White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is traveling to the Middle East this weekend to try to convince multiple Arab leaders to attend a splashy signing ceremony at the White House for the recent normalization deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
The aim is to provide a bit of eleventh hour grandeur, to herald a rare foreign-policy win and help bolster President Donald Trump’s reelection efforts this November.
Several diplomatic and congressional sources told CNN that Kushner is courting multiple Arab countries to commit to attending a ceremony in Washington and that push is part of his trip to the region. They include Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman, according to two of those sources. Some of those countries are mulling over the possibility of making the trip and considering who they would send, the sources said.
As well as aiming to formalize the UAE-Israel agreement and secure the grand ceremony Trump has envisioned, Kushner. who is the President’s son-in-law, is also using the trip, alongside other top US officials, to pursue a series of normalization agreements between Israel and various Arab nations and strengthen efforts to counter Iran.
Kushner’s name and reputation have been inextricably linked to the flailing Middle East peace plan since the administration was in its infancy. Ivanka Trump said at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night that her father defied “all expectations” and “rewrote history again by making a peace agreement in the Middle East, the biggest breakthrough in a quarter century” as her husband smiled in the audience.
Kushner is widely perceived to have failed in his efforts to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict but there is a hope that these efforts could help resurrect his reputation as a diplomat. His task is daunting, however, and there’s skepticism from multiple sources that further normalization agreements can be agreed on between Israel and other Arab states. There are also complications that will need to be addressed over the agreement with the UAE.
But it’s significant that Kushner is leading a delegation that includes national security adviser Robert O’Brien, outgoing US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz and senior National Security Council officials Miguel Correa and Rob Greenway, according to a senior White House official.
Despite Kushner having had no foreign policy experience before his father-in-law appointed him, there is a wide belief in diplomatic circles that Kushner is the only person truly able to influence the unpredictable American President.
One senior administration official noted the significance of Kushner leading a delegation that includes the President’s national security adviser. “(John) Bolton and (H.R.) McMaster wouldn’t have agreed to that,” this person said, referring to O’Brien’s predecessors under Trump. “Jared is running the show.”
Shift in focus to Iran
The administration’s approach involves a shift in focus from aiming to establish peace between Israelis and Palestinians to creating a regional coalition among a somewhat random group of nations, aimed at balking Iranian aggression.
The fragile normalization agreement between the world’s newest bellwether allies, Israel and the United Arab Emirates – united in their mutual contempt for Tehran and their strong ties to the Trump White House – is being used as a model for other countries. The hope, according to two US and two foreign officials, is that in the short term, Bahrain, Oman, Sudan and Morocco will follow suit. Representatives from those countries did not respond to a request for comment.
Normalization for this particular group of countries isn’t a stretch, since most have had at least covert ties with Israel for years and have become increasingly tolerant of Israel as a regional business partner and major power in the region.
Kushner will tell various nations that an anti-Iran coalition is their best bet and an effective insurance policy should former Vice President and Democratic hopeful Joe Biden pull off a win in the presidential election, according to several US and foreign officials.
The Trump delegation will first stop in Israel for meetings, after which it will escort a number of Israeli government experts from various sectors on the first-ever commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, on Monday, a senior White House official told CNN. Other stops include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and possibly Oman and Morocco, the official said.
Ties between Washington, Israel and the Arab Gulf nations became strained under former President Barack Obama over the nuclear accord with Iran, which those countries viewed as a means of empowering Tehran. Since coming into office, Trump has withdrawn the US from the nuclear accord and worked to restore relations with Israel and the oil-rich Arab Gulf sheikhdoms.
But Iranian aggression, and the potential for renewed nuclear talks under a Biden administration, isn’t the only incentive for these countries to throw caution to the wind and normalize ties with Israel.
Aid for peace
One of Israel’s leading newspapers alleged this month that there was a “secret clause” in Israel’s deal to normalize relations with the UAE – one that would allow the UAE to buy billions of dollars in advanced military hardware from the US, including drones, F-35 stealth fighters and other weaponry.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially slammed reports of a possible stealth fighter jet deal as “completely fake news.” But then Kushner said last Sunday in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the normalization agreement “should increase the probability” of an F-35 jet sale to the UAE.
Administration officials and experts agree that countries like Bahrain, Oman, Sudan and Morocco are intrigued by talk of military and economic aid for peace, and may be enticed by such a proposition.
The concept of aid for peace isn’t new. US aid to Egypt has historically been conditioned on its obligations under the 1979 Camp David treaty, which ended three decades of sporadic wars with Israel. As relations between the two countries have dithered, with particular low points since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011, that funding has been seen as one of the treaty’s primary guarantees.
Similarly, Jordan’s efforts to begin peace talks with Israel in 1994 came, in part, in the hope that Israel could compel Washington to resume military aid and spare parts as well as delivery of a squadron of F-16 jet fighters for the Royal Jordanian Air Force.
But several administration officials and GOP congressional aides told CNN that Kushner’s ability to make guarantees regarding military aid is questionable, particularly since these matters particularly go through a robust interagency process and are typically also cleared by Congress.
Bumps in the road
While the hope is that these other countries may agree to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel, the likelihood of getting there by Election Day remains uncertain. Sudan shunned the idea publicly ahead of a visit this week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying it doesn’t have a mandate to pursue normalization with Israel.
Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani also told reporters this week that “we refuse any normalization with the Zionist entity because this emboldens it to go further in breaching the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Administration officials acknowledged that the situation was too fluid and so hope for reaching additional agreements remains uncertain at best.
Even the UAE-Israel deal seemed to hit a snag almost as soon as it was announced. Both countries issued a flurry of contradictory statements about how the deal will impact Palestinians, who viewed the announcement as a sign of waning support among fellow Arabs.
UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed said on Twitter that an agreement had been reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, a threat Netanyahu had pledged to carry out this year. But later, in a televised address, Netanyahu confirmed that his annexation plans had only been “temporarily suspended,” adding that he was “still committed” to annexing parts of the West Bank.
Omar Ghobash, a top Emirati government minister, later confirmed that “we don’t have any guarantees as such” from Israel that it would not annex occupied Palestinian territory in the future.