Kissinger, Kerry, Kushner

During the recent Gaza skirmish (so it will go down in history, I predict), some journalists and opinion writers rushed to declare the demise of the Abraham Accords. 

I won’t mention names, but these were some of the headlines: “The mirage of Trump’s ’peace’ deals” (Washington Post), “Violence Shakes Trump’s Boast of ‘New Middle East’” (New York Times), “Not worth the paper they are written on” (Independent), “Jared Kushner’s Middle East fantasy explodes” (CNN), etc. At least two headlines went even further: “How the Abraham Accords Precipitated New Israeli-Palestinian Violence” (US News), and “So much for the Abraham Accords. Trump made things worse in the Middle East” (Washington Post).

I don’t take any of this seriously, and neither should you. I wrote the following at the invitation of a student-run publication, the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, at the Harvard Kennedy School. The message, especially to surly folks liable to dismiss anything achieved by the Trump administration, is this: get over it and build on the Abraham Accords. They’re one of the best things America has going for it in the Middle East.

Title of the piece, reproduced below: “Kissinger, Kerry, Kushner: Making and Missing Peace in the Middle East.” You can also download the journal version here. (And please excuse all the Harvard references. I couldn’t resist.)

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After Henry Kissinger (class of 1950), the Harvard undergraduate alumnus who has had the most profound effect on the Middle East to date is Jared Kushner (class of 2003), son-in-law of President Donald Trump and architect of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Ponder the irony. Harvard has produced a cavalcade of experts on the Middle East, both practitioners and scholars, with far more knowledge of the region than Kushner’s. “I’ve been studying this now for three years,” Kushner said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year. “I’ve read 25 books on it, I’ve spoken to every leader in the region, I’ve spoken to everyone who’s been involved in this.”[1] That was his primer for his role as broker, first, of Trump’s “Vision for Peace” (aka “The Deal of the Century”) and later, the breakthrough agreements between Israel and four Arab states. 

By conventional standards, Kushner was “winging it.” But in policy making, as in real estate, success begins with location. Kushner (and his sidekick, Harvard Law alumnus Avi Berkowitz, class of 2016), ended up in the White House riding an unpredictable wave in American politics. These twists of fate are not rare; to the contrary, they are par for the course of history. The events that put Kissinger in the Middle Eastern cockpit fifty years ago were no more predictable. 

Still, being in the right place is never enough. One has to grasp the meaning of the moment. Jared Kushner understood something fundamental about the Middle East that had eluded the long line of secretaries, deputy secretaries, advisers, envoys, and ambassadors who had preceded him. Having read his 25 books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he realized that not all Arabs were in its grip. 

This was a truth that Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, hadn’t fathomed. Kerry, who had tried his hand in the Middle East right before Kushner, will never live down his 2016 statement, preserved on YouTube and gleefully retweeted thousands of times this past year: 

There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear with all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, “Well, the Arab world is in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them. We can work some things with the Arab world, and we’ll deal with the Palestinians.” No. No, no, and no.[2]

Kushner didn’t dismiss the view of Israel’s “prominent politicians,” but actually put it to the test, and ended up eliciting four “yeses,” first from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, then followed by Sudan and Morocco. 

Why did Kerry miss what Kushner saw? Some commentators have portrayed Kerry, and indeed the entire “peace process” establishment, as blinded by bias. But the simpler explanation is a generational difference in the American view of the Arabs. There is an older generation for whom the Arab world appeared driven by ideologies and passions, and a younger generation who see it governed by states and interests. 

Kerry, born in 1943, studied political science at Yale when Gamal Abdul Nasser was still riding the crest of pan-Arab sentiment. After 1967, following the emasculation of Nasser, the Arabs seemed to have invested every thought and emotion in the cause of the Palestinians, who violently burst upon the world scene beginning with Black September in 1970. Kerry belonged to the tail-end of the generation that saw the Arabs through the Palestinian prism. “Is the Israel-Palestine conflict still the key to peace in the whole region?” Jimmy Carter was once asked. “Without doubt,” he answered, “the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.”[3] In the estimate of the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”[4] And to be fair, in the past the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was both combustible and galvanizing. 

