As we mark the one-year anniversary this week of the signing of the Abraham Accords – the first Arab-Israeli peace and normalization agreements since Jordan’s deal in 1994 – the inside story of how they came about can finally be told.
As a dual US-Israeli citizen, an Evangelical, and an author, I had a rare front-row seat to see the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain join Egypt and Jordan as partners for peace. It all began in October 2018 when Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, invited me to bring the first-ever delegation of Evangelical Christians to visit the UAE, and spend two hours with him in his palace.
Widely known by his initials MBZ, he is the powerful son of the UAE’s modern founder, the beloved and visionary Sheikh Zayed, who passed away in 2004. Few world leaders I have met have been more intriguing, influential, or innovative.
MBZ shuns the spotlight, rarely gives interviews, and almost never gives speeches. He prefers to operate behind the scenes. But he is most definitely the man driving his country’s impressive modernization reforms and its meteoric rise as a power player in the Gulf region. A moderate Muslim, MBZ has a passion to expand freedom and opportunity for his people. He also vigorously opposes radical Islamism in all its forms.
During that meeting, the Emirati leader stunned us by confiding that he had decided to make peace with Israel. He had come to believe it was in his people’s national interests, and he said he was looking for the right moment to make his move. As people who had been praying for peace as we are commanded to in the Bible, we were electrified. However, the ground rules were that our meeting was, at the time, off-the-record. Thus, while we were sitting on a huge story, we could not break the news. That said, we continued to pray and stay in touch with MBZ’s team, and watch him closely.
It is true that there were three men whose courage and counterintuitive leadership fundamentally turned the tide of history by embracing the Abraham Accords: President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, as well as MBZ. Yet based on extensive and detailed conversations with senior players in all three countries, it became clear to me that MBZ made the first set of critical strategic decisions that led to the game-changing peace deal.
First, MBZ concluded that solidarity among the UAE, Israel, and the US against the grave and growing threats from Iran was vital to the security of each nation and the region.
Second, he concluded that Emirati investments and Israeli technology would be a match made in heaven, unleashing enormous creative potential and untold prosperity in both countries.
Third, by being the first to make peace with Israel, MBZ believed that the UAE would reap tremendous goodwill from the American people, from Congress, and from both major American political parties. If Trump won reelection, the UAE would be well-positioned for good relations during his second term. If Biden won, the UAE would also be positioned to interact with the new administration as a significantly enhanced asset and perceived as an increasingly helpful and constructive ally to Washington, whose voice would be even more respected and valued.
Fourth, the crown prince concluded that the UAE would dramatically reinforce a global image it was carefully and consciously crafting, one of the “good guys” – a faithful, trustworthy ally against the forces of radical Islamism; an economic, cultural, and security partner that other peaceful, productive nations could appreciate and depend on.
What’s more, MBZ believed that by breaking the mold and making peace with Israel without giving the Palestinian leadership a veto over his freedom of movement, he could open the door for other Arab countries to see the benefits of normalization and follow suit. Bahrain, he knew, was ready; but it was too small to take the lead. However, if the UAE made peace with the Israelis, the Bahrainis would almost certainly follow. In time, so would others in the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League.
As more Arab states normalized relations with Israel, MBZ believed it could create the conditions under which the Palestinians could finally say yes to a comprehensive peace plan of their own with Israel. In the meantime, the UAE – together with Egypt and Jordan – would have far more influence and leverage to urge Israel’s government to refrain from making provocative moves against the Palestinians and, thus, keep the two-state solution viable.
MBZ could see, however, that Netanyahu was being severely tempted to acquire or “annex” more of the West Bank territory that every member of his Likud political party considered precious, calling it by its Biblical names, “Judea and Samaria.” If that happened, MBZ believed the door for the UAE to normalize relations with Israel would slam shut.
At the same time, MBZ knew that Netanyahu had another dream. For more than a decade, the Israeli leader had been passionately making the case that the only way to make peace with the Palestinians was to take an “outside-in” approach.
That is, if Israel could make peace with several Arab states first, this would create enormous prosperity, and Arab-Israeli tourism, and foster a climate that might finally persuade the Palestinian people and their leaders that it was time to end the conflict once and for all.
Both were “legacy options.” If Netanyahu could significantly enlarge the boundaries of the sovereign State of Israel without a new war, this would be something for which he would be remembered by the Israeli people forever. On the other hand, if Netanyahu could sign the first peace treaty with a Gulf Arab state – and maybe several treaties – this would be a huge breakthrough and would also seal his historic legacy in Israeli eyes.
The only way to stop Netanyahu from grabbing what the Emiratis saw as Palestinian land was to go full Godfather and make Bibi an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The question was how?
In December 2019, the White House had asked the UAE and several other Arab countries to consider signing a nonaggression and nonbelligerency pact with Israel. Not a full treaty but a stepping-stone. MBZ was open to the idea, but he now realized it would not be enough to pull Netanyahu away from his desire to annex large swaths of the West Bank. The only way to get what he wanted, MBZ recognized, was to give Netanyahu what he wanted most – full peace, full recognition, full normalization. But MBZ would have to move fast.
He quickly crafted two strategies. First, he would take his proposal directly to Trump and get Trump to sell it to Netanyahu.
There would be no haggling with Bibi in the souk – the traditional Arab bazaar – over this line item or that. All the negotiations would be done through the White House, not with Israel directly. After all, the White House was looking for a big breakthrough. So let them do the heavy lifting. They knew Netanyahu best. They had his trust. They had all the leverage. If it was possible to persuade Netanyahu to abandon annexation and instead embrace his dream of making peace with the Arabs “outside in,” Trump and his team were the only ones who could get it done.
MBZ was ready. But was Bibi?
Second, MBZ would take his case directly to the Israeli people. He dispatched Yousef Al Otaiba, his trusted ambassador in Washington, to write the UAE’s first op-ed for an Israeli newspaper, making the case in a friendly but firm manner (and in Hebrew) that this was not a pipe dream: The UAE was really ready to make peace with Israel – a real peace, a warm peace – and the deal could be sealed immediately, so long as Israel set aside all talk of annexation.
Netanyahu’s courageous ‘yes’
Trump loved the idea. So did Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Pompeo, and the rest of the team. The seeds they had been planting, watering, cultivating for nearly four years were finally bearing fruit. Their work was paying off, and ahead of the elections.
They immediately brought the deal to Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador in Washington. This was it, they told the Israelis. This was real, and it was now or never. Applying Israeli sovereignty over more of Judea and Samaria would come in due time. But front-loading annexation would be a serious strategic mistake. It would enrage the Arab world. It would enrage the Europeans. It could spark a third intifada, a violent uprising in the West Bank. But make peace with MBZ and Americans will cheer, and the world will cheer, and hopefully other Arab countries will come on board too.
To his credit, Bibi had the courage to say yes. The world did not see it coming. Indeed, it almost did not happen. But by the grace of God, the prayers of millions, and the leadership of three men and their closest advisors, it came to pass.
For me, each absolutely deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. They made historic decisions that will be remembered and cherished forever, and they opened extraordinary new opportunities for real peace and immense prosperity.
This article is adapted from his just-released non-fiction book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey Inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East.