For Evangelical voters who took a chance on President Donald Trump, and conservative Jewish voters who put their hopes in him, the White House announcement this week that the United Arab Emirates would normalize relations with Israel was delivery on a promise—and reassurance that the rollercoaster ride of the Trump Twitter presidency has been worth it.
“It reinforces to social conservatives why they took the risk on Donald Trump and why that risk ultimately paid off,” a senior Trump campaign adviser and confidante tells TIME. It also reinforces to Jewish voters “that you have a strong supporter in the White House,” the adviser said. “Now they actually see the fruits of that.”
Thursday’s announcement, which comes less than three months before the Presidential election, was a well-timed Trumpian riposte to years of criticism of his heretofore-foundering Middle East policy. In moving toward full diplomatic relations with Israel, the UAE becomes only the third Arab nation after Egypt and Jordan to do so since the Jewish state was founded in 1948.
The Palestinians have refused to consider Jared Kushner’s Mideast peace plan, and the Trump Administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which has decimated Iran’s economy, has largely been seen as a failure. It failed to bring Iran back to the table to renegotiate the six-nation nuclear deal, as Trump pledged it would during his 2016 campaign, and it spurred Tehran to restart its nuclear enrichment program in protest over U.S. sanctions.
The UAE deal offers the Administration a chance to reframe its past positions as successes. Under the so-called Abraham Accord, the UAE has pledged to move toward recognizing Israel in exchange for Israel’s suspension of annexing West Bank territory. Administration officials now say the Trump tactic of maximum pressure enabled this historic diplomatic opening by winning back the trust of Gulf nations who want to contain Iran’s regional ambitions.
It also gave the Trump re-election campaign, which is facing sagging opinion polls over Trump’s domestic handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a much-needed foreign policy win, and a chance to remind conservative and evangelical voters of his other 2016 campaign pledges kept. In December 2017, the Trump Administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there, despite Palestinian claims to the city’s eastern sector—a long held objective of both American evangelicals and the pro-Israel lobby. Three months later, the Administration recognized Israel’s contested 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.
“President Trump is the most pro-Israel president in American history,” said Richard Grenell, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and former acting Director of National Intelligence, in a statement from the Trump campaign. “As radical Democrats turn their backs on the world’s only Jewish state in an attempt to appease their anti-Israel base, only President Trump could have brought peace between the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim peoples of the Middle East.”
Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden also praised the move, calling the UAE’s offer to publicly recognize Israel “a welcome, brave, and badly needed act of statesmanship.” He added that it was made possible in part by his past Administration’s peace initiative, drawing scorn from Republican circles.
Two senior administration officials say they hope to see two to three more Arab nations follow the UAE’s lead, possibly before the election. “You can bet your life that Bahrain, Oman and Morocco are looking left and right and listening” for blowback to the UAE’s action, one of the officials said. “And if it’s okay, it might be next.” They both say Saudi Arabia may then follow, with the smaller nations serving as test cases of reaction on the Arab streets. If the response is as muted as it was when the Trump Administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, it will be easier for more to follow, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the years of sensitive negotiations.
There’s little chance popular unrest will stand in the way of more Gulf countries recognizing Israel because of the near-universal clampdown on political protest in the region, says Khaled Saffuri, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Interest Foundation. “These countries can take action with impunity. Most of the opposition are in jail,” he says. “The daily political reality is the U.S. is important for all of these dictatorships. They need protection from Iran…and to get U.S. support, you have to be on Israel’s good side.”
The Administration is trying to convince the largely Sunni Arab states to form a security compact with the U.S. and Israel based on mutual distrust of Iran, the two senior administration officials say. The long-term goal is to keep U.S. troops at home, a political popular idea among many Americans after decades of war. “If this continues, we can use Israel as a force projector in the region, reducing the need for us to be there every second of every day,” one of the officials says.
Trump’s signature Mideast moves, including moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, were deeply controversial and considered third rails by previous Administrations. But they were key to bringing about conversations between Israel and several Gulf states by making clear Trump follows through when he says he’s going to do something, the two officials say.
“The embassy move was a campaign promise and he was going to make good on that, but it wasn’t a gimmick,” one of the officials says. “Moving the embassy was a seismic event for the region…a clear wake-up call that there isn’t a gap. If you want to be in a partnership with the U.S., Israel is going to be part of this.” The low-key public reaction also signaled to Arab leaders that they had more room to maneuver with outreach to Israel, the officials say.
