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From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, for the first time in nearly 30 years, an Arab country has established full diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. Mark Landler on what it says about the changing dynamics of the Middle East. It's Tuesday, August 18th. Mark, tell me about this dinner. Well, so it was March of twenty eighteen, my recollection was it was kind of a rainy night and it was a dinner at a restaurant called Cafe Milano, which is in Georgetown.
And this is one of these classic Washington watering holes that trumps go there. The Obama administration, top officials used to go. It's an Italian restaurant full of power brokers. And one of the most faithful and well-heeled customers of this restaurant is a diplomat whose name is Yousef Otaiba. And Otaiba is the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington. So he's not necessarily a diplomat from one of the world's biggest countries, but he has transformed himself into one of the most well-connected and influential ambassadors in Washington.
And one of the ways he has done this over the years is by developing this network of contacts among administration officials, both Democratic and Republican people on Capitol Hill and members of the media, which is how yours truly got to find himself. At Cafe Milano that night in March, Otaiba had put together a dinner with a senior Trump administration official who oversaw the administration's policy toward Iran, as well as a number of other senior journalists and one other guest who was the ambassador to the United States from Bahrain, which is another Persian Gulf kingdom.
So we sat down for what was kind of a classic use of Otaiba evening. But early in the evening, we realized or we were told by the owner of the restaurant that there was another important person dining there that night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who is in town in Washington that week for the annual meeting of AIPAC, which is a big pro-Israel lobbying group. And he was dining there that night with his wife, Sarah. So in this private room where we were gathered with Otaiba, a group of us began to say, well, wouldn't it be interesting fun to invite Netanyahu to come say hi to the group?
Now, why would that be interesting and fun? Well, interesting, because the idea of the prime minister of Israel coming in to meet with two diplomats from Gulf Arab countries would really be actually sort of a small landmark. These are countries, after all, that don't recognize Israel, that have spent years denouncing Israel, the very notion of a Zionist state that are huge champions of the Palestinians. And so the idea that Netanyahu would come in and greet and make small talk would be kind of a big deal.
So with of agreement, one of the guests at the table slipped out and made his way across the restaurant, introduced himself to the prime minister and said, you know, when you're finished with dinner, why don't you and your wife come over and say hi to of Otaiba and his guests? And Netanyahu said he would.
What happens next? Well, so toward the end of the evening, as promised, the door opens and Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sarah walk in and it's initially a somewhat stilted affair. People stand up. No one is quite sure what to do. He's not really going to sit down and join us for dessert. But it's really clear right away that Netanyahu wants to use this moment to drive home a point. And the point he wants to drive home is that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have reasons to be friendlier with one another.
And the way he does it is by showcasing their shared enemy, which is Iran. And so Netanyahu, as he has done publicly and privately scores of times, you know, goes into a fairly familiar diatribe about Iranian misbehavior, Iranian misdeeds, and how Israel and the Gulf countries need to ally themselves against this threat from Iran. Otaiba nods throughout this. He's in agreement with everything that Netanyahu is saying. And so on the surface, it feels like a rather innocuous conversation.
But the interesting moment comes a little bit later when Sarah Netanyahu, who has a big personality, suddenly interjects to the ambassador, we would love to welcome you to Jerusalem. And Tiber's reaction is is very polite and very charming. And he nods, but he's he's somewhat noncommittal. He doesn't say, oh, yeah, sure, I'll be there. Right. He just sort of, you know, suggests that it would be lovely if that happened. And on that kind of note, this meeting breaks up and Netanyahu and his wife take their leave.
The door closes and then we all sit back down to digest what just happened.
My sense is that this kind of exchange is quite taboo and they would not have wanted that interaction reported, for example.
Well, indeed. And after Prime Minister Netanyahu left, the ambassador looked around the table and said, you realize that if you guys report this, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble back home.
Now, the ground rules for this dinner were that it was off the record. This is the way that Tiber's dinners are always run. So none of us went into that dinner with the expectation that we were going to be reporting things out of it. But it must be said that Washington is a leaky town and there were 10 reporters sitting around a table. So the fact of this dinner and the encounter between Otaiba and Netanyahu did leak out. And it was reported on by the AP in the Israeli press, in the Arab press.
So it it sort of falls into the category of an open secret, which in an odd way is a metaphor for the closer ties between the Gulf states and Israel. Everyone knows that's happening. You just don't really see it out in the open. Right.