But it ceased to be that over time. Thanks to the deal-brokering begun by Kissinger, Israel stopped being regarded in the Arab world as the prime threat to the integrity and stability of Arab states. Peace agreements and American patronage hemmed Israel in. In the place of the Israeli danger, other threats arose: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which in 1990 briefly erased an Arab state, Kuwait, from the map; and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, which energized Shiite minorities against Arab governments. 

When Kushner, born in 1981, came to study at Harvard, the Middle East looked entirely different than it had to Kerry at Yale. The Palestinians had lost their privileged position among the Arabs, first by allying with Saddam, and then by entering the Oslo Accords. State interests had washed ideology and passion out of Arab politics. 

Of course, Arab states had been making their own calculations for years. Egypt and Jordan had reached peace agreements with Israel, and other Arab states had low-profile ties. But while the trajectory was clear, the old hands still couldn’t trace the arc. Kushner, on the other hand, saw the obvious: many Arabs had more important priorities than rallying around the Palestinians.

He also located the tipping point of this sentiment in the Arab Gulf states. For Americans of Kerry’s generation, “the Arabs” came from Beirut and Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Americans had a foothold in oil-producing Saudi Arabia, but the rest of the littoral of the Arab Gulf was “flyover country” run by the British. 

The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar didn’t gain independence until 1971. Even then, they weren’t much to write home about. The late Roger Owen, professor of Middle Eastern history at Harvard, evoked the ambience in recalling a visit he made to two of the Emirates in the 1970s: “Abu Dhabi and Sharjah seemed only to come alive when a British Overseas Airways—after 1974, a British Air plane—arrived at dusk, when Land Rovers raced out to meet it, and the passengers disbursed slowly in the evening heat.”[5]

By Kushner’s time, these same emirates had become the Arab world’s glittering “Gold Coast,” centers of fabulous wealth wedded to unashamed pragmatism. The old ideologies that had grown like weeds elsewhere in the Arab world never struck root in the sands surrounding the skyscrapers of the Arab Gulf. Here were places that had “come alive” in a spectacular way, and where Arabs broke taboos every day. 

Yet even this wouldn’t have sufficed to produce a breakthrough. Kushner understood the dread felt by these small Arab states over Iran, and how Israel’s sounding of the alarm resonated with them. In the game with Iran, Arab Gulf states and Israel stood near one another on the scrimmage line, and neither had full confidence in the parade of American quarterbacks, each with a different game plan. 

A question facing any future historian will be this: was the “Deal of the Century,” with its implicit endorsement of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, designed in advance as a throwaway, to facilitate the Abraham Accords? Whatever the answer, that is precisely the purpose it ultimately served. “We had been talking to both sides for 18 months,” said a senior American official, “but the annexation issue created the atmosphere which was conducive for getting a deal.”[6] If it was so designed in advance, then far from being a “dead-on-arrival” plan, it was a strategic feint worthy of a Kissinger. If not, it was a deft last-minute shift of gears. 

Whatever the back story, however, the Abraham Accords and their sequels have introduced a new vector in the Middle East. The most creative and dynamic shorelines on the Mediterranean and the Gulf are now linked. They are the counter to the forty-year bond between Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which also links the Mediterranean and the Gulf. There is much potential in this fledgling alignment; how much of it will be realized depends on the ingenuity of Israelis and Gulf Arabs alike. 

But it also depends on the attitude of the United States. Certainly, it has been hard for the old hands of the Democratic foreign policy establishment to concede that Kushner, wet behind the ears, achieved something that had eluded them. They should get over it. One doesn’t have to believe that Kushner (and Berkowitz) deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, though Harvard emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz has nominated them for one, but one must admit that they got this right. 

