As someone who has spent a good chunk of her life stationed in the Middle East and working in diplomatic circles, Barbara A. Leaf has an insider’s perspective on Israel’s recent historic accords with the the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. 

Leaf, who served as U.S. ambassador to the UAE from 2014 to 2018, spoke at a Bet Chaverim Congregation of Howard County presentation on Tuesday, Dec. 1, for the second installment of its Middle East-themed virtual series.

A New Alexandria, Va., resident, Leaf, 62, spoke about “Middle East Policy in the Biden Administration.” In particular, she discussed Israel’s recent historic accords with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. (Some political analysts believe that an accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is also in the works.)

During her diplomatic career of 33 years, Leaf served in high-level positions at Foggy Bottom and abroad. Before arriving in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in 2014, she served as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Peninsula in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq.

Jmore recently spoke with Leaf, who is the Ruth and Sid Lapidus Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies and director of the Beth and David Geduld Program on Arab Politics. 

Jmore: As the former U.S. ambassador to the UAE, what is your impression of Israel’s accords with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan? Do you believe they will hold for the long-term?

Ambassador Leaf: The two normalization accords each have their own dynamic. The UAE accord has a stronger self-perpetuating dynamic in that normalization was a strategic decision taken by the UAE leadership, midwifed by the U.S. at Abu Dhabi’s request.  Both the UAE and Israel see manifold mutual interests in pursuing open economic and political relations.  

Bahrain’s decision to undertake normalization now is more complicated, given Bahrain’s internal demographics and a certain degree of hostility to normalization in the public. Regional peace, and region-wide moves toward normalization, however, depend on the diverse governments taking steps — that they have not taken to date — to prepare their publics for such a move.

Do you believe that Saudi Arabia is the next Arab country to sign a treaty with Israel?

There are a variety of factors that weigh against Riyadh moving expeditiously to normalization, among which are King Salman’s own reticence and the fact that there is not wide public support for such a dramatic move.  It is certainly possible that [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] would look to make such a move upon succeeding to the throne, but it seems more likely — and perhaps more prudent — to do smaller moves (normalization with a small “n”) in the realm of people-to-people contacts, permitting informal interaction between Saudi and Israeli artists, athletes, cultural figures, academicians, think tank analysts, business people. That would change the atmospherics within the country and which would pose much lower risks. 

Precisely because the kingdom is host to the two holiest sites in Islam [the Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina], and the king is custodian of the two holy sites, a move by Saudi Arabia on normalization is potentially more fraught. 

The Palestinians have publicly voiced their frustrations with these recent accords. Do you feel they have a right to feel abandoned by their Arab brethren, the U.S. and others?

There are a host of actions that can and should be taken by Palestinian leaders — and by Israeli leaders — going forward to set the right atmosphere for cooperation and eventual talks. Resumption of security and civil cooperation, announced recently, is an excellent start. 

The Biden administration is not intending to launch into any kind of full-scale engagement on a peace process but will look to knit up relations with the Palestinian community and its leadership. That will be a good starting place.

Do you believe Israel’s right-wingers and supporters of settlements in the West Bank will accept these accords with the Arab nations?

My reading of the Israeli domestic scene at the moment is that there is broad support from right to left — with the exception of some on the far right and among the settlers — for a suspension of annexation plans against both the actual achieved accords and prospective accords in the near term.

On the other hand, further confiscation of land, announcements of tenders for building in east Jerusalem, may cast doubt among both Arab governments and their publics about the commitment to holding off on moves that could foreclose a two-state option.

The Trump administration has been vocal in taking credit for these recent accords between Israel and these Arab countries. Is that valid?

In the case of the UAE, it was clear that the initiative came from the Emiratis, with the request that the U.S. help smooth the way and facilitate discussions.  The U.S. took a much more direct hand in persuading [the Sudanian capital of] Khartoum and [the Bahrainian capital of] Manama to move now, on the other hand. 

The Trump peace plan had not, in fact, moved things in the region.  I suspect the U.S. presidential elections had as much to do with the shift to normalization as anything — the UAE desiring to position itself well in either outcome, and the Trump administration hoping to notch a few foreign policy wins. 

It is difficult to see how the moves of the last four years by the Trump administration have helped bring the Israelis and Palestinians together; the moves have been wholly punitive towards the Palestinians.  I would have liked to have seen the move on the [U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem] done within a wider set of steps — not even necessarily a fully-defined peace negotation/effort — that would have signaled a commitment by the U.S. administration to seeing things through to a two-state outcome.  

Your talk to Bet Chaverim focused on President-Elect Biden and the Middle East.’ What do you think President-Elect Biden’s approach to the Middle East will be?

At the outset, the Biden administration certainly aspires to a narrower set of priorities and engagements in the region than had been the case prior to the Trump administration.  In fact, President Trump approached the region — and maintained the approach — with a very restricted set of priorities: support for Israel, defeating ISIS, countering/pressuring Iran. 

Biden wants to spend much less in the way of military resources and senior U.S. leadership engagement on the region.  I think that will be exceptionally difficult, given the state of the region’s conflicts and what I believe will be the propensity of the people who will serve in leading positions to provide leadership and engagement in trying to end some of those conflicts.  Also, if you come in planning to do three separate negotiations with Iran, you will perforce be spending a lot of time and energy on the region. 

On Israel and the Palestinians, I think Biden will look to knit things up with the Palestinians, work to reinforce some prior priorities while awaiting the right circumstance/political will on the part of the respective leaderships for any deeper U.S. engagement.

Lastly, you’ve had a long and distinguished foreign service career. What do you consider your career highlights? Your favorite post?

Every assignment brought me some measure of joy; a desire to do public service, service on behalf of my country and the American people, brought me into the Foreign Service and sustained me through good times and a few bad times. 

[The Iraqi city of] Basra was absolutely the hardest job I ever did, and the toughest/most dangerous year of my career, but every day was a great day there, even the bad ones.  Working closely with the military, overseeing reconstruction in a part of the country which had been devastated by three decades of war and privation but which could be the economic powerhouse of Iraq; reacquainting Iraqis with the U.S., a country that had last had diplomatic representation in southern Iraq in 1967; and working to help stabilize a country whose stability will help or hinder security for the wider region — all of these realms of work gave me a terrific sense of purpose every day.  
​But then again, there is no place like Jerusalem, and that was my introduction to the Middle East, so it will always remain an important part of my life.

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