More Than Mere Gossip

Barak Ravid's book on the Abraham Accords provides a fascinating first-hand perspective of a historic episode.

While Barak Ravid’s debut book made headlines around the world for revealing former US President Donald Trump’s colorful choice of words to describe his feelings (at least at that moment) towards former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“F#*k him”), Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East offers much more than mere gossip.

Ravid provides an in-depth account of the events that led up to the historic signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The book is thoroughly researched, relying on Ravid’s interviews not only with the most recognizable figures associated with the accords – Trump, as well as his advisors Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, the UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba, and others – but with less familiar names too, including diplomats and businesspeople who laid much of the important groundwork years before the deal was signed.

Ravid, a Netanyahu critic and someone often associated with the Israeli left, remains politically neutral throughout his telling of the story, giving credit where it is due and maintaining the intellectual integrity necessary to appreciate complexity and nuance.

While acknowledging Trump’s foibles, Ravid believes that the Abraham Accords could not have happened without him. In an interview with The Forward, Ravid said, “The Abraham Accords were a huge achievement of Trump and they wouldn’t have happened were somebody else in the White House, Republican or Democrat. The fact that Trump was willing to, on the one hand, stop Netanyahu from annexing the West Bank, and on the other hand, give tangibles to those Arab countries in order to move ahead with normalization, that is something that I’m not sure that other presidents would have been able to do.”

The book depicts Trump aides Kushner and Berkowitz, as well as Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, as smart, dedicated, and visionary, despite their lack of diplomatic experience. Ravid points out, though, that the person who perhaps took the biggest risk in signing the Abraham Accords and received little glory, though he deserved it the most, is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu, then Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and the former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, refused to be interviewed for the book. They would have added even more layers to our understanding of the unfolding of events. Ravid does, however, include several fascinating insights from Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor at the time, Meir Ben-Shabbat, as well as his coalition partners in the unity government, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

Ravid gives his readers the back story, replete with “scoops” on the events leading up to the signing of the accords in September 2020 and the Israel-US relationship during Trump’s term in office. He gives a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the low points in the Netanyahu-Trump relationship over Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, including screaming matches between Kushner and Dermer in the White House.

Interviews with people like veteran Israeli diplomat Bruce Kashdan, who established underground diplomatic missions in Gulf countries, disclose the work done over the years to forge clandestine relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and other countries long before the normalization agreements were signed.

One common interest that led to these relations coming to light was the common threat that Israel and the Gulf countries see in Iran. Ravid describes how both Israel and the UAE felt “stabbed in the back” by the Obama Administration’s nuclear talks with Iran and the ultimate signing of the JCPOA.

Ravid’s interviews with former US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook reveal how the Trump Administration’s Iran policy – withdrawing from the nuclear deal and applying “maximum pressure” on Iran via sanctions – led to the tightening of relations between Israel and the UAE. At a Warsaw summit on Iran, attended by Netanyahu and several Arab leaders, Ravid writes that the Israeli prime minister found that the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini foreign ministers were even more hawkish on Iran than he was.

The perception of Iran as a common threat was one factor in the secret relationship coming to the surface, but not the only one, Ravid writes. The Arab Spring led Middle Eastern leaders to focus inwards on what was in the best interest of their own countries, rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The author even compares the words of Mohamed bin Zayed, who pointed to all of the times the Palestinians have missed opportunities to make peace, to those of legendary Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

Ravid walks the reader through the meetings and milestones that built trust between Israel and the UAE on the path towards normalization. He also discloses several instances of tension and lack of communication between Israeli government offices and agencies, including the Mossad, moves made behind the backs of others, information that was leaked (whether by accident or by design), and opportunities arising seemingly by chance.

In fact, the idea to finally formalize the agreement between Israel and the UAE came up in a phone call between Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz as a carrot to offer Netanyahu in exchange for his taking the annexation of the West Bank off the table. In a blessed coincidence, the day Berkowitz flew back to Washington from Israel and was heading straight to the White House to discuss the idea further, he received a call from UAE Ambassador Otaiba suggesting the exact same deal – normalization in exchange for the shelving of annexation.

Ravid’s understanding is that Netanyahu’s intent to annex was real, not just political spin. Netanyahu underestimated his coalition partners Gantz and Ashkenazi’s influence on the Trump Administration (they were both opposed to annexation) and overestimated his own. The UAE, in an unusual move, came out publicly in strong opposition to the plan. This, combined with the White House’s preoccupation with other matters, predominantly re-election and the COVID pandemic, ultimately convinced Netanyahu that he didn’t have much of a choice.

Even so, Ravid divulges that Netanyahu still got cold feet about the normalization agreement at the last minute, but was essentially told that the train had already left the station.

The signing of the Abraham Accords was a massive foreign policy coup for the Trump Administration (though Trump claims in one of his two interviews with Ravid that he believes his biggest contribution to Israel, more than the moving of the Embassy, more than the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, was his pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal).

***

It may have appeared on the surface that Trump and Netanyahu were the closest of allies, and that Netanyahu had a strong influence on Trump, but Ravid’s extremely candid interviews with the former president paint a very different picture, especially with regard to Trump’s last year as president.

