Carter, Trump and Peacemaking
When I heard the news about the Israel-UAE agreement, my first thought was that this was a great diplomatic coup and a potentially game-changing event in Israeli history. My second thought was that the claim of credit by President Donald Trump reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s role in the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.
In Carter’s case, he played an important role in brokering the final terms of the peace treaty, but Egypt had already decided to make peace before Carter got involved. Secret negotiations took place without US knowledge — and, most important, Sadat went to the Knesset and spoke directly to the Israeli people.
In the present case, the UAE and Israel already had unofficial relations for years. One report estimated that about 100 Israeli companies already do business with the UAE. The Jerusalem Post reported that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen may have floated the idea of a compromise on annexation during secret meetings in the Gulf (which might result in additional breakthroughs).
The Post also reported that Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, told Haim Saban in May, “I want to publish an article against annexation and offer this deal of normalization in exchange for annexation.” The Post also noted that Cohen went to the UAE at the beginning of August, and a week later an understanding was reached.
The reporting suggests that the final deal may have required a push from the United States. Unlike Carter, however, it does not appear Trump had much, if any, direct involvement in persuading the UAE to formalize its existing relations. While Carter was the broker at Camp David, Jared Kushner apparently was the principal mediator of the Abraham Accords.
Another similarity is that both presidents used arms sales as an enticement. Egypt was barred from purchasing US weapons until it made peace with Israel, and their agreement opened the floodgates (to Israel’s dismay). The need to make peace before getting weapons was dropped at the same time when the US agreed to sell fighter planes to Saudi Arabia (also opposed by Israel, but their criticism was muted by also receiving fighters). The UAE has been buying arms for years, but Dennis Ross observed that agreeing to peace “would give it access to previously off-limits US weaponry, such as advanced drones.”
For Carter to finalize the deal with Egypt, he had to convince Israel to give up the Sinai, a huge sacrifice of land and oil resources, in addition to the removal of all Jewish settlements. To get the agreement with the UAE, Israel was required to give up what some believed was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to apply Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. Giving up sovereignty, however, was a comparatively minor concession. First, it was just a campaign promise that Netanyahu could easily renege on. Second, the ruling Israeli coalition was wary of an international uproar and concerned about relations with Jordan. Third, Netanyahu insists he only temporarily suspended sovereignty (though moving ahead would undo the diplomatic gains), knows Israel already controls most of the territory, and understands the continued expansion of settlements will lead to the evaporation of the two-state fantasy. Fourth, and most important, Kushner, one of the few people Trump listens to, opposed Israel’s plan and Netanyahu was not going to risk angering the unforgiving president.
Another similarity is that the leaders of the Arab countries and the United States willingly sold out the Palestinians in the interest of more important bilateral agreements. Egypt gave lip service to the Palestinians’ interests but was not about to let their recalcitrance veto the treaty. The UAE also decided, finally, that it would not let Palestinian intransigence interfere with its national interests. Unlike Egypt, the UAE can claim, though Palestinians don’t accept, that it helped the Palestinians by stopping Israeli “annexation.” Carter was much more sympathetic than Trump to the Palestinians and a Palestinian state, but Kushner wants to preserve the fiction that his peace plan (which Trump also had little or nothing to do with), which includes a Palestinian state, will be implemented.
Carter hoped his achievement would win over Jewish voters to help him win reelection. Many Jews, however, were unwilling to overlook what they viewed as his anti-Israel attitude (that proved later to be rooted in antisemitism) as well as other faults, such as his handling of the economy and the Iran hostage crisis. He received 45% of the Jewish vote, the lowest percentage for a Democrat since 1920, which helped sink his reelection (and for which he never forgave the Jews).
The UAE deal is significant but pales in comparison to the importance of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which didn’t help Carter. Trump is likely to have no more success in convincing Jews who don’t already support him to vote for his reelection, though the reasons will be primarily unrelated to Israel.
One difference in the two cases is that Sadat acted over the objections of the rest of the Arab world and needed Carter to provide significant backing (mostly arms) to take the risk for peace. For the UAE, the risk was minimal. Egypt and Jordan already have treaties, and the Emiratis undoubtedly were given the greenlight by other Gulf nations, assuring they would not be boycotted like Qatar for its ties with Iran. Trump did not need to offer the UAE carrots to overcome a backlash from other Arab states.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the presidents is that Carter opposed Sadat’s peace efforts because they undercut his desire for an international conference. His administration was even angered by Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. Sadat, in turn, believed Carter was so misguided he had to ignore the United States prior to Camp David. By contrast, the Trump administration has been supportive of the UAE’s actions and has placed a higher priority on nurturing Israel’s ties with other Arab states than on resolving the Palestinian issue.
One similarity, however, is that Sadat believed Carter’s policies were detrimental; the Gulf states have concluded Trump’s are as well, concerning Iran. They lost faith in his willingness to confront Iran when he failed to respond to the downing of a US drone, a ballistic missile attack on a US base, the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, or threats to Gulf shipping. Paradoxically, the UAE signed the deal with US mediation because it believes Israel is a more reliable ally in countering Iran. It is also ironic that President Barack Obama’s catastrophic nuclear deal was the initial catalyst for the Israeli-Gulf alliance against Iran, but Trump’s tougher yet failing policy has increased Israel’s value.
In both the Egyptian and UAE examples, to the extent the US presidents mediated the agreements (Sadat and Mohamed bin Zayed deserve the most credit), they helped demonstrate that the Jewish state can have peace with Arab Muslim states. People still talk about the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” but that ended with Egypt’s peace treaty and was replaced by the Islamist conflict with the Jewish state. Now, except for Iran (and to some extent Turkey and civil war-consumed Syria), Israel’s enemies are all Islamic terror groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and the increasingly Islamized PLO.
Carter was forced by Sadat to make peace with Egypt a priority over the Palestinian issue. Trump had the right idea from the outset, recognizing the US has more important interests than an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Should Joe Biden be elected, it will be critical that he build on the current momentum. He cannot reduce pressure on Iran or the Palestinians. He must encourage other Arab states to establish relations with Israel without additional concessions to the Palestinians. Most important, he must not return to the Obama policy of criticizing and pressuring Israel and rewarding Palestinian obduracy, or we will backslide into the paralysis of the Obama years.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.