Every politically connected Saudi knows that Kushner has direct communication lines to Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of the country, and to Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and counterpart to MbS in the UAE. There is no remotely comparable Palestinian figure with whom Kushner or Trump could chitchat or bargain. So it should be no surprise that the first harvest of this administration’s Middle East strategy would be an agreement that ignores the Palestinians altogether and instead deals with one of these billionaire princes.
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It would be stupid to call this strategy of personalized, WhatsApp diplomacy canny, because it is the only strategy available to an administration that has destroyed all other avenues of negotiation. But the strategy is not crazy. The neoconservative line during the George W. Bush administration was “The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad” (that is, if you want peace in Israel, you need friendly Arab democracies). That didn’t work as planned, so why not let our diplomatic GPS reroute us through Abu Dhabi instead? The Gulf monarchies are at least ready to deal, and they have some confidence that Trump will give them the support necessary to withstand the opprobrium —foreign and domestic—that will arrive after their having apparently sold out the cause of Palestinian liberation.
What’s more, these monarchs’ eagerness to work with Israel is sincere. The UAE has not hated Israel the way other Arab states have. Ten years ago, I wrote a story about Arab farmers on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border. The story was published in an Abu Dhabi newspaper, and I worried that the evidence of my trip to Israel would complicate my reentry into the UAE. Friends in the UAE assured me that the government didn’t particularly care about the Israeli stamp in my passport, and that no one would bother to stop and question me unless I was also wearing a yarmulke with an Israeli flag on it and singing “Hatikvah” when I tried to go through immigration. (I was told that the story upset some of the paper’s brass—not because it was about Israel, but because it dwelled unduly on the farmers’ pigs, unclean animals that were unwelcome subjects in a family newspaper.) Last year, I attended a papal mass in Abu Dhabi, the first of its kind in the modern history of the Gulf. The UAE rulers, like the Saudis, have been blaring signals of their desire to open up and be more like other countries—just richer, hotter, and more authoritarian.
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The final affinity among these states is hatred of Iran, which would destroy Israel and many of the Sunni Arab states if it had the chance. The Trump administration’s hostility toward Iran (or more precisely, Barack Obama’s deal with Iran, which froze Iran’s nuclear program but guaranteed the survival of its regime) is a reassuring certainty for the UAE and Saudi Arabia—and as the odds of a second Trump term diminish, leadership in both countries should be considering ways to ensure continued indulgence by a Biden-Harris administration. Kamala Harris in particular has called for a reckoning with Saudi Arabia over the murder and bodily disintegration of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Friendship with Trump is easy for the UAE. But by making peace with Israel (and at some cost to itself), the UAE is forcing any U.S. president to consider the consequences of criticism or threats of ouster. (Joe Biden called the agreement “a historic step.”) This deal is an insurance policy.