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Danny Sebright on the Abraham Accords: UAE and Israel take more responsibility for security

The following article was provided by Danny Sebright, President of the US-UAE Business Council. An excerpt of it appeared at the Gettysburg Times previously. Sebright, who recently spoke to Seth J. Frantzman about these issues, has long experience in US policy in the region.

Last year's White House ceremony commemorating the signing of the Abraham Accords with the U.S., Israeli, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates has brought Danny Sebright full circle in his lifelong career of working to help enable peace between Arabs and Israelis.

Sebright, who is currently President of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council in Washington DC , was thrilled and honored to attend Tuesday’s ceremony at the White House, but he said that the weeks leading up to the ceremony and the event itself were surreal against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. As an intelligence officer and diplomat stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the early 90s, Sebright attended the last ceremony marking the occasion of an Arab country and Israel making peace in 1994 on the border between Israel and Jordan. Some 26 years later and so many failed attempts since, Sebright said that he was “not sure he would ever see the Israelis and the Arabs make peace again in my lifetime.”

Sebright was a young U.S. intelligence officer working on the Pentagon’s Middle East desk when the first Palestinian Intifada erupted in December of 1987. Within weeks, Sebright found himself on a flight to Israel with a small group of other U.S. intelligence officers who had been invited to come learn first-hand what was the Intifada and how was it affecting U.S. interests in the region. The experience change the trajectory of his career and he found himself becoming a tireless advocate for building closer bridges between the U.S. and Israel, as well as between the U.S. and the Arab States.

Not long after, Sebright was chosen for a diplomatic assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv some months before Saddam Hussayn invade Kuwait on 2 August of 1990. In the middle of his training program in the U.S., Sebright received a call telling him to curtail his training program and get on a plain to Israel as soon as possible. A week later, he was met at Ben Gurion Airport by U.S. Embassy officials for what would be the start of a three-year assignment in Tel Aviv. Much like today’s diplomatic travels must immediately have a Covid-19 test, Sebright was taken from the Airport to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence to be issued his gas mask and be given training on how to effectively protect against a chem-bio attack.

What followed was a fascinating role that Sebright played at the middle of U.S. efforts to help protect Israel and assuage them from attacking Iraq in the midst of the Dessert Storm Campaign to liberate Kuwait. Working closely with Israeli counterparts, he was critical to the effort to understand and protect Israel and U.S. forces against Saddam’s missiles and WMD programs. He worked closely with U.S. Patriot units that were assigned to Israel and was part of the U.S. defense team that supported diplomatic efforts in the country.

The head days of the Oslo Peace Accords followed the harrowing times of the Gulf War and Sebright found himself playing a new role back at the Pentagon transitioning form intelligence officer to policy official working for almost 10 years as the Country Director for Israel on the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s Middle East Policy office. These were important years in Sebright’s career when he worked closely with Israeli counterparts to guide and manage U.S. policy with regard to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge. From a U.S. policy perspective, these efforts started in Sebright’s office at the Pentagon and then were coordinated widely throughout the U.S. government and with Congress.

Danny Sebright (Courtesy)

However, in the early days of this new job, Sebright found himself on an official trip to Israel in November of 1995 and he was in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv attending the rally in support of the Oslo Accords the night that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. This very personal experience forever changed Sebright’s view of conflict in the region and forever underscored for him the deep meaning of the expression, “taking the risks for peace.”

During the ensuing years, Sebright helped to coordinate U.S. support for the development of Israel’s nascent Arrow anti-ballistic program, its THEL laser system, some its most sophisticated precision guided weapons, and other systems that can’t be mentioned.

But, it was also in the is capacity that Sebright found himself on the U.S. team that was working to coordinate the sale of the F-16 Block 60 to the U.A.E. at this time. Sebright’s role was to ensure that various and sensitive aspects related to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge were properly coordinated and taken into account. Sebright has said that in many ways some of this work was his most rewarding because he could see the very tangible and important results of Arabs and Israelis working together to pursue collective security. The U.A.E.’s F-16 does include Israeli technology equipment.

During these years, Sebright also traveled extensively with Secretaries of Defense William Perry and William Cohen. “It was our policy then that if the Secretary conducted a major trip to an Arab group of countries, we always also stopped in Israel and as the Israel Country Director I was fortunate to make multiple visits to the Arab World including the U.A.E.

On one of those trips in the late 90s, Sebright participated in meetings with the U.A.E.’s founder Sheikh Zayed bin Nahyan and de facto military chief Mohammed bin Zayed. Sebright will never forget Sheikh Zayed motioning to the Arabian Gulf outside the majles window and telling Secretary Cohen, “you Americans have your attention on the wrong threat by focusing so much on Iraq, the real threat is over their across the sea” and of course meaning Iran.

