront in the push to stop annexation: the UAE.

  • Yousef Al Otaiba, the influential Emirati ambassador to Washington, wrote a Hebrew-language op-ed three weeks before Netanyahu's deadline. He said Israel had to choose between the annexation of the West Bank and normalization with the Arab world.
  • The article was an unprecedented and much-discussed direct message from the UAE to the Israeli people, and it undermined Netanyahu's spin that the Arab world didn't care about annexation. Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer called Otaiba to protest.
  • “I believed it was going to have horrendous consequences for the region and also put the U.S. in a very awkward spot because they were going to have to defend an incredibly unpopular decision in the region," Otaiba tells me.

Flashback: Otaiba first told Jared Kushner in March 2019 that the UAE would be prepared to normalize relations with Israel. Kushner initially hoped to proceed after Israel's election that April, but Israel's prolonged political stalemate pushed the issue to the back burner.

Meanwhile, inside the Trump administration, ambassador to Israel David Friedman was pushing hard in favor of Netanyahu's annexation plan. As Netanyahu and Gantz disagreed on the issue, Friedman even tried to mediate between them to move it forward.

  • Kushner told Friedman to slow down. "You're 6,000 miles away and you don't understand what's going on here. We have COVID. The elections. This is not our first priority right now," a former White House official recalls Kushner telling Friedman.
  • Still, Friedman pushed for an Oval Office meeting on annexation. On June 24, a week before Netanyahu's deadline, he got it.

Behind the scenes: Trump began the meeting in an impatient and irritable mood. He griped about a speech Netanyahu had given several months earlier during the unveiling of his Middle East peace plan (the campaign-style speech was "inappropriate," Trump later told me in an interview).

  • Trump cut off Friedman's annexation pitch, asking, "Why are we talking about this?” As Friedman tried to make his case, Trump insisted he'd already done more for Israel than any other president.
  • At some point, Friedman noted that there was a rift inside the Israeli government on whether to move ahead on annexation. At that point, Trump had had enough.
  • "Mike, you decide," Trump said, pointing at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "But if anything bad happens, it’s on all your heads."

The meeting ended with one decision: Friedman and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz would travel to Israel to meet with Netanyahu and Gantz and determine whether annexation would move ahead in some form or be taken off the table until after the U.S. election.

  • Kushner laid some groundwork for the trip by telling Netanyahu annexation must not happen without a green light from the White House or without any concessions to the Palestinians. “I told Netanyahu the goal was to implement Trump’s plan, not unilateral annexation," Kushner told me.

Berkowitz and Friedman held three meetings over four days with Netanyahu.

  • It started badly. “Stop leaking stuff to Barak Ravid," Netanyahu admonished Berkowitz, who replied that Netanyahu’s accusations were offensive. One of Netanyahu’s advisers told me the prime minister's behavior was "embarrassing," and he'd never seen him acting so undiplomatically.
  • At one point, Friedman left the room and Berkowitz took advantage. “I don’t know what David told you, but the meeting with the president on annexation went really bad," Berkowitz told the prime minister, who had previously felt encouraged by Friedman.
  • Netanyahu grew angrier still and threatened to move ahead, Trump or no Trump. Berkowitz warned that Netanyahu would make an enemy out of the U.S. president — and his Twitter account — and lack the international backing he needed on annexation.
  • After the meeting, Netanyahu continued to vent and to consider defying Trump, his adviser told me.

Two days later, Berkowitz and Friedman saw Netanyahu for a second time.

  • Netanyahu said he planned to annex 13% of the West Bank and was prepared to give the Palestinians absolutely nothing in return.
  • Berkowitz called Kushner that night from his hotel. Both were frustrated and growing desperate. They decided to raise the idea Otaiba had mentioned a year prior.

The next day, one day before Netanyahu’s deadline, Berkowitz met Netanyahu for the third time.

  • He asked if Netanyahu would consider dropping his annexation plans in return for normalization with the UAE. Netanyahu was skeptical. He agreed to discuss it but not to put aside the annexation issue.

On July 1, an exhausted Berkowitz was traveling from the airport to the White House when he got a call from Otaiba, who raised the idea of stopping annexation by offering normalization.

  • “I said, 'You might not believe this, but I had a very similar thought the other day,'" Berkowitz recalls.
  • He called Kushner, who said, "Let's go for it," and Friedman, who by this time was looking for a way out of the annexation standoff. Of the few men who were in the loop, Netanyahu remained the most doubtful.

Indirect negotiations began several days later, with Berkowitz and Kushner passing messages and drafts between Otaiba and Dermer, the Israeli ambassador.

  • The Emiratis insisted on that indirect format so that Netanyahu wouldn't just be making promises to them, but also to the United States.
  • The general framework of the deal was straightforward, but it took 115 drafts and three weeks to reach an agreement, Berkowitz told me.

One crucial sticking point was the duration of Netanyahu's promise to take annexation off the table. Otaiba sought a permanent commitment but was rebuffed by Dermer. Eventually, they arrived at three years.

  • At another point, Dermer called Berkowitz and said Netanyahu would only drop annexation if three Arab countries came on board, not just the UAE. 
  • "Tell Ron that one country is all he's going to get, and if he doesn't want it, he can go f**k himself," Kushner fumed to Berkowitz, who relayed the message in gentler terms.

On July 26, a deal was reached, pending consultations between Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and the rulers of the other six emirates. With those resolved, the parties set a date of Aug. 13 to announce the groundbreaking agreement.

  • Then, on Aug. 12, Netanyahu got cold feet. He was considering calling new elections due to a crisis over the budget. With so much up in the air, Dermer told Berkowitz, Netanyahu wasn't going to sign.
  • Several shouted conversations between Washington and Jerusalem ensued. Friedman, who was already in D.C. for the announcement, was particularly insistent that the deal was done and the Israelis no longer had a choice.
  • Netanyahu eventually backed down.

With the stage set, all that was needed was a name. The morning of the announcement, Gen. Miguel Correa, a senior director at the National Security Council, proposed "Abraham Accords." 

  • Kushner and Berkowitz brought the name to Trump, who signed off but joked that "the Trump Accords would be a better name," Berkowitz recalls.
  • An hour later, the three leaders were on a call to seal the deal, until MBZ's line dropped. “At that point, my hands were sweating," Otaiba remembers. "All this hard work and this might not work because of a technical glitch."
  • When MBZ got back on the call and everything was agreed to, the crown prince remarked, to laughter, “This is the only good thing that happened in 2020."

Then it was time for Trump to surprise the world. He announced the agreement in a tweet and let Berkowitz press send.

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