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Robert O’Brien says Mideast deal due to Trump unorthodox approach

The normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates grew from persistent backroom diplomacy by President Trump, according to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who said Sunday that Mr. Trump personally and repeatedly engaged the two sides to clinch the agreement. Officials in Washington and Jerusalem over the weekend again suggested that other Gulf…

The normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates grew from persistent backroom diplomacy by President Trump, according to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who said Sunday that Mr. Trump personally and repeatedly engaged the two sides to clinch the agreement.

Officials in Washington and Jerusalem over the weekend again suggested that other Gulf Arab powers, including Bahrain and Oman, may soon follow the UAE’s lead and recognize Israel, whose own leader went to lengths over the weekend to frame Thursday’s historic deal with the Emirates as a major victory for his hard-line policies.

All sides were trying to gauge the size of the tectonic shift marked by the UAE-Israeli deal, which opens the door to a broader alliance of Sunni Arab state and Israel against Iran and its regional allies.

Iran joined Palestinian leaders in angrily denouncing the accord, with Tehran saying it would have recalibrate its ties to the UAE in the wake of the news.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said that the normalization proves Israel does not need to make major concessions — such as giving up controversial settlements on disputed West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians — to successfully forge ties with key Arab nations.

Mr. O’Brien said Sunday Mr. Trump’s unorthodox approach to the Middle East stalemate deserved much of the credit for last week’s announcement, calling the Israel-UAE deal “the result of very hard diplomacy, much of it being quarterbacked by the president of the United States himself.”

The UAE and Israel will now establish embassies in each other’s country, allow direct flights, and forge ahead with collaborations on energy, tourism and communications. The UAE became the third Arab nation — Egypt and Jordan are the others — to establish active diplomatic ties with Israel since its founding as a nation in 1948.

Mr. O’Brien said the deal also “took a lot of courage” from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Mr. Netanyahu, but stressed it was Mr. Trump who “pushed this over the finish line.”

Iranian anger

His remarks, in an interview Sunday with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” came as the wider Middle East continued to reckon with the development that could reshape the region’s power structure by further isolating America’s chief foe there, Iran.

Iranian leaders, who have a long history of anti-Israeli rhetoric and demands for the abolition of the Jewish state, have spent the past three days expressing outrage over the UAE’s decision.

Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf on Sunday called it brazen “treason” against Islamic and humanitarian values, according to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency. In an address to parliament in Tehran, Mr. Qalibaf slammed the Emiratis for cavorting what Tasnim described as “the criminal Zionist regime.”

Iran’s highest-ranking military commander went further, warning Abu Dhabi that it will face consequences if Iran’s interests are threatened as a result of the normalization. Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, the Iranian military’s chief of staff, made it clear that “Iran will not tolerate any incident in the Persian Gulf or any threat to its security, whatsoever, and will hold the UAE culpable,” Tasnim reported.

Successive U.S. administrations have sought in vain to persuade Arab nations to accept Israel. The Trump administration has elevated such efforts behind the scenes in recent years, attempting to find common ground between Jerusalem and Gulf Arab monarchies against their shared rival of Iran.

Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, an architect of the administration’s overall Mideast policy, alluded to such efforts Sunday, but suggested the UAE-Israel breakthrough was as much a result of a wider regional “paradigm shift” facilitated by the president’s efforts to clarify America’s core interests and where they align with those of others in the region.

The president “recognizes that a lot of the approaches taken in the Middle East in the previous administrations just didn’t work and weren’t serving America’s interests,” Mr. Kushner said in an appearance on Fox News. “What he did was he tried to align the different countries in the region around their common interests, as opposed to focusing on historic grievances.”

Mr. Kushner cited Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw America from 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as examples of the administration’s forward-leaning efforts. He argued that such developments, along with a hard line against the Islamic State insurgency in Syria and Iraq, bolstered regional security and belied predictions by regional experts that they would only produce more instability.

But whether the UAE-Israel deal inspires other Arab powers, most notably Saudi Arabia, to follow suit and normalize with Jerusalem is an open question.

Regional analysts generally agree the way ahead is likely to be shaped by how Israel deals with the sensitive issue of Jewish settlements on West Bank territory Palestinians have long sought for their own independent nation.

After Mr. Trump earlier this year released his Mideast plan, widely seen as heavily tilted toward Israel, Mr. Netanyahu said he would forge ahead with annexing parts of the West Bank. But he put the plan on hold in the face of fierce international opposition and misgivings by White House officials.

In coordination with the UAE accord, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel had agreed to put off the contentious annexation plans, without offering a time frame. Mr. Netanyahu has insisted the annexation plans are on “temporary hold” at the request of the United States.

Keeping the land

On Sunday, the Israeli prime minister said last week’s developments proved his critics wrong: Israel doesn’t need to retreat from the occupied West Bank land to make diplomatic progress with Arab powers, whose sympathy for the Palestinians, he said, was outweighed by their fear of a rising Iran.

The UAE, like most of the Arab world, long rejected official diplomatic ties with Israel, saying recognition should come only in return for concessions to the Palestinians. Its accord with Israel breaks that long-held tenet and could usher in agreements with other Arab states, undermining an Arab consensus that was a rare source of leverage for the Palestinians.

“According to the Palestinians, and to many others in the world who agreed with them, peace can’t be reached without conceding to the Palestinians’ demands, including uprooting settlements, dividing Jerusalem and withdrawal to 1967 lines,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video statement Sunday. “No more. This concept of ‘peace through withdrawal and weakness’ has passed from the world.”

The Palestinians want the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip for their hoped-for state. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war, although it withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

Palestinian leaders bristled at Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks on Sunday.

“Peace should be established on the basis of the Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is the Arab and international consensus and anything else has no value,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Mr. Netanyahu also reiterated Sunday his interpretation of the UAE deal: that annexation was only being suspended and that it was still on the table, so long as it was done in coordination with Washington.

UAE officials have indicated that the deal means annexation has been shelved entirely.

It is not clear how normalization will affect the Trump administration’s wider Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which has struggled to gain traction since the White House rolled it out early this year.

A key aspect of the plan has involved enticing wealthy Gulf Arab powers, including the Emiratis and the Saudis, to underwrite massive economic development for Palestinians.

‘Great potential’

A joint statement by the U.S., Israel and the UAE said the Israel-UAE normalization will “unlock the great potential in the region” and fuel economic growth.

Mr. O’Brien suggested on Sunday that the opening of direct flights from the UAE to Israel could dramatically increase the flow of Arab visitors seeking to see the Al-Aqsa Mosque, from which the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven.

It is one of the holiest sites in Islam.

When asked Sunday whether he believes Saudi Arabia may follow the UAE in normalizing with Israel, Mr. O’Brien said: “Look, it’s possible that they could be next.”

The national security adviser went on to note that the two other “great holy sites in Islam … are Mecca [and] Medina, and the king of Saudi Arabia is the keeper of those two sites.”

“One of the great things about this agreement is you’re now going to have direct flights from those fantastic airports, both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, into Ben Gurion [Airport] in Tel Aviv,” Mr. O’Brien said. “And we’re going to have Arab and Muslim pilgrims coming to Jerusalem and going up to the Mount and worshiping at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

“We think that’s something that will be a great confidence-builder,” he added. “And so, I’m hoping that [Saudi] King Salman and [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] see that development and realize that this would be great for Saudi Arabia, it would be great for the Arab people and for the Islamic world as well. So, we’re hopeful.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” he said. “But we’re talking to a number of countries in addition to Saudi Arabia.”

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