The leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have a stake in President Trump’s re-election and helped him become a peacemaker.
Sept. 14, 2020
WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has long owed a debt to President Trump, who has repeatedly bestowed diplomatic gifts at crucial moments as Mr. Netanyahu has battled for his political survival.
Leaders of the Persian Gulf states are similarly grateful to Mr. Trump, who has embraced their governments, cracked down on their archnemesis, Iran, and defended them from intense political criticism in Washington. Like Mr. Netanyahu, they are eager to see Mr. Trump win a second term in November. And at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu and a select group of Gulf Arab officials will be returning the favor, doing their part to repay and support Mr. Trump by participating in a signing ceremony for a pair of new accords between Israel and two Gulf nations, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, that Mr. Trump is promoting as a historic breakthrough.
In substance, the agreements do not constitute the “peace” that Mr. Trump proclaims. They do not end a state of actual conflict but do create normalized relations — including travel and diplomatic contacts — between Jewish and Arab states that never fought one another and for several years have been de facto allies, particularly in alignment against Iran.
But as proclaimed in new Trump campaign advertisements, they make up the heart of the president’s message on foreign policy as the 2020 campaign draws to a close: that for all his bellicose rhetoric and unpredictability, he is bringing new harmony to the chaotic Middle East.
There is little doubt that Mr. Netanyahu and the leaders of the Emirates and Bahrain — presumably with the blessing of its powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia — have an incentive to help Mr. Trump depict himself as an effective diplomat, something he has done without reservation.
Campaign Facebook ads declared last week that Mr. Trump had “achieved PEACE in the MIDDLE EAST,” noting that he had been nominated for a Nobel — misspelled as “Noble” — Peace Prize for his efforts. (Anyone can be nominated for the prize by any one of a cast of thousands; Mr. Trump has been nominated by a pair of right-wing Scandinavian legislators.)
“It can’t be overlooked that this is happening 48 days before our election,” said Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “In the past three Israeli elections, Donald Trump tried to put his thumb on the scale for Prime Minister Netanyahu. And now Netanyahu has come to Washington amid his own domestic political crisis at home.”
Ms. Soifer noted that talk of “peace in the Middle East” was a sleight of hand, applying a term normally used to describe a hoped-for grand settlement between Israel and the Palestinians — a separate Trump diplomatic effort that has completely stalled — to far more modest diplomatic declarations.
“One has to assume this is being driven by Donald Trump’s political agenda, and interest in putting points on the board in advance of the election,” Ms. Soifer added.
Much the same holds for the Gulf countries, said Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and former head of the Gulf desk on Israel’s National Security Council.
“Those countries really want Trump to stay in power. They are worried about Biden getting into office,” he said. “They fear he might be soft on Iran and harder on them, on human rights, and stuff like that, and stop even those weapons sales that Trump is so proud of.”
Trump administration officials reject such talk, saying they are being denied due credit by the president’s critics for hard diplomatic work to formally link Israel with Gulf leaders still unsure whether the Arab world is prepared to accept Israel, long denounced as evil, as a partner.
“There was not a lot of dialogue between Israel and Bahrain, or Israel and the United Arab Emirates, at all the different levels before this happened. We’ve built trust with both sides,” Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who has played a lead administration role on Middle East diplomacy, said last week.
Speaking of Tuesday’s event, he added: “It’s very rare that you get to experience a peace agreement. It’s even more rare to experience two peace agreements on one day.”
And Mr. Trump’s Middle East partners have reasons to strike deals now that go beyond giving their host a showy South Lawn ceremony with some 200 attendees. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are facing a reputational crisis in Washington over their military interventions in Yemen’s civil war, a humanitarian disaster that has drawn global outrage. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, hopes to overcome his near-pariah status after the October 2018 killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi; he is presumed to be giving private support for the new accords.
For Mr. Netanyahu, the trip to Washington serves as a brief escape, or distraction, from a domestic political crisis over his management of the coronavirus that could threaten his grip on power as much as his pending criminal trial on bribery and fraud charges.
Analysts have also predicted for months that Mr. Netanyahu would make an appearance at Mr. Trump’s side during the closing weeks of the U.S. election campaign, both as a personal repayment to Mr. Trump for years of political support and to help ensure that his presidency and policies continue.
Mr. Trump has, after all, been very good to Mr. Netanyahu during a period when the Israeli leader has fought for his political survival. Just two weeks before Mr. Netanyahu faced a tight election vote early last year, for instance, Mr. Trump recognized Israel’s authority over the long-disputed Golan Heights. With Mr. Netanyahu facing another popular vote earlier this year, along with a fresh criminal indictment, Mr. Trump hosted him at the White House to unveil a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians that heavily favored Israeli interests.
Again managing multiple crises at home, Mr. Netanyahu will welcome a splashy event at the White House. He left for the airport Sunday night right after imposing a three-week national lockdown that will go into effect on Friday, just before the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days, a response to soaring morbidity rates that his zigzagging policy changes, repeatedly abandoned for political reasons, have failed to contain.
Demonstrations against Mr. Netanyahu have clogged the streets outside his residence in Jerusalem every weekend for months. And on Sunday, anti-corruption protesters filled the highway outside Ben-Gurion International Airport as he departed for the 48-hour excursion, with some holding signs demanding that it be a one-way trip.
The United Arab Emirates shares Mr. Netanyahu’s gratitude toward Mr. Trump. Like the Israeli leader, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the Emirates, appreciates the American president’s hard line on Iran, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and support for its close ally Saudi Arabia.
“I think the U.A.E.’s calculus was very much, this is a favor we’re doing to the Trump administration,” said Robert Malley, a former National Security Council official who oversaw Middle East affairs in the Obama White House. Mr. Malley said the Emirates’ mentality toward the Trump administration amounted to, “We owe them.”
He added that the Emirates, like Israel, are mindful that, if elected president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. would most likely follow policies less aligned with their own. Mr. Biden is expected to re-engage with Iran diplomatically, and his Democratic Party is heavy with influential critics of both Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies.
“It’s also an insurance card with Biden,” added Mr. Malley, now president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, a senior administration official said that the texts to be signed on Tuesday would not be released until after the event, and hinted that representatives from unnamed “other Arab countries” could be in attendance.
The official said that the Trump administration was considering sales of the advanced F-35 fighter jet to the United Arab Emirates, a move widely suspected to be a condition of the Emirates’ willingness to normalize. Trump officials deny such a quid pro quo, however, adding that whatever action the administration takes, it will ensure that Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” as defined in U.S. law, will be protected.
As for the Palestinians, many will watch Tuesday’s event with more than a little resentment. The Emirates agreed to normalize ties with Israel without consulting the Palestinians, who have long pressed Arab countries to deny Israel normal relations until their core territorial and political demands are met.
“The Trump administration’s efforts in bringing Arab anti-democratic regimes into open relationships with Israel will only enable authoritarianism in the region by normalizing occupation and apartheid in Palestine, boosting monarchical regimes who crush dissent in the Gulf and playing into the Iranian regime’s narrative,” said Yousef Munayyer, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC.
“All for some pre-election photo ops,” he added.
Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and David Halbfinger from Jerusalem.
Updated Sept. 14, 2020
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