Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 3 December 2020

The Abraham Accord is not as unorthodox a deal as Trump thinks

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner applaud after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 13, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner applaud after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 13, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Democratic National Convention opened on Monday in the US, while on the same day a senior White House official spoke on a conference call to a group of reporters in the Middle East.

While both events considered America’s past and its immediate future, the contrasts between the messages could hardly have been greater, even as one was a virtual gathering that sought to replicate the carefully choreographed hullabaloo of a party convention via videoconferencing, and the other was a discreet discussion designed to contextualise and reinforce the White House’s foreign policy achievements.

At the convention, prominent Democrats spoke of the need to “end the chaos” of the past four years of the Trump administration by voting for Joe Biden.

Much of the rhetoric was designed to challenge the administration’s domestic record during the coronavirus crisis and over recent societal schisms, but it was set in the context of the US electorate having clear choices to make for the future of America at home and abroad. To make sure no viewer was in any doubt, former Ohio governor John Kasich stood outdoors at a fork in a real road to say “America is at a crossroads”.

A little earlier, Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser, briefed a group of reporters on the American role in the UAE-Israel accord announced last week and the prospects for energising the broader Palestinian-Israeli peace process. He too talked about choices that could be made to bridge divides and build a better future.

When the Abraham Accord was made public last week following a joint call between Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Donald Trump, the US president, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, Mr Kushner was keen to emphasise how Mr Trump’s “untraditional approach”, a persistent feature of his White House years, had achieved something very significant.

It is the promise of finding a solution to what Mr Kushner referred to starkly as “the cancers of conflict” that is the biggest headline

“You can’t solve problems that remain unsolved by doing it the same way the people before you have tried and failed,” Mr Kushner said at the time.

The accord, which freezes all Israeli plans for annexation of Palestinian territories in exchange for beginning the process of establishing bilateral ties between the UAE and Israel, has been praised in the international community. The European Union described it as “a fundamental step for the stabilisation of the region as a whole”.

Beyond the UAE-Israel trade links and the diplomatic ties that the accord is expected to deliver, it is the promise of finding a solution to what Mr Kushner referred to starkly as “the cancers of conflict” that is the biggest headline.

Intriguingly, this could be seen as a conventional legacy agreement delivered via an orthodox form of statecraft. It is, in fact, diplomacy in its most traditional sense from a non-traditional president.

This was also Mr Trump seeking to return to a brushstroke 2016 campaign promise of replacing “randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy and chaos with peace”.

On Monday, Mr Kushner sought to stitch together the contours of the White House’s Middle East thinking, which in his telling is grounded in “aligning people around shared interests, joint opportunities and shared threats, and hopefully this leads to a whole new set of progress that can bring the region forward.”

He said: “We need to take the cancers of conflict – we need to extract them from the region.

“But unfortunately, while people still allow some of these leaders and these groups to exploit division, that’s going to continue to hold back the region from achieving its true potential,” he said in reference to Iran and extremist groups.

Mr Kushner also returned to the issue of trust several times, using the word repeatedly, in particular saying of Israel that Mr Trump “trusts them and they trust him and we do not believe they will go forward against the deal that we made”.

Those words could easily be interpreted as a repurposed version of former US president Barack Obama’s notion of “trust, but verification” when he announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries in 2015.

American trust in Tehran evaporated soon afterwards, while the relationship with Israel holds firm. Mr Trump consistently argued that the deal to constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions was a bad one, many in this region agreed with him, and after withdrawing from the accord in 2018 has pursued a vigorous containment strategy against Iran grounded in sanctions.

The White House senior adviser said that Iran was a bad actor that had been playing games for too long, adding that it should “stop trying to export terror and extremism” and start focusing on improving the lives of its citizens.

The way forward for the US, Mr Kushner said, was working with its close allies, creating opportunity and countering extremism. The lens through which to view the world was one of “shared interests and common threats”.

Few would argue against the 2020 accord being a significant agreement that changes the regional dynamic, even if some dislike what it delivers. But it is also a conventional piece of statecraft delivered with a road map that brings immediate results and sets out longer-term goals. It asks some questions and answers others.

In the late autumn of his first term and as Mr Trump seeks re-election, the “untraditional” president is following a well-trodden historical path through seeking to bridge divides and negotiate peace.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Updated: August 20, 2020 11:21 AM

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