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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

Go deeper

Jan 28, 2021 - World

Biden turns the page on Trump's Israel-Palestine policies

Biden with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. Photo: David Furst/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration laid out its Israel-Palestine policy at the UN Security Council on Tuesday, highlighting the importance of repairing ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Driving the news: According to the new policies, the U.S. will resume aid to the Palestinians and reopen the PLO office in Washington and the consulate in Jerusalem.

Dave Lawler, author of World
7 mins ago - World

Biden's blinking red lights: Taiwan, Ukraine and Iran

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Russia is menacing Ukraine’s borders, China is sending increasingly ominous signals over Taiwan and Iran is accelerating its uranium enrichment to unprecedented levels.

The big picture: Ukraine, Taiwan and Iran’s nuclear program always loomed large on the menu of potential crises President Biden could face. But over the last several days, the lights have been blinking red on all three fronts all at once.

Updated 7 hours ago - World

Skripal poisoning suspects linked to Czech blast, as country expels 18 Russians

Combined images released by British police in 2018 of Alexander Petrov (L) and Ruslan Boshirov, who are suspected of carrying out an attack in the in the southern English city of Salisbury using Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and also the2014 Czech depot explosion. Photo: Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

Czech police on Saturday connected two Russian men suspected of carrying out a poisoning attack in Salisbury, England, with a deadly ammunition depot explosion southeast of the capital, Prague, per Reuters.

Driving the news: Czech officials announced Saturday they're expelling 18 Russian diplomats they accuse of being involved in the blast in Vrbětice, AP notes. Czech police said later they're searching for two men carrying several passports — including two with the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.