Remember that Jimmy Carter didn’t toss out the Middle East achievements of Richard Nixon and Kissinger, but built them out into a new security architecture for the Middle East. President Biden should consider that precedent and think hard about how to capitalize on the achievements of Trump and Kushner. That need not mean abandoning the quest for a resolution of the Palestinian question. It need not mean locking the door to Iran forever. It does mean nurturing the cooperative spirit of the Abraham Accords. These US-brokered agreements give the United States a strategic edge. In the Middle East, America needs that more than ever. 

Martin Kramer is chair of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and the Walter P. Stern Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He co-founded and edited the website Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) in the late 2000s.

Endnotes 

1. Kushner interview with Sky News Arabia, January 29, 2020.

2. “Remarks at the Saban Forum,” U.S. Department of State, 4 December 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/264824.htm

3. Nathaniel Gardels, “Jimmy Carter takes on Israel’s Apartheid Policies and the Pro-Israeli Lobby in the US,” Huffington Post, 12 December 2006. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jimmy-carter-takes-on-isr_b_36134

4. Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Lowered Vision,” The New Republic, 7 June 2004. https://newrepublic.com/article/67609/lowered-vision

5. Roger Owen, A Life in Middle East Studies (Fairfax, VA: Tadween Publishing, 2016), p. 117. 

6. Barak Ravid, “Behind the scenes: How the Israel-UAE deal came together,” Axios, 13 August 2020. https://www.axios.com/how-the-israel-uae-recognition-deal-came-together-d0d45b2e-b2c7-4593-b72a-0ef99ec96233.html

Abraham Accords: the real deal?

Earlier this month, I interviewed David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, for the Jewish Leadership Conference. It was a frank exchange, and I pressed him on the relationship between the “Deal of the Century” and the Abraham Accords. Was the deal conceived, at least at some levels and by some persons, as a throwaway for precisely something like the ice-breaker with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain? “We were triangulating towards an outcome,” he admitted, “either one of which would have been acceptable.” 

There will be many competing versions of what happened; Friedman’s deserves a thorough read. Go to this link, at Mosaic.

Israel’s vulnerable new friends

Most Israelis, if they know anything about the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, know that they’re rich, vulnerable, far from the conflict with Israel, and dangerously close to Iran. It’s this combination of factors that made possible this past week’s White House ceremony.

What many don’t realize is the source of that vulnerability. Just as Israel frets over demography, so too do the Emirates and Bahrain. And any problem that Israel has pales in comparison to theirs.

The United Arab Emirates has a population only slightly larger than Israel’s, about 9.8 million people. But Arab citizens of the country form only about 12 percent—around a million-plus. The rest are migrants who’ve come to work, but don’t have Emirati citizenship or any prospect of getting it. About 60 percent of the country’s inhabitants are South Asians (Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis); the rest are a mix of Filipinos, Nepalese, Egyptians, and others.

In most Arab countries, zealous nationalist regimes oppressed or threw out religious or ethnic minorities, many of them sources of initiative and wealth. In the UAE, by contrast, the Arabs turned themselves into a small minority. They needed migrants to leverage their massive oil wealth into fast-paced development. Otherwise, their huge resources would have languished in distant banks.

So they imported working hands in the millions, confident that they could manage the influx and preserve their own identity and solidarity. So far, it’s worked.

Bahrain is a smaller-scale version of the same dynamic. The population is only about 1.7 million, of whom less than half are Bahraini citizens. The majority are expatriates, although a substantial portion is Arab.

Bahrain’s citizens are divided between a Sunni ruling minority and a Shiite majority. The latter share religion and sometimes ethnicity with Iranians, and constitute the source of most opposition in the kingdom. So far, the monarchy has held its own against opponents, although it relied heavily on Saudi (and UAE) backing to fend off a popular challenge during the “Arab Spring.”

