STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For years now, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed a point about the Middle East, most Arab nations remain officially opposed to Israel. But, Netanyahu says, some key nations quietly work with Israel. The New Yorker's Adam Entous says Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have in fact been working to reshape the region. And since 2016, they've had an American presidential candidate and then president who agreed with them.
ADAM ENTOUS: Trump was interested in exactly what they were proposing. He was a blank canvas. His team didn't have a plan. The two things that they did know is that they hated Iran and that they hated Obama. And here were these two foreign leaders that came to them early when they didn't know anybody else and laid out a vision for the region.
INSKEEP: The two foreign leaders, the leaders of Israel and the UAE. President Trump in fact has pursued a policy sympathetic to theirs. Last month, the United States withdrew from the Iranian nuclear agreement and reinstated sanctions. The U.S. is also preparing an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. And Israel is hoping Palestinians can be made to accept less because their Arab allies are working with Israel. Entous explained it like this.
ENTOUS: Netanyahu's vision is basically that trying to negotiate a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is unlikely to succeed because Abbas will not agree to the kinds of concessions that Netanyahu would need in order for him to sell to an increasingly right-wing Israeli population such a deal. So that, in Netanyahu's mind, is off the table.
INSKEEP: The old notion of land for peace, a Palestinian state - forget about it, not going to happen anytime soon.
ENTOUS: He, you know, certainly does not think that that is a path that is going to produce positive results.
INSKEEP: So how did he want to increase the pressure on the Palestinians?
ENTOUS: He wanted a peace deal with Riyadh, not with Ramallah.
INSKEEP: The Saudi Arabians?
ENTOUS: Correct. That's his ambition. So what you do is - the Palestinians, of course, rely on support from the Arab states. That's what allows them both financially and politically to fend off pressure from both the Israelis and the Americans to make concessions. So Bibi's idea is that what you do is you create these bonds between Israel and the Gulf states. And by doing so you can put pressure on the Palestinians to cave to accept terms that in the past they would have rejected.
INSKEEP: You take away the Palestinians' friends.
ENTOUS: Correct. And Netanyahu is a smart guy, and he knows that the dynamics in the region with the Iranian threat the way it was developing had created a big incentive for Arab states to work with Israel. So if you are the UAE, you're literally across a small gap of water from Iran. Or if you're the Saudis, you are looking for a partner. Israel was willing to step up and provide assistance. What Israel wanted in exchange for this secret assistance was it wanted an investment for the future, that down the road after years of Israeli support to these efforts against Iran, efforts against Hezbollah, that there would be this payoff that would come which would be steps towards normalization, Israel's acceptance in the region. And that was the vision that Bibi wanted Trump to embrace, and he embraced it.
INSKEEP: So Netanyahu wants to be closer with Arab nations with U.S. help, and that's working out for him. Netanyahu wanted the U.S. out of the Iran deal and more confrontation with Iran. That's working out for him. Netanyahu wanted pressure put on the Palestinians to accept a lesser deal. That's working out for him. But is it still possible that he'll be asked to pay a price by President Trump, that one day President Trump will say, now I need you to make some real concessions to the Palestinians 'cause I actually do want an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal?
ENTOUS: So I think that's something that makes Bibi nervous, according to officials that we spoke to for the story. He's worried that because of Trump's popularity in Israel, because of the things that he's done such as moving the embassy to Jerusalem, it is going to be very difficult for Netanyahu to say no to Trump if and when he comes and he asks for concessions. But I think one needs to also look at Trump from the perspective that he is going to be seeking, at some point probably, re-election. And in order to be re-elected, his base of support are evangelical Christians in the United States and Orthodox Jews. The issue is, is he willing to upset his domestic base...
INSKEEP: By making demands of Israel.
ENTOUS: That potentially Bibi is unable to accept and that, certainly, strong hawks that support Israel in the United States will see potentially as a betrayal of commitments that they believe Trump made and why they supported him in the first place to become president.
INSKEEP: Adam Entous of The New Yorker, thanks very much.
ENTOUS: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.