KT McFarland: Trump Middle East peace approach was not conventional. Here's what made the difference

Trump on Israel-UAE peace deal: Everyone said this couldn’t happen

To the consternation of the foreign policy establishment, President Donald Trump has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, not just once, but twice. To their amazement, he tackled the world’s one seemingly unsolvable problem – Arab-Israeli peace – and seems to be succeeding.

For decades, American presidents had tried to achieve Middle East peace. They all failed.

Why? Because the oil-rich Gulf Arab states refused to deal with Israel until the Palestinian problem was solved.

As a result, their starting point was always the thorniest problem in the region – and Middle East peace was always a non-starter.

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President Trump took a different approach. Rather than starting with the Palestinians, he decided to work from the outside in, beginning with the Gulf Arab countries.

To make that a viable option, he had to first force changes in the underlying reality of the region, by maneuvering circumstances so the Arabs came to realize it was in their self-interest to make peace with Israel.

It is the same approach President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took 50 years ago.

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Nixon’s first term was a flurry of diplomatic negotiations and foreign policy achievements – the opening to China, détente and arms control agreements with the USSR, the Paris Accords that ended the Vietnam War. The one area of the world they avoided was the Middle East.

Nixon and Kissinger realized the conditions weren’t right for negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, much less agreement.

In the early 1970s, no Arab leader would dare even contemplate peace with Israel. Their countries had been humiliated in the six-day 1967 Arab-Israeli war after suffering disastrous losses in land and prestige at the hands of the Israeli military.

The October 1973 Arab-Israeli war changed the dynamic in the region.  The Arab nations, especially Egypt, regained some of the lands they had lost in the 1967 war, and with it their national pride.

Nixon sent Kissinger to the Middle East to broker an end to the October war, and start a process that would eventually lead to peace between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

But the Palestinian problem remained and festered. Over the years Islamic movements grew, and violence between Israel and the Palestinians continued, in some cases supported by the oil-rich Gulf Arabs.

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Like Nixon and Kissinger before him, President Trump understood any effort at making peace between Israel and the Palestinians was doomed unless the underlying realities of the region changed. So he set about changing them.

First, Trump pushed for American energy independence. Not only did it accelerate America’s economic recovery, but it has also weaned us off Arab oil and the political and military entanglements that came with it.

Second, American energy production drove oil prices down, permanently. Arab leaders realized they could no longer count on lucrative oil exports alone to fund their governments and societies. They needed to diversify their economies and modernize their societies, which required regional peace.

Third, Iran’s nuclear program, its sponsorship of terrorism and regional hegemonic ambitions were a threat not just to Israel, but also to Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors in the Gulf. There is a saying in the Middle East: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran, and killed Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, crippling  Iran’s vast terrorist network. Iran was forced to cut back on its support for its terrorist operations, especially among Israel’s neighbors.

Finally, by moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the political breathing room he needed at home to seek peace.

Although pundits decried Trump’s decision to have White House senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner lead the effort, he was perfectly positioned with both the Gulf Arab states and Israel.

From the beginning of the administration, he cultivated relationships with the younger generation of Gulf Arab leaders, who realized the need to modernize their societies and diversify their economies. Kushner also had a strong personal connection with Netanyahu – who is a decade’s long friend of Kushner’s family.

Even the name of the agreement, the Abraham Accords, was carefully planned. It looks back in time to the patriarch and common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, while at the same time looking ahead to an expanded agreement that could include other nations.

Other Gulf Arab nations are now following the UAE’s lead. Bahrain has signed on, and Saudi Arabia and several others are in the negotiating pipeline. The hope is that the Palestinians, encouraged by the Sunni Arabs, and abandoned by the cash-strapped Iranians, will eventually realize that their best interests lie in peace with Israel.

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Only time will tell, but it may be that the road to Middle East peace must travel first through the Arab nations before it can come to the Palestinians.

If so, Donald Trump will have demonstrated to the world that despite everything, he has earned the Nobel Peace Prize, by doing what no leader, American or otherwise, has been able to achieve, despite decades of effort.

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