Both countries look stable, but demography is an abiding concern. The combined citizen populations of the UAE and Bahrain probably don’t come to two million, less than that of greater Tel Aviv. The Jewish population of Israel is three times the Arab populations of the UAE and Bahrain combined. Likewise, there are as many Arab citizens of Israel proper as there are of the UAE and Bahrain. The Arabs of these two countries form only half a percent of the 400 million Arabs in the world. And Emiratis and Bahrainis are but a drop as compared to the 82 million Iranians next door.

The very rich are different from you and me

They’d have reason enough to feel vulnerable if those were the only numbers in the game. But there are more.

Thanks to Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, the UAE has a gross domestic product of over $400 billion. Much of this flows to the resident expatriates, but it primarily sustains the affluence of the citizen minority across the seven emirates that make up the union. Bahrain, which also relies heavily on oil (as well as banking and finance), isn’t that far behind the UAE. Just for proportions, the combined gross domestic product of the UAE and Bahrain is equal to Iran’s—and Iran has a population of 82 million.

Over the years, not a few observers have declared that such huge disparities of wealth, and its concentration in the hands of ruling minorities, couldn’t be sustained.

A sample of this view can be found in the book After the Sheikhs, whose author (British academic Christopher Davidson) concluded that the UAE’s rulers “have suffered a serious and likely permanent loss of legitimacy,” and that Bahrain’s monarchy has “the bleakest future” of the Gulf monarchies. His conclusion (in 2012): “Most of these regimes—at least in their present form—will be gone within the next two to five years” (emphasis in source).

The end-is-nigh trope is an old one. In fact, the rulers are perfectly aware of their vulnerability, unlike those Arab rulers who were toppled during the “Arab Spring.” So they have perfected survival strategies that work amazingly well.

The most important is to secure and keep the support of the West, and especially the United States, as a counterweight to the forces of envy that surround them.

But it goes beyond that. After all, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak had U.S. support, and it didn’t save him. So the UAE, in particular, has tried to look, sound, and feel like a showcase of the West. True, it can’t embrace democracy, but it’s embraced a degree of cultural and religious tolerance that has impressed the West.

Whether it’s a branch of the Louvre museum (visited by the recent Israeli press delegation to the country), or an outpost of New York University, such talismans are there for a rainy day. Should the UAE get in trouble with grasping neighbors, public opinion in the West will say: “Let’s save them, they’re one of us.”

A friend of a friend

It’s here that normalization with Israel fits in. Yes, Israel has lots to offer the UAE and Bahrain, and they have much to offer in return. But the real attraction of normalization for the UAE and Bahrain is that good relations with Israel are the default of all enlightened Western countries. An Israeli embassy goes perfectly with a branch of the Guggenheim art museum.

Why now? The United States is pulling back from some of its Middle Eastern commitments. From some, but not all—and certainly not its commitment to Israel, which Americans of all stripes see as “one of us,” even if they disagree with some of its policies. Full and normal relations with Israel raise the UAE and Bahrain to a new category: from “friendly Arab countries that sell us oil” to “best Arab friends of our own best friend, Israel.”

Not only does that strengthen the U.S. insurance policy, it also lines up the pro-Israel lobby in America on the side of the UAE and Bahrain. They’ve always had their own hired lobbyists in Washington, but they never had any grassroots support in America. Now they will.

It’s an upgrade, and it’s become a need-to-have in a time of American retrenchment. It’s also an open-sesame for bigger and better arms deals, and a deterrent against would-be aggressors, above all Iran.

Israel reached this landmark because it’s strong. The Gulf Arabs have reached it because they’re vulnerable. Israel seeks to translate its strength into recognition. The Gulf Arabs seek to translate their recognition into strength. Just how the two sides will negotiate this unequal partnership isn’t in their formal agreements. It’s in the politics ahead.

Left to right: Bahrain’s foreign minister, Israel’s prime minister, the US president, and UAE’s foreign minister, signing of Abraham Accords, September 15. Official White House photo.

Cross-posted at Times of Israel.