Exclusive: Israeli Deal with Saudis, Other Gulf States, Is an 'Inevitability,' Says Kushner

Kushner Trump UAE Israel Mideast
Senior Adviser Jared Kushner listens while US President Donald Trump announces an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, the White House August 13, 2020, in Washington, DC. -Kushner said the deal "changed everyone's attitude" about the possibility of Mideast peace. Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty

With a historic agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates now in its pocket, the Donald Trump administration believes further progress toward peace in the Middle East is coming. In an exclusive interview with Newsweek, Jared Kushner, Trump's special adviser and a key broker of the deal between Israel and the UAE (as well as the president's son-in-law), says he believes similar agreements between Israel and other Gulf states—and even Saudi Arabia, the keeper of Islam's two holiest cities—"are an inevitability. The question is the time frame."

"A lot of the countries are watching this very closely," Kushner says. "They are going to see how it is responded to. The younger generation [in the region] is very excited about it. Some members of the older generation still have nostalgia for a different time, and don't want to take any risks. But the reality is, most of these countries want to advance their economies, and they realize that by holding themselves back they are playing into Iran's hands and Iran's desire for a fractured and chaotic Middle East."

Iran, a Shi'ite Muslim theocracy intent on establishing a Shi'ite crescent in the Middle East, is the mortal enemy of the Gulf Arab states ruled by Sunni monarchs. When the Obama administration pushed through the controversial Iran nuclear deal in 2015, traditional Gulf allies, led by the Saudis, felt betrayed. Quietly, it and other Gulf states—Bahrain and the UAE in particular—began working more closely with Israel, on security issues in particular. That planted the seeds for the agreement with the UAE announced August 13.

Trump's election in 2016 delighted Gulf Arabs. The new president's first trip overseas was to Riyadh, where he assured Saudi leaders the U.S. would withdraw from the Iran deal. That wasn't the only way the Trump administration disrupted the status quo in the Mideast. As Kushner outlined in a series of interviews with Newsweek earlier this summer, he and Trump believed much of the Arab world had moved on from the days when the single most important issue preventing peace between Israel and the Arab world was the settlement of the Palestinian issue, including an end to Israel's control of the West Bank.

The administration's first major step in resetting the terms of any Mideast deal was to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, defying the conventional wisdom that this would set the so-called "Arab street" alight. In Kushner's view, "all the leaders, whether Israel or the the Saudis or the UAE or Qatar, what they have in common is that they want to see the Palestinian people lead a better life. But I do think that people have become much more cynical that the Palestinian leadership has the capability to make a final deal moving forward. They don't want [their countries] to hold back any longer because of that conflict."

Has the deal that Israel made with the UAE, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, now given the U.S. and Jerusalem leverage over the Palestinian Authority—enough to get it to the bargaining table? "I don't necessarily think we should use the word 'leverage', I think we should use the word gravity," Kushner says. He insists that with the peace plan put forward by the administration last year, "the Palestinians now have everything they have asked for. They wanted Israel to put forward a map with land swaps, they wanted to have a capital in Jerusalem and they wanted the [Al Aqsa] mosque to have a custodianship from the King of Jordan so that all Muslims can go pray there peacefully. And they wanted economic opportunity for their people."

It's clear that Palestinian leaders disagree absolutely with Kushner's characterization. The P.A. rejected the Trump-Kushner plan as a non-starter for many reasons, including that it doesn't give Palestinians control over their own security or borders: the basic attributes of statehood. The Palestinians have said the proposal is not worth negotiating over. Few analysts believe the move of one key Gulf Arab state toward Israel—and even the possibility that others will follow—will change that. Then again, few thought in the summer of 2020 the UAE would normalize relations with Israel.

What follows is a transcript of Newsweek's interview with Kushner, conducted Sunday, lightly edited for space and clarity.

Newsweek: How does the deal change the dynamic in the Middle East going forward?

Kushner: I feel a new sense of excitement in the Middle East. People would complain about all of the problems in the Middle East but no one was courageous to push forward and try to drive solutions in the region. People felt very hopeless about the fact that the Middle East could change. This deal has changed everyone's attitude. And I give Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Netanyahu the credit for having the courage to push forward. It makes people believe things are possible in the region that they didn't believe before.

What we see happen in the region now is that there is a very clear division between countries that want to be a part—I call it the pragmatic club, people who are focused on economic empowerment and tolerance and security. And then you have the more Islamist camp. People who are trying to play to the old tropes and try to put fuel on the flames of old conflicts in order to keep having instability in the region. I think those battle lines have become clear. Most of the countries are choosing progress. So this is a major step forward, where people are seeing we can't allow old conflicts to get in the way of future opportunities.

I want to ask specifically about Bahrain and the Saudis: There is a lot of speculation that they will follow suit and normalize relations with Israel. Will that happen?

I think it's all an inevitability, the question is the time frame. A lot of the countries are watching this very closely, they are going to see how it is responded to. The younger generation is very excited about it. Some members of the older generation still have nostalgia for a different time and don't want to take any risks. But the reality is, most of these countries want to advance their economies and they realize that by holding themselves back they are playing into Iran's hands and Iran's desire for a fractured and chaotic Middle East.

These leaders realize that the issue is not as it was years ago. They've seen Israel make a good faith effort for the Palestinians to have a state, to have territory and an economic pathway forward, and they turned it down. They've grown pessimistic about the Palestinian leadership's intention to improve the lives of the Palestinian people. They are not going to hold back their regional ambitions and have regional problems because the Palestinian leadership can't figure to how to move forward.

