Saudi Arabia close to joining Abraham Accords with Israel, UAE

The Trump administration was “very close” to getting Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords last year, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who says the Biden administration has squandered the momentum to expand the historic normalization agreements between leading Gulf Arab powers and Israel.

“They took their time even using the phrase ‘Abraham Accords,’” the former ambassador told The Washington Times in a wide-ranging interview timed for the release of a documentary series highlighting the success of the agreements, reached just more than a year ago.

The accords include a normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, sealed at a 2020 White House summit. Although the agreements remain strong, Mr. Friedman said, President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and attempts at rapprochement with Iran have shaken regional confidence in America’s image as a strong ally capable of drawing more countries, most notably the Saudis, into similar deals with Israel.

“These Abraham agreements are premised upon a strong America engaging with its allies in the Middle East, so when these allies see America looking so clumsy, you know, inept, betraying allies, betraying fellow Americans, when they see a picture of people hanging on to the wheel wells of airplanes, this is tremendously damaging,” the former ambassador said about the Afghanistan pullout.

Mr. Friedman played an instrumental role alongside President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in reaching the Abraham Accords. He spoke ahead of the release late last week of a documentary series titled “Abraham Accords.”

The former ambassador co-produced the five-part series in partnership with the religious broadcasting network TBN, which will air segments at 8 p.m. EST on successive Fridays. The series features interviews with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at the diplomacy that led to the breakthrough. 

Mr. Friedman said the series highlights the basic notion that “you can bring Arabs to the table and not just create normalization with Jewish people, but actual real affinity, affection and real heartfelt coexistence.” 

The Abraham Accords involved an unprecedented and widely doubted Trump administration push to encourage Arab and Israeli leaders to put aside long-standing disputes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead focus on direct diplomacy between Israel and individual Gulf Arab powers.

Breaking with long-held orthodoxy in Washington, the administration argued that progress could be made despite the frozen Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that better ties between Israel and regional Arab powers could help reach a durable settlement for the Palestinians in the long run.

Mr. Friedman, an Orthodox Jew and former bankruptcy lawyer who served as ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021, helped elevate the administration’s push throughout 2019, culminating with the September 2020 signing ceremony for the first normalizations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Named after the prophet recognized by Judaism and Islam, the agreements were soon expanded to include diplomatic deals between Israel and Morocco and Sudan. 

Regional experts say the agreements marked a milestone: the first public acceptance of Israel by Arab nations since Egypt and Jordan broke from the rest of the Middle East and established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

The Saudi factor

The accords have opened regular air traffic and expanded opportunities for economic, political and cultural ties between Israel and the other nations. 

They also sent speculation swirling that Saudi Arabia, a rival to Iran, the home of some of Islam’s holiest sites, and the wealthiest and most influential Arab power, would normalize relations with Israel. Such a development could have a game-changing impact on Middle East peace.

“At the end of the Trump administration, I think we were at a point where we were very close to getting the Saudis on board,” Mr. Friedman told The Times. “It might have taken a half a year, it might have taken a year, and I think that with the Saudis on board, I truly believe you end for all intents and purposes the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“There will be plenty of cleanup work to do after that, but I think you would begin an irrevocable trajectory to end the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he added. “That’s where I think we were. Where are we now? The Saudis are waiting to see what the U.S. does with Iran. I think they’re waiting to see what America does writ large in the Middle East, you know, how engaged they intend to be.

“They’re waiting to see how strong America is going to be. I think if America remains strong in the region, I think the Saudis will ultimately come on board with some normalization with Israel. I think it’s in their interest, I think it’s in Israel’s interest,” he said. “Before they jump into this pool with Israel and America, I think they want to make sure that there’s water in the pool, that they’re not jumping into an empty pool, and I think that requires some sense that America will be as fully engaged in the region as it was during the Trump administration.”

Republicans generally accuse the Biden administration of being preoccupied with trying to ease tensions with critics of the Abraham Accords, most notably Iran, instead of building on the momentum of the Trump administration’s accomplishments.

The Islamist regime in Tehran has been among the Abraham Accords’ most vocal detractors. Along with Turkish and Palestinian leaders, Iranian officials say the accords have undermined a long-standing Arab consensus that regional recognition of Israel should be granted only in exchange for concessions to Palestinians seeking their own state.

Critics also say the Trump administration resorted to costly quid pro quo deals to win UAE, Sudanese and Moroccan buy-in for the accords — specifically by agreeing to the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, the removal of Sudan from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and the recognition of Morocco’s disputed sovereignty claims to broad areas of the Western Sahara.

Mr. Friedman rejected that criticism.

“We keep getting criticized for being ‘transactional,’” he said. “If that means that in any negotiation we try to identify what’s important to each of the participants, what they need, what they can part with, what they have to have, what their red lines are, what does it take to make a deal, that to me sounds completely appropriate and what people do all the time, and it’s also the basis upon which people have made peace in the past.”

The former ambassador said a key message of the documentary series is that “there are broader lessons to be learned here … about the importance of challenging accepted wisdom, especially when it comes to diplomacy, about actually applying principles of negotiations from the private sector to the public world, as they’re not that different.” 

“When you can get tens of millions of people who have hated each other for a hundred years to actually start to like each other, what’s better than that?” Mr. Friedman told The Times. “We took people that were historical enemies, and we didn’t just have them sign a piece of paper. We actually followed through, and it really led to and it continues to lead to real grassroots engagement between peoples.”

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