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National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on ‘very courageous’ deal between Israel and UAE

As announced Thursday by the Trump administration, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will begin normalized relations, opening embassies and signing agreements on trade and technology. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the “remarkable accomplishment," what comes next for the Middle East and how the U.S. is combating foreign election interference.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now let's turn to President Trump's national security adviser. He is Ambassador Robert O'Brien. And he joins us from the White House.

    Mr. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

    You, the president is calling this a major turning point. How can you be certain that that is what it is?

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Well, it's really a remarkable accomplishment, Judy.

    And it's an accomplishment that owes its birth to President Trump, who negotiated this deal with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the UAE, and with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

    And I want to compliment the leaders. Mohammed bin Zayed, MBZ, now enter the pantheon of great Arab leaders that made peace with Israel, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan. And it was a very courageous move on his part to normalize relations. Embassies will be open. There will be flights back and forth. There will be trade. There will be tourism.

    And Bibi Netanyahu took a political risk. And we'd asked him to do so. And he did. And so the parties came together. It was very courageous.

    And the name of the accords are the Abraham Accords, which refers to Abraham, the father of the three great religions that came from the Holy Land, Ibrahim in Arabic and Avraham in Hebrew.

    And so it's a really remarkable — it's a very special day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we know two sides to every deal.

    The UAE is saying they're calling this an immediate stop to annexation on the part of the Israelis. The Israelis are stressing that that's only a temporary suspension. The president and you and others are saying, stressing how temporary it is.

    But if that's the case, how can they — what is it that the UAE can count on? Was there some sort of unspoken agreement for how long the suspension of this annexation will be?

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Well, look, Israel wants to extend sovereignty and its laws to parts of the Holy Land. And we wouldn't refer to it as temporary. We would say it's a suspension.

    What ultimately has to happen, Judy, is the Palestinians have to sit down with the Israelis and they have to negotiate these issues. And Israel has said that they're not going to extend sovereignty without an understanding from the United States.

    And what we're pressing for is for more Arab countries and more Islamic countries to open ties with Israel, as the UAE courageously did, and to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

    And there's a lot that the Palestinians and Israelis can talk about. There are great opportunities for the Palestinians. President Trump, in his vision for peace, endorsed a two-state solution. It has economic plans that would double the Palestinian GDP in just a few years.

    So, there's a huge opportunity here for the Palestinians. And the Palestinians and the Israelis can sit down and talk about where the lines should be drawn on the real estate in the region.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that — and that — and I do want to get to that.

    But I just want to clarify. So, you're saying the UAE will be OK keeping this diplomatic arrangement as it is even if Israel goes back to annexation?

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Well, we don't think the Israelis are going to — are going to extend sovereignty at this point. This is a very important deal for Israel and brings peace between them and one of their neighbors.

    It's a great accomplishment of Prime Minister Netanyahu. And so, unless the U.S. gave the Israelis the green light to extend sovereignty, I don't think that's going to happen. So, I think all the parties are very satisfied with the arrangement today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned the Palestinians and how they see this. You say you hope that there can be some — something worked out between the U.S. and the Palestinians, but, clearly, they are not happy with this. They are saying they feel they have been sold out by an ally.

    And, given that, what — are the Palestinians even a factor for the United States anymore in this? Because they obviously turned down the most recent U.S. proposal for peace in the Middle East.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Well, look, this deal is going to take a long time to work out between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And President Trump, who's a great deal-maker, knew that from the start.

    And, in fact, one of the things I have said earlier today is that President Trump is known as a great deal-maker. I think history is going to remember President Trump as a great peacemaker, having brought peace to Israel and the UAE, only the third Arab country to have recognized Israel.

    But he's very committed to the Palestinian people. And the vision for Middle East peace that he's laid out that has a two-state solution, that has massive economic benefits to the Palestinians, I'm hopeful that the Palestinian leaders will start to recognize that this is a great opportunity for them to sit down with an interlocutor in Israel, but also with President Trump, who would like to broker a great deal between Palestinians — the Palestinians and the Israelis.

    And, hopefully, we can make some progress. In the meantime, I think you're going to see some other Arab countries follow in the UAE's footsteps. And that's going to be great for the Middle East. It's going to be great for the region.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you have mentioned other countries twice now. I mean, how far along are those negotiations with these other countries? Could there be other countries involved in this same thing by the time you sign this in September?

  • Robert O’Brien:

    I don't know if they will be here for the signing. And that's certainly going to be a big event between the Emiratis and the Israelis.

    But President Trump has been reaching out to leaders in the region. His diplomats have been reaching out to folks in the region, from Secretary Pompeo, to senior adviser Kushner, to myself. And we think there's some real appetite for a number of these countries that see how dynamic Israel — I mean, it's called — Israel is called the start-up nation.

    And how they want to — they want to have security ties, economic ties, tourism ties. One of the untold stories here is that now Muslims and Arabs are going to be able to travel from the airport Abu Dhabi or Dubai, these great airports, fly into the airport at Ben-Gurion Airport at Tel Aviv, and go visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount.

    What a great thing for religious freedom in the region to have Muslims and Arabs be able to travel to Israel and go up to the Temple Mount and worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

    So, we think that this is going to — we think that this is going to really lead to some momentum. And we're hopeful that there are going to be some other countries that follow in the UAE's footsteps.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to come back to something my colleague Nick Schifrin mentioned, and that is that the U.S. and the UAE have been working together for a number of years, shared concern over Iran.

    I'm sure you know some observers are looking at all this, and they say this is really more about an attempt to get Iran, to oppose Iran, than it is truly about a diplomatic coming together on the part of Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Well, look, this is about Israel and the UAE.

    But, having said that, I'm sure Iran is not happy about it, because Iran has tried to stoke divisions and contention between Arab states and Israel for many, many years. Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the region.

    And the UAE has a very capable military, and they have got a very strong leader in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, that has stood up to Iran across — even though it's a small country, they have stood up to the big country just across the straits from them.

    And now Israel and the UAE, working closely together with the United States and other allies in the region, I'm sure that's something that doesn't make Iran happy. But that's not the — that's not the impetus behind this, although it's a great side benefit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Final question, different subject, Ambassador O'Brien, and that has to do with the intelligence community report late last week that the Chinese and the Iranians are working in their own way to support Joe Biden in this presidential campaign.

    But the Russians, who have a much more sophisticated interference campaign under way, are working again to support President Trump.

    So, my question is, what is the administration doing to counter the Russians?

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Well, it's not just countering the Russians. It's countering any state or organization that wants to disrupt our elections.

    Our — the free and fair elections are the foundation of our democracy. They're what make this country a great country. And we — we're not going to tolerate any outside country, whether it's China on behalf of Joe Biden — and, by the way, I dispute — the one thing I would dispute, I think the Chinese have the most sophisticated global influence programs and strategies and abilities and capabilities in the world.

    But whether it's the Chinese, who are trying to elect Joe Biden, or the Russians, who are denigrating Joe Biden, or the Iranians or the Venezuelans or Cubans or any other country, they have to stay out of our elections.

    We have hardened our election infrastructure. We're working with our secretaries of state across all 50 states and the U.S. territories that will be voting for president. We're putting unprecedented amounts of money in to make sure that they're not vulnerable, our election systems aren't vulnerable to cyberattack.

    And so this is something we're taking very seriously. We're taking it very seriously in my shop at the NSC. President Trump is taking it very seriously.

    And, look, there is zero place in an American election for foreign powers, whatever their — whatever they want to do or whatever they — however they want to influence this country. There's no place for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Robert O'Brien, national security adviser to the president, we thank you.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Thank you, Judy.

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