In his final months in office, former President Donald Trump unveiled deals for four Arab countries to recognize Israel, saying it was a key step to resolve the decades-old Middle East standoff over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump administration repeatedly rejected criticism from foreign officials and national security experts that his approach made Israeli-Palestinian peace less likely by angering and isolating the Palestinians while boosting the Israelis.
But according to previously unreported remarks by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chief Republican working on foreign policy in the House of Representatives, sidelining the Palestinians was Trump’s aim all along.
“I think the goal here is to marginalize the Palestinians,” McCaul told donors and supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a closed-door meeting last month, referring to Trump’s negotiations with Muslim-majority countries.
McCaul made the comments to a gathering of the pro-Israel lobby’s donors and supporters, during a weeklong virtual meeting that replaced the group’s usual sprawling conference this year. HuffPost obtained a recording of his remarks.
By marginalizing the Palestinians, Trump’s policy would “put leverage on them in both the Arab and Muslim world to get them to the table to once and for all work out a peace agreement with the state of Israel,” the congressman said.
The GOP lawmaker’s frankness provides fresh context about how Trump and his allies were thinking about their approach to Israel and Palestine.
Republicans and many Democrats welcomed the decisions by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan to establish ties with Israel despite most Arab states’ past pledge not to do so without an Israeli-Palestinian accord. AIPAC said Trump had achieved “a historic breakthrough.”
Supporters of the agreements, which Trump called the Abraham Accords, claim they both help Israel and improve Israeli-Palestinian relations by spurring Palestinian leaders to move along with the changing dynamic in the region. In December, Israel’s then-foreign minister called the signing of the accords “an opportunity” for Palestinian leaders to restart talks that froze in 2014.
But skeptics countered that the policy could have the opposite effect. If the policy was designed to reduce the Palestinians’ influence ― as McCaul suggested ― it’s harder to describe it as a step toward good faith negotiations, much less a future Palestinian state. Instead, the policy is a way to treat Palestinian concerns, including fear of perpetually living under often brutal Israeli military rule, as tangential compared to the goal of relationships between Israel and Arab states aligned with the U.S.
Among many conservatives in Israel and stateside, that logic is just fine: they say Israel should behave as it chooses even in areas that are internationally recognized as occupied and that the Palestinian cause is fundamentally illegitimate, with some arguing Palestinian communities should simply move away, to neighboring countries.
McCaul did not respond to a request for further comment on his remarks, nor did a spokesperson for AIPAC. The group, which applauded Trump’s policies to boost Israeli’s right-wing government, and McCaul both say they favor a two-state solution to the conflict, as the U.S. historically has under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The open admission that the deal was intended to downgrade the Palestinians, however, makes their position more complicated.
It could bolster activists’ push to ensure that the ongoing discussion about the accords does not obscure the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israeli policies, like developing settlements in the occupied West Bank, that make it harder to establish a future Palestinian state. On Wednesday, the Associated Press published an investigation showing that Israel launched an “aggressive” settlement building spree while Trump was president.
President Joe Biden’s team says they want to build on the deals, convincing more Arab countries to develop ties with Israel even without a deal for the Palestinians. And last month, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) joined Republicans in introducing a bill to require U.S. officials to advance the accords ― a proposal that liberal congressional aides and groups working on Israel-Palestine want senators to reject unless it explicitly endorses Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
McCaul also revealed to the AIPAC audience that he and others are pushing Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel as well, a goal that Biden shares. The Saudis say that move will not happen without progress for the Palestinians.
“As I talk to the Israeli ambassador, they want to go beyond the Arab Gulf states to all Muslim countries as well ... and of course, Saudi would be the prize here, you get the Saudis to sign up, and we are putting pressure on them,” the congressman said.
McCaul’s willingness to press Riyadh over Israel stands in contrast to most Republicans’ reluctance to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations.
Last year, McCaul attacked legislation that would halt exports of U.S. equipment and technology to Saudi security forces until the kingdom cooperates with an independent investigation into the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, releases jailed dissidents and stops torturing prisoners.
He offered “thoughts and prayers” to Khashoggi’s family.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated which state Cory Booker represents.