What I will say is, all the leaders, whether Israel or the the Saudis or the UAE or Qatar, what they have in common is that they want to see the Palestinian people lead a better life. But I do think that people have become much more cynical that the Palestinian leadership has the capability to make a final deal moving forward. They don't want [their countries] to hold back any longer because of that conflict.

Do you think this gives the U.S. and Israel more leverage to ask the Palestinians once and for all to come to the table and cut a deal?

So I don't necessarily think we should use the word "leverage," I think we should use the word gravity. The Palestinians now have everything they have asked for. They wanted Israel to put forward a map with land swaps, they wanted to have a capital in Jerusalem and they wanted the [Al Aqsa] mosque to have a custodianship from the King of Jordan so that all Muslims can go pray there peacefully. And they wanted economic opportunity for their people. And now that's all been deliberated, it's all on the table, and it's up to them to decide when to engage with the offer.

We're going to be very patient. Obviously we are open to engaging with them at any point, but we don't want to engage in the same ways that have failed before, that haven't worked. There is an offer on the table: when they're ready they'll come forward and engage in it. But we can't want peace more for them more than they want peace for themselves. We can't want them to have better lives than their leadership wants them to have for themselves. We can help, and can make a lot of great things happen very quickly. We're all just waiting on the Palestinian leadership in order to do that. But we are also not going to hold back regional progress to wait for the Palestinian leadership to come to the table. We are going to keep moving forward on larger issues, and quite frankly they are missing an opportunity and that comes at great cost to the Palestinian people, and that's a terrible shame.

How integral to the deal was the Israeli promise to refrain from annexation of territory in the West Bank?

Yeah that was an essential component for the UAE. They believed there was great progress in the region, they believed the sphere of peaceful nations wanting to work together to improve the lives of their citizens regardless of their faith and they believed that applying Israeli sovereignty to these pieces of land would have driven people further apart rather than bring them together. So they were willing, in order to avoid what they deemed as a major distraction, they were willing to take a big risk themselves to better their country but also to bring the region forward. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has been one of the great leaders in the region and in the world. He really exhibited his foresight, his courage and strategic thinking, with the way he approached this deal.

How do you think are they looking at this in Tehran?

I think this is not a good thing for Iran. Obviously Iran thrives by having everyone else in the Middle East be divided, and through chaos and that's why they sow chaos. Every place that Iran is, not-good things are happening. Obviously Iran has a strong presence in Lebanon, and that's led to a failed government. They have a strong presence in Yemen that's led to a failed government; they have a strong presence in Syria that's a disaster. They had a strong presence in Iraq that's now being reduced. The more the Iranian influence is reduced in Iraq, the stronger their government [Iraq's] becomes. They are trying to do "Iraq first." They want to serve the Iraqi people; they don't want to be a subject of Iran which is what Iran has tried to impose there.

Iran is now greatly weakened from when President Trump came into office. Obviously their oil exports are down from 2.6 million barrels a day to zero; their foreign currency reserves are almost nothing. They have less money now going to their proxy fighters in all these different areas. They have great problems. If Iran, similar to the Palestinians, wants to put their people first and their economy first they'll find a lot of willing partners. But as long as they keep chanting, "death to America," "death to Israel" and keep funding terror and trying to create instability through a pathway to nuclear weapons, they're going to find their people will pay the price for it. And it's unfortunate that the leadership is doing that.

How long was the UAE-Israel deal in the works? Is this something that the administration looked at as a possibility from early on?

No, it started about a year and a half ago when we started the discussions, but we had some... it just took awhile. We had obviously the Israeli election, we had the coronavirus, you know Israel didn't have a government. The right time never came up. But we set a lot of foundational work in the region, we worked hard to build relationships, to think about what the risks could be.

What I've learned about deals is that they happen when they're ready to happen. They never happen necessarily when you want them to happen. So we laid a lot of the foundational work and then the opportunity arose because of the trust President Trump had built up with Israel and the Israeli people, and with the UAE and the broader Arab world, and that created the environment for us to push through and to make this happen.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask on the eve of the convention, how are you feeling about the campaign and where it stands now?

We feel actually pretty optimistic. I think that the Democratic convention was fairly dark with their view of America. You're going to see the Republicans, we're very proud of America, very optimistic and hopeful for what we believe America can be. We're going to be laying out a lot of policy proposals, we're going to show a lot of different voices of what makes up today's Republican party. And it really is a diverse party, it's not who the media tries to tell you it is. So you're going to see a lot of good optimism, and from a campaign point of view we feel like we're well ahead now where we were four years ago.

We feel like we have good momentum. We've seen our numbers move a lot over the last month and we're quite optimistic that the president's view of America is the one that the American people want to support, that they want to happen for the next four years. They want secure borders, they want a pro-American-worker policy, pro-American-worker trade deals, pro-American-worker immigration policy, and they want law and order and safety in their communities but they also want fairness and justice. And President Trump's agenda has shown he can deliver all of that.

Obviously the pandemic came and it was quite disruptive, but as we come out of the pandemic—we're going to have a vaccine by the end of the year—as we come out of it, it creates tremendous opportunities and you need a strong and aggressive leader to make sure that America emerges from the pandemic stronger with its place in the world than it was before.

Exclusive: Israeli Deal with Saudis, Other Gulf States, Is an 'Inevitability,' Says Kushner | World