But just to be clear, it was not reported by Mark Landler, upstanding journalist who honoris off the record agreements. It was not and I should say at this moment that I contacted Ambassador Otaiba and asked him in light of this week's news, whether he would be fine with me sharing this anecdote publicly. And he said he would, which is why I'm able to tell it to you today.
So, Mark, it's now very clear that whatever you observed at that dinner has continued on and led up to this week.
Yeah, that's right. And it's actually led us to a really remarkable outcome in the annals of Middle East diplomacy. The United Arab Emirates announced it would normalize relations with the state of Israel, thus joining a very small number of Arab states to have recognized Israel. And it was in no small part a deal brokered by the Trump administration.
Just a few moments ago, I hosted a very special call with two friends, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, where they agreed to finalize a historical peace agreement. And they agreed. After forty nine years, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalize diplomatic relations to actually formalize a normalized relationship between them.
And then afterwards, President Trump called the cameras into the Oval Office for what he declared, not using hyperbole as a huge deal.
This is a truly historic moment, not just the Israel Jordan peace treaty was signed more than twenty five years ago and so much progress being made towards peace in the Middle East because it is, in fact a pretty huge deal.
And when you say normalized, what does that actually mean to normalize the relationship between these two countries?
Well, on a very concrete level, it allows for certain things to happen. It allows for you to open an embassy and have an ambassador. It allows for flights to originate and fly between the countries. It deepens trading relationships. It also allows you to align yourselves much better strategically. And that becomes a big issue when you're talking about confronting Iran, whether it's sharing intelligence or working together diplomatically or simply consulting one another. It's much easier to do that when you have a traditional diplomatic relationship.
It allows you to present a united front against a common foe.
But Mark, beyond formalizing a normal relationship between the two countries. What does this deal actually do and what did both sides get and give up?
Well, first of all, it accomplishes something that Israel has long sought, which is to increase the list of its Arab neighbors that recognize it and have normal relations with it.
From Israel's perspective, having the UAE in its corner is extremely important because the UAE has a great deal of influence over Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia is the big actor in this sphere. It is the leading Arab country in the Gulf. It's the country that Israel most wants to obtain recognition from, most wants to normalize relations with.
So that's on the one hand. On the other hand, from the perspective of the United Arab Emirates, what's key to this deal is that Israel has agreed not to annex occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
If you recall, Prime Minister Netanyahu had said he planned to annex these territories, that Israel will retain security control in the entire area west of the Jordan River, thereby giving Israel a permanent eastern border with or without a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
This is something we've long to have. We don't have such a recognized boundary and integrate them into the state of Israel.
This is something that the Arab states, including the UAE, profoundly opposed. And so in a major quid pro quo, the UAE basically said, if you don't annex, we will normalize. So each side got something and each side gave up something. In that sense, it was a sort of a classic diplomatic trade off.
So let's talk about the motivations that led the players here, the people you had seen at that dinner 18 months ago to make this deal, because as you said at the time, it didn't necessarily seem like something that would happen. So what happened between that dinner and this week that got both countries to this point?
Well, the UAE had always been open to a closer relationship with Israel, but there were several things holding it back. And the most important of these was the plight of the Palestinians. As long as there was this consensus in the Arab world that the Palestinians were being oppressed by Israel, there was no way that the UAE could draw closer to Israel, even though it was interested in doing so, because it felt very much that they had this common enemy in Iran.
And so the really. The most important thing that changed was, frankly, the diplomacy of the Trump administration, the Trump administration came into the region and tried to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that was tilted very heavily in favor of Israel in contemplated the existence of a Palestinian state, but one that would be extremely fragmented with very little authority, very much a vassal state of Israel. And it was an offer that the Palestinians rejected out of hand.
They refused to come to the table and sort of left the peace process at a standoff. What that in turn, did, though, is precipitate Prime Minister Netanyahu to declare, I'm not going to wait for a peace deal. I'm going to go ahead and annex these settlement areas on the West Bank. These are places where Jewish settlers have built housing. I'm going to annex them into the state of Israel with or without a peace deal. Right. Netanyahu had come off a very difficult year.
If you recall, Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads up the right wing Likud Party, has given up trying to form a new Israeli government.
There were multiple indecisive elections.
If you look at the month since receiving the mandate worked nonstop, both openly and secretly to form a broad national unity government. This is what the people want. And this is also what Israeli issues.