As part of that meeting and subsequent ones, Sebright also met a young advisor to the Royal Court named Yousef al Otaiba. Sebright’s ongoing friendship and relationship with now Ambassador al Otaiba was formed in those days.

In his policy job at the Pentagon, Sebright was also part of the Defense Department task force that was formed to support President Clinton’s extended Middle East peace process team. Sebright found himself attending the negotiations with the Palestinians and Israelis at Wye River in October of 1998, at Shepherdstown with the Syrians and Israelis in January of 2000, and finally at Camp David again with the Palestinians and Israelis at the Camp David Summit in July 2000.

Sebright said, “we came so close at the June 2000 Camp David Summit.” “When President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Barak, and Palestinian leader Arafat failed to broker a deal then, what followed was decades of violence and a long spiral downward in the plight of the Palestinians and a bleak outlook that the Israelis would never find peace with their neighbors in the region.

Sebright then remained in government as a policy official in the Rumsfeld Pentagon for two years, but following 9/11 and the U.S. decision to begin preparations to invade Iraq, Sebright said he could not help feel that the U.S. was stating down a disastrous path that would forever haunt America not only in the world, but particularly in the Middle East.

So, he left government and joined Secretary William Cohen’s Washington DC consulting firm and again started working with Yousef al Otaiba but this time on some of the more ambitious economic and business development programs that were being put in place to diversify the U.A.E.’ economy. In 2008, then soon to be Ambassador al Otaiba spoke with Sebright about the U.A.E.’s plans for re-building its relationship with the U.S. in the wake of the DP World ports imbroglio. Sebright soon was appointed as President of the recently created U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council.

In that capacity, he as shephered American and Emirati companies in their support of the historic 123 Agreement for Civil Nuclear Energy between the U.S. and the U.A.E.. He has helped navigate the contentious open skies debate. He has worked closely with U.S. and Emirati government officials and defense contractors to expand the U.A.E.’s cooperation with the U.S. military and in the spheres of defense industrial cooperation. And, most importantly in his view, he has played a critical role in helping the U.A.E. imagine and implement the incredible diversification strategy that it has set in motion since 1995. “Working to build a closer U.S. relationship and further align common values with a country that has visionary leadership, ample resources, and the commitment and drive to see its plans come to fruition has been a highlight of my career.”

Sitting on the South Lawn at the White House on Tuesday in contemplation of what has changed and what brought all of us to this moment, Sebright says, “was a realization by leaders in the region that after 20 years of war in the broader Middle East since 9/11, America is in retreat with both Presidents Obama and Trump making election promises to bring our troops home.” There was an understanding by the U.A.E. and Israel that they would have to take more responsibility for their security and prosperity in the future. And, with the common threat the region faces from Iran, they reasoned what better way to reconcile the future than to put aside a decades old fight and make peace.

Sebright says that some critics charge that the U.A.E. and Bahrain, and other Arab countries who might soon follow suit in a peace deal with Israel have sold out the Palestinians. Sebright disagrees and strongly believes that first and foremost peace is peace and that the Abraham Accords have a good chance of permanently breaking the 26-year log jam and creating the opportunity in the future for a comprehensive peace between the Israelis and Arabs that once and for all justly answers Palestinian grievances.

Sebright credits his colleague and friend U.A.E. Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al Otaiba for first recognizing the opportunity of the changed conditions on the ground and then working quietly as an incredibly effective diplomat behind the scenes to bring the parties together and eventually the deal to fruition. Sebright underscored that the Abraham Accords will usher in a new era of prosperity and hope for future generations of Arab and Israeli youth that is built on mutual understanding and respect. He said that this is a vision and an objective that he and the Ambassador have discussed many times over the years.

Of course the Trump Administration was an effective interlocuter in helping bring the parties to the table. Sebright says some might like to criticize the President by arguing that this is only an election year stunt. While Sebright does not disagree that the President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu both benefit politically from the Abraham Accords, Sebright underscores that peace is peace. He also points to Vice President Joe Biden’s strong statement of support issued withing hours when the story of the new agreement first broke in August. Sebright said, “when it is right, it is right and we all should get behind it and support it for what it is, an historic step forward.”

Sebright now splits his time between Dubai, Washington, DC and Gettysburg. However, his trip to the White House this week and to spend time with the U.A.E. delegations visiting Washington for the signing ceremony marked the first time that he has spent any significant time in Washington DC since the pandemic began in March. Sebright teaches a seminar on the Middle East at Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute and is on the board of directors of the Adams County Community Foundation and the Adams County Arts Council. As well, he is an ardent supporter of the Gettysburg Community Theater and is involved in helping get out the vote with local Democratic organizations. Sebright says that making time to give back locally with regard to philanthropy and promoting civil society are important priorities in his life. He hopes that his life-long career experiences on the global stage can help others better understand the importance of America’s role in the world today.

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