The Israel-UAE deal isn’t done, and there has been pushback in conservative circles in Israel over just how long Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to “suspend” the annexation of territory in return for normalization of relations with the Emirates. Still, it was a chance for a rare victory lap for the President’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who had been slammed by much of the Washington foreign policy world as out of his depth.
U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook says it was the lack of preconceived policy recommendations that allowed Kushner to succeed where multiple previous U.S. Administrations failed. “Jared came into the role with a fresh set of eyes and an openness to new modes and orders,” he tells TIME. “The international community is full of armchair Arabists who think they know what’s best for the region and they love to talk. We listened.”
Hook says the Administration’s break with Iran was the first step. “The Iran nuclear deal alienated the Gulf and Israel and trust went out the door,” he says. “There’s zero chance of peace agreements in that environment. We immediately reversed America’s Iran policy and that was the necessary precondition to building peace between the Gulf and Israel.”
Hook says the 2019 Mideast Peace conference in Warsaw that Kushner arranged put Israel’s prime minister in the same room with multiple Gulf foreign ministers, and they united over their enmity toward Iran, a point pressed on Hook by a group of foreign ministers when they later invited him to meet after the conference wrapped up. “We were all smoking cigars in this hotel suite, and there was real excitement about the potential, and they said we have to find a way to keep this going. And that led to the Israel-UAE-US trilateral talks,” first in Washington, D.C., and later in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, he says.
Bahrain and Oman have already publicly welcomed the move, while Egypt and Jordan were positive but more guarded. It’s been condemned by Iran, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. Now the Trump Administration is hoping for a domino effect of other Arab nations to follow, winning back some of his once staunch supporters, who have lost faith in Trump.
A Pew Research poll in July showed white Evangelical support for Trump has fallen, but that 8 in 10 say they’d still vote for the incumbent. Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, a journal that focuses on Christianity and foreign policy, says while polls show most Evangelicals still support Trump, he’s been hearing of some who were wavering. Maybe the success of this diplomatic breakthrough will convince “some who were tottering on the edge…that God’s support remains,” he says.
Cory Mills, a Newsmax columnist and Army veteran who supports Trump, says the move will “win back some of the doubters,” in the evangelical community who were thinking about voting Democrat. “Think about the symbolism of this. It’s called the Abraham Accord,” after the religious figure who appears in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. “This will somewhat demonstrate to all the Evangelicals that he’s really placing the Holy Land in high regard…. We’re definitely going to win back a bunch of the moderates or the naysayers.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of the largest evangelical advocacy organizations in the U.S., says there is one concern evangelicals are voicing about the accord: Netanyahu’s suspension of its planned annexation of West Bank territory, which they want to see become part of Israel. “The sovereignty of Israel is a big deal, so anything that looks like Israel is giving up the rights to…Judea and Samaria [a biblical name for that area] that has stirred some things up.”
But Perkins, who works with the Trump White House on their outreach to the Christian community, says they will support “policies that will let me live according to my faith….unharassed by government,” and that’s Trump.
The UAE deal certainly cements Trump’s hold on at least part of the Jewish vote. “It’s a real feather in his cap with the Jewish voters,” says a major Jewish donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is a confidante to multiple candidates. He notes there are deep divisions between conservative and progressive Jewish voters over the issue of annexation, but having one less Arab country as Israel’s enemy has won fairly universal endorsement. He says it will be “another thing that the Jewish voter who votes based on Israel policy will think about when he or she goes to the voting booth. It’s not going to move any state from Democratic to Republican but it’s a plus.”
Democratic strategist and Jewish political activist Joel Rubin says the move will be welcomed by Jewish voters, but with a question mark. “We are happy that Israel is getting a win, but if it means less prospects for peace with Palestinians and more opportunities for confrontation with Iran, we’re not happy,” says Rubin, who was also the former Jewish outreach director on Sanders presidential campaign. “We want it to be the pedestal to more peace not the gateway to more conflict.”
Trump Administration officials see this as a signal to Iran that Gulf nations are coalescing against them. “Iran should be deeply concerned,” one of the senior administration officials said. “This is an integration of the people they hate.”
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson in Washington, D.C.
Correction, Aug. 15
The original version of this story misstated the timing of the Trump Administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital due to an editing error. That occurred in December 2017, not December 2018.