He was unable to put together a true governing majority. He finally worked out a deal with his primary opponent to rotate the job of prime minister. On top of all of this, he is facing trial on corruption charges. Right.
And there is a real question over his future in the midst of two elements in police and the general attorney's office have allied with the left wing media. I called them that, just not Bibi gang. In order to stitch up unfounded and the legitimate three cases against me, the objective is to topple a strong right wing prime minister.
So you have this prime minister who is somewhat cornered politically in a way where he really, really needs to appeal to his right flank, the right wing in Israel. And the way that he set out to do that was to take this very aggressive position on annexation that's very popular with the right. It's very popular with the settler movement. And he had kind of decided that this was going to be his course. This was going to buy him a political lifeline.
What he discovered, however, was that the Europeans were opposed to this. The Arab states were opposed to this, including his potential future allies in the Gulf. And actually, interestingly enough, the Trump administration wasn't thrilled with it either, in part because the UAE and others were telling the United States, this is a red line for us. We can't support your peace efforts if Israel takes this step so quietly. Jared Kushner basically told Netanyahu to cool it, hold off on this, don't do this right now.
The reason that was kind of the precipitating moment is for the UAE and the other Gulf Arab states.
This was an unacceptable step. They simply could not countenance the idea of Israel doing this. But the fact of Netanyahu's being so provocative and saying he was going to do this actually presented the UAE with an opening. It gave them an opening to make Israel an offer. And in fact, Yousef Tiba, our character from the dinner at Cafe Milano, is the guy who delivers the message. In June, he writes a letter that's published by a leading Hebrew language newspaper in Israel in which he basically tells the Israeli government that their choice is annexation or normalization.
He basically says, and I quote, Israel's decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal. Annexation is a misguided provocation of another order. So he's sort of laying down a red line. If you guys do this, forget about ever having normalized relations with the UAE. And that is a really important moment in this story because it clarifies the choice for the Israeli government and also clarifies the choice and the opportunity for the Trump administration, because the next thing that happens is that the Trump administration gets involved in trying to broker precisely this quid pro quo, this deal, this trade off.
And without the latter, it's unlikely this ever would have happened, at least not now.
It sounds like you're saying that somewhat counterintuitively, because.
Publicly, Netanyahu is pushing for the annexation of the West Bank, that maybe secretly he was grateful to have an opportunity to stop doing it. That's right.
It was almost an escape hatch. If you think about it. He gets out of a situation that increasingly looked like it had no reasonable escape. And in so doing, he actually gives himself a very different kind of legacy. Netanyahu was on his way to being remembered as a long serving leader who presided over a period of frustration and lack of progress in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead, he will now be remembered as the Israeli prime minister who actually won normalization of relations with a key Gulf Arab country, a very different outcome than one would have predicted for him even a week ago.
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So what does this deal mean for the Palestinians not annexing the West Bank would seem to represent a kind of achievement for the Palestinians, but it really just brings the situation back to where it was before Netanyahu announced that aggressive move, that annexation of the West Bank.
Well, it's a very mixed bag for the Palestinians because you're right, they are avoiding what would be a disastrous outcome, which is losing up to 30 percent of the territory that would have one day been part of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, what the symbolism of this deal is, is really very bad for the Palestinians, because what it shows is that the UAE is willing to normalize relations with Israel in the absence of a deal that would give the Palestinian statehood that had always been the prerequisite for recognition of Israel by many of these Arab states that it had to have made a deal with the Palestinians.
It had to have embraced the two state solution. It has not embraced the two state solution. Indeed, the two state solution looks further away than ever. And yet the UAE has gone ahead and done this deal. So what it says in very blunt terms is that the Arab states have other priorities on their agenda that are bigger than defending the interests of the Palestinians. And so from the Palestinians point of view, it is a betrayal. It's a loss of leverage.
This was, after all, the great point of leverage that the Palestinians had with Israel. If Israel ever wanted to be recognized by its neighbors, it needed to work out a deal with the Palestinians. Now, it's clear it doesn't have to do that anymore and it makes their situation, if possible, more hopeless than ever.
So finally, Mark, what is the motivation of the Trump administration, which, as you said, has nudged this along during the past 18 months or so since that? Why have they wanted this?
