Trump officials: Mauritania, Indonesia were next to normalize, but time ran out

US peace team was ‘weeks’ away from inking deal with northwest African country to re-establish ties with Israel, outgoing officials say, adding that Jakarta was not far behind

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

(Clockwise from top right) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould El-Ghzaouani and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. (Collage/AP)
(Clockwise from top right) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould El-Ghzaouani and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. (Collage/AP)

The Trump administration was closing in on agreements with Mauritania and Indonesia to be the next Muslim countries to normalize relations with Israel, but ran out of time before the Republican president’s term ended, two US officials told The Times of Israel this week.

An agreement with Mauritania was the closest to being reached, with US officials believing they were mere weeks away from finalizing a deal. The northwest African country was identified by the Trump peace team led by senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz as a likely candidate to follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in normalizing with the Jewish state, given that it once had relations with Israel.

Mauritania became just the third member of the Arab League to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, but severed ties 10 years later against the backdrop of the 2008-2009 Gaza war.

After the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel in August, Mauritania’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement offering tepid support for the deal, saying it trusted Abu Dhabi’s “wisdom and good judgment” in signing the accord.

US President Donald Trump, accompanied by (From left), US special envoy for Iran Brian Hook; Avraham Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations; US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; Trump’s White House senior adviser Jared Kushner; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; applauding in the Oval Office at the White House, August 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Mauritania also has close ties with Morocco, which similarly established relations with Israel in the 1990s only to break them off several years later. The Trump peace team was encouraging Rabat to push its neighbor and ally to forge ties with the Jewish state.

The next most likely candidate to join the so-called Abraham Accords was Indonesia, the US officials said, claiming that a deal could have been inked if Trump had another month or two in office.

With a population of over 270 million, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country. That gave it “extra symbolic importance,” to the Trump administration, which maintained that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need not be a hindrance to peace between the Jewish state and the Muslim and Arab worlds, a US official explained.

As Kushner and Berkowitz’s talks with Indonesia intensified last month, a senior administration official told Bloomberg that Indonesia could receive as much as $2 billion in development aid from the US.

“We’re talking to them about it,” said Adam Boehler, the CEO of the US International Development Finance Corp. who has worked closely with Kushner. “If they’re ready, they’re ready, and if they are then we’ll be happy to even support more financially than what we do.”

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan; during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At the time, Indonesia’s president tried to tamp down speculation, telling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that his country would not normalize ties with Israel until a Palestinian state had been established.

“Mauritania and Indonesia are high on the list, but it changes based upon various circumstances,” said one senior US official this week. “You can put every country on the list, to the point where Iran will eventually join the Abraham Accords.”

The Trump team was also in “intermediate” talks with Oman and slightly less advanced talks with Saudi Arabia on the topic of Israel normalization, another official revealed, while clarifying that agreements with those countries would have taken more time.

“I hope the Biden administration takes advantage of this because these are good for everyone. Peace is not a Republican ideal or a Democratic ideal,” said the senior official.

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, January 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

President-elect Biden expressed support for the Abraham Accords during the campaign and his nominee for secretary of state Tony Blinken told ToI in November, “As a basic principle, encouraging Arab countries to recognize and normalize with Israel is something we supported during the Obama-Biden administration and would support in a Biden-[Harris] administration.”

However, officials on his campaign have acknowledged that such initiatives would not be prioritized as highly by the Biden administration, particularly in the early months when much of the focus will be on addressing the health and economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. Even in the Middle East, the more central issue for Biden will be his effort to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which he said he will do if Iran returns to strict compliance with the multilateral accord.

The outgoing senior US official said that “if the US wants to continue to motivate the Abraham Accords, three to four more countries should be the low bar for its success. Being unable to deliver that would be a significant disappointment.”

“There’s no doubt that when the US wants to lead toward peace and normalization, more countries will follow,” the senior official added.

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