- - Monday, September 21, 2020

Speaking at the White House signing ceremony for the historic peace agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, President Trump expressed significant optimism that further agreements would be reached between Israel and other Arab states, expanding what he termed the circle of friendship. Exactly which states will sign on and when this will take place remains an open question. But it is important to recognize that this recent accomplishment was the direct result of not only a new policy on the part of the Trump administration, but also a major change in the process that made it possible.

Mr. Trump as well as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain all pointed to the “team” largely led by Jared Kushner, Avi Berkowitz, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Ambassador David Friedman. Critical here is that this advance was clearly the result of efforts led by the White House, and career diplomats at the State Department were kept out of the process — and with good reason.

Left in the hands of these old Middle East hands, wedded to old ideas and polices that never worked, these accomplishments could never have been achieved. Many of these so-called professionals are still deep state actors with no interest in anything that could benefit either Mr. Trump, Israel or regional peace.

In several ways this situation is reminiscent of the early Nixon administration, where both President Nixon and his National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew from the outset that the bold new diplomatic initiatives they had in mind, such as the opening to China, had to be kept away from the State Department, which they saw as staffed by “old hands” who would never have supported these new initiatives. As a young NSC staffer working for Mr. Kissinger on Middle East issues, I was ordered never to speak to anyone at State.

Unlike the Nixon era, however, Mr. Trump has not conducted this diplomacy in secret — hidden from the public as well as the State Department. Mr. Trump early on addressed a group of Arab state representative in Saudi Arabia, laying out a vision and a plan for achieving a broad regional peace far different from the failed efforts of prior administrations. 

Confounding his critics, the approach is working. Messrs. Kushner, Berkowitz and Friedman are all religious Jews who managed to build trust and relationships within Israel and much of the Arab world, stressing a new path to reginal stability and progress that was not pre-conditioned on a “solution” to the Palestinian problem that is simply not achievable now.

The breakdown of the Arab consensus on Palestine is the really historic change — and it doesn’t bode well for the Palestinians. Their rhetoric about the need for the destruction of Israel has not changed since 1948, and several times they rejected proposals by Israel that would have given them more than 90% of what they sought for their Palestinian state. The Palestinians seeded their own irrelevance to a different, emerging Middle East, by their rejectionism and violence. Indeed, their rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza struct southern Israel during the ceremony itself, making their argument in real time.

The UAE, Bahrain and other Arab states are no longer putting an intractable “solution” to the Palestinian issue as a sine qua non to partnership with Israel on a broad front of economic, technical progress and enhanced security in the face of threats from Iran. How soon will others come into the circle, as Mr. Trump described it, remains to be seen, but certainly there is cause for optimism. At best they are paying only lip service to the Palestinians and have been mollified by Israel’s agreement to a temporary hold to further annexation in the West Bank area.

All agree that bringing Saudi Arabia into the fold as a signatory would be far and away the most significant achievement. Mr. Trump points to the personal relationship he has built with the Saudi King and Prince MBS, who actually runs the country. Mr. Kushner and his team have invested heavily in promoting this relationship, while critics point to a multitude of complex factors that would delay any formal entry into the growing coalition.

At present no one can say when and if the Saudis can be cajoled or convinced to come aboard, and it may well depend on external factors, such as the forthcoming U.S. election and threats from Iran, to seal any deal here. Since the Iranian missile attack on Saudi oil fields, the Gulf states have come to see Israel as the only realistic military power in the region that can withstand Iranian aggression.

While it may seem far-fetched, it is not too early to give some thought to bringing Syria into the regional equation. Syria has been an actual participant in the repeated wars with Israel, and the border with Israel is largely based on post-war armistice lines. The civil war that has dominated Syria for close to a decade is about over, and President Assad remains in control. At present Syria desperately needs post-war reconstruction, and Israel is seeking restoration of the peaceful borders that it enjoyed for some four decades, even though no formal peace was ever negotiated.

In the aftermath of the 1973 war, Mr. Kissinger, then serving as both National Security adviser and secretary of State, undertook intensive “shuttle diplomacy” involving more than 40 flights between Jerusalem and Damascus to negotiate an effective disengagement agreement, which was not a formal peace agreement but nonetheless was an enduring compact between these states.

Not well known is the fact that Israel and Syria were close to a real peace agreement before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and were within a few yards of resolving territorial issues between these warring nations. Bearing in mind that Mr. Trump sees himself as a master of dealing with a wide range of foreign actors, including some dictators and despots, he may be just the leader to deal with Mr. Assad and bring Syria into the circle as well. Such a concept may not be as remote as many might think.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

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