In the first of the two interviews, at Trump’s estate at Mar-a-Lago, Trump focused, seemingly obsessively, over the fact that Netanyahu was “the first” to congratulate Joe Biden on his election victory. In fact, as Ravid pointed out to the former president, Netanyahu, following established protocol, tweeted his congratulations to Biden several hours after the media called the election for Biden. Netanyahu’s video statement issued five hours later was seen by Trump as the “ultimate betrayal.”

Trump, however, had several gripes with Netanyahu before the latter acknowledged the election result (which Trump denies to this day). When he and his team began working on the deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the so-called “Deal of the Century,” Ravid reports that Trump told him that “I [had] thought the Palestinians were impossible, and the Israelis would do anything to make peace and a deal. I found that not to be true.” He found Bibi focused primarily on his political survival, which by most accounts is a fair and accurate assessment.

Ravid suggests that Trump may have had a sense that Netanyahu was using him to accomplish his goals vis-à-vis Iran, viewing him as “useful idiot,” like an “all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas.”

In an interview with AllIsraelNews, Ravid said, “And you know what? What broke the camel’s back was the fact that Trump felt that after he helped Netanyahu politically in his elections [in Israel], he hoped that Netanyahu would help him more in his own election [in the US]. It didn’t happen. Obviously, I don’t think that Netanyahu had any other choice but to congratulate Biden. And, you know, actually what happened in real time was that Netanyahu waited 12 hours before he congratulated Biden. I think Netanyahu did the right thing.”

In his second interview with Trump a few months after the meeting in Mar-a-Lago, Ravid relays that Trump adopted a much softer tone towards Netanyahu. This suggests that, unsurprisingly given the former president’s personality, Trump’s statements at the time reflected a bruised ego given an opportunity to air grievances.

***

Back to the essence of the book – the making of the historical normalization agreements with Arab countries, which represented the first major diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and an Arab country in 25 years.

Within days of the announcement of the normalization between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain’s Finance Minister Salman bin Khalifa called the White House asking to be the next country to normalize ties with Israel.

Ravid devotes chapter after fascinating chapter to the backgrounds of the agreements with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – and even one on Chad, which Ravid notes was “the first country to actually join the accords.”

He describes the Sudan peace as the “bravest” of the four – the two countries actually had a history of war between them, with the Sudanese having sent soldiers to fight Israel in at least two wars. The Sudanese government that signed the agreement with Israel was a fragile one trying to rebuild a country on the brink of destruction after suffering years of a brutal dictatorial regime and civil war. Ravid also recounts the Israeli efforts to save the life of the architect of the normalization agreement with Sudan, Najwa Abbas Gadaeldam, who sadly died of COVID-19.

A significant point that Ravid draws attention to regarding the signing of the deal with Morocco is that it took place even after Trump’s loss in the US elections, during a time when Trump was preoccupied with attempts to overturn the results and was not dealing with almost any other issue. As Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz said to Ravid, “Israeli citizens should show the utmost respect to Trump for what he did…the Morocco deal happened five weeks before the inauguration of the new president… but in the White House they continued to work to achieve this agreement. This was incredible and unprecedented on the part of the Americans, that they were willing to concede significant American assets for the sake of Israel. This would not have happened without this president” (translations from the book are my own).

Trump concurs. He told Ravid, and it’s hard to argue with him on this point, that no other president has done as much for Israel as he has. He claimed during the interview that, had it not been for the “rigged” elections, he would have been able to add many more countries to the accords, including Saudi Arabia “within six months.”

We may never know if that would have been the case, but the broad consensus is that it is likely that Saudi Arabia and other countries will eventually join the Abraham Accords (though the Biden Administration prefers not to use this Trump-associated term). Ravid, in fact, reveals that current US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has already made attempts to expand the Accords.

Ravid’s book came out a year following the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House. Reflecting on their success, he points out that not only have they withstood changes in both the Israel and US governments and the Israel-Gaza confrontation in May 2021, they have flourished more than anyone could have expected. Ravid also highlights that, despite fears that the sale of the F-35 fighter jets to the UAE would endanger Israel’s qualitative military edge, Israel’s security has actually improved as a result of the normalization agreements.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of the book is Ravid’s candid excitement, on both a personal and a professional level, about his involvement in these historic events. He astutely points out the leaders’ successes and failures without hinting at any personal political leanings on his part. He denounces the inability of many on the left to appreciate the complexity of the situation and to praise the enormous historical significance of the accords simply because they are identified with personalities they despise.

As Ravid said in his interview with AllIsraelNews, “I felt that the Abraham Accords were really a historic event…and I was lucky enough to be there to cover it after many, many years that I have been covering foreign policy and diplomacy. Finally, some huge breakthroughs happened on my watch and it was just very, very exciting. At the end of the day, this is the biggest breakthrough in Middle East peace in 25 years. And I wanted to be the person who would really try to describe it with the most detail of exactly what happened in the last few months before the agreements were announced, but also in the years before.”

In Trump’s Peace, Ravid certainly achieved this goal.

*Barak Ravid, Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East [Hebrew], Yediot Books, 2021, pp. 363.

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