Well, I'd say there's a number of reasons. Start with the fact that their Middle East peace efforts, which are led by the president's son in law, Jared Kushner, have stalled. So this was a way to jumpstart a process that had really become paralyzed. Secondly, the Trump administration has spent three years cultivating these Gulf Arab countries, not just the United Arab Emirates, but, of course, the Saudis. They do this in part for financial reasons.
It's a chance to sell a great deal of very expensive advanced weaponry. It would allow the UAE to purchase higher grade, more sophisticated weapons from the United States because many of those weapons are restricted to countries that recognize Israel. So it actually creates yet another market for high end American weapons. So that's one more reason. And a third reason, frankly, is perhaps the simplest of all. President Trump is lagging in the polls. He's facing the voters in two months.
He needs a couple of big wins and this is a big win. Presidents like to make history in the Middle East. And this gave the president a chance to do that at a time when not much else seems to be going well for him. So it's a complicated series of factors, economic, political and strategic. So, Mark, as someone who has been covering diplomacy for a really long time and has seen these other big symbolic events along the way when it comes to Israel and its former enemies on behalf of the United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the Middle East peace process, welcome to this great occasion of history and hope.
I think about, for example, the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin. Bill Clinton brought them together today, the leadership of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization will sign a declaration of principles on interim Palestinian self-government. It chart, of course, toward reconciliation.
Sometimes these events have mattered. Sometimes they have very quickly dissolved. What is the significance of this one in your mind? Because I'm mindful that it's been a number of years since that handshake and since one of these moments that seem to really matter.
So unlike the handshake between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House or the Camp David accord between Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Malcolm Bagan of Israel in nineteen seventy eight, this deal feels more pragmatic, less perhaps historic and symbolic, more a product of calculation than of making history, each side getting something, each side giving up something, a deal that was sort of cooked up out of bad circumstances. And yet this one, I think, will matter because it isn't just about the UAE and Israel, two relatively small, if very important countries.
It's a deal that actually changes the dynamic throughout the entire region. In some of the ways we've discussed, it makes matters considerably worse for the Palestinians, but it also makes matters considerably worse for the Iranians. Remember, the point behind this is developing a united front against Iran and for Iran to face the Gulf states and Israel and any semblance of unity is a much bigger problem for them than if the Arabs and the Israelis hated each other. So I think it changes the equation there.
Also, by removing the prospect of annexation, at least for now, it actually removes a huge potential bone of contention between Israel and the West, not just the Europeans, but the United States. So it's one of these deals that on the face of it seems perhaps not as momentous as some of the other ones we've talked about. But in terms of its knock on effects, it really is quite significant. It has the potential to realign the region. People who follow Middle East politics always like to talk about forces that realign the region, that change the underlying dynamics.
And the truth is, many events don't really do that. In the end, this one may actually have the potential to do it.
Mark, I know that you had spoken to this ambassador from the UAE, you had dinner with and sought his permission to tell us the story for which we are grateful. I wonder what else he said to you about this deal? Well, beyond giving me permission to talk about it, I basically sent him an old saying, you know, it looks like you might be going to Jerusalem after all, an outcome that back in that restaurant in Georgetown in twenty eighteen seemed very far away.
Mark, thank you very much, we appreciate it. Thank you, Michael. We'll be right back. Anyone who loves books knows there's never enough time for all the titles they want to read, and that's where Audible comes in. Audible has the world's largest collection of audio books from best selling mysteries, thrillers and memoirs to science, sci fi and motivation. Audible also includes audible originals, stories, scripted shows and documentaries created exclusively for audio that you can't hear anywhere else.
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Dash five hundred. Buzz, can you see? By the dawn's early light, what so. Here's what else you need to know today. During the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, a virtual event because of the pandemic, a series of high profile Republicans, including former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former presidential candidate John Kasich, endorsed Joe Biden, saying that President Trump had let down the country and their party.
Joe Biden is a man for our times, times that call for all of us to take off our partisan hats and put our nation first for ourselves and, of course, for our children in America.
Later in the evening, Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden's former rival for the Democratic nomination, pleaded with his supporters from 2016 and 2020 to throw their support behind Biden.
My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election, the future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president.
My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.
In the night's keynote speech, former first lady Michelle Obama called for a new era of empathy and character and said that restoring both would require removing Donald Trump from office. So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can.
Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be. For us, it is what it is. It was the first of four nights in which Democrats hope to both win over moderates uneasy with President Trump and energize liberals who might be unenthusiastic about by.
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