Israel, UAE and Bahrain sign Abraham Accords, with an eager Donald Trump playing host
As a condition for the UAE’s agreement to normalise relations, Netanyahu agreed to freeze his plan to annex portions of the West Bank. But the Palestinians seemed an afterthought, barely mentioned in the day’s official remarks.
Washington: Israel and two Arab nations signed agreements at the White House on Tuesday to normalise their relations, a step toward a realignment of West Asia but one that failed to address the future of the Palestinians.
President Donald Trump presided over a South Lawn ceremony where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed a general declaration of principles the White House has named the Abraham Accords, after the biblical father of three monotheistic religions, as well individual agreements between Israel and the two Arab states.
Trump pronounced it a historic moment for their region. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new [West Asia],” Trump said.
The texts of the agreements detail how the three countries will open embassies and establish other new diplomatic and economic ties, including tourism, technology and energy. Israel and the Emirates are beginning commercial air travel between their countries for the first time, and Bahrain has opened its airspace for those flights.
They make scant reference to the fate of the Palestinians, but include a call for “a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The accords are the first such agreements between Israel and an Arab state since 1994, when the Jewish state established diplomatic relations with Jordan. They are also another step toward the formation of a de facto alliance between Israel and the Gulf’s Sunni Arab monarchies against their common enemy, Shiite Iran. Pressuring Iran has been a central goal of Trump’s foreign policy, and Trump officials have worked to build a common regional front against Tehran in which Saudi Arabia has played a major role.
Speaking from the porch above the South Portico, just below the Truman balcony, Trump said the accords were just the beginning. “Today’s signing sets history on a new course, and there will be other countries very, very soon” that make similar agreements, ending Israel’s isolation in the region.
In remarks to reporters before the ceremony, Trump said five nations could soon take similar steps — and suggested that one was Saudi Arabia, in what analysts say would be a far more dramatic breakthrough. Analysts believe Sudan and Oman are likelier candidates for normalisation in the short term. But they say that Bahrain most likely acted only with Riyadh’s blessing, and that the Saudi royals are weighing their own move.
Netanyahu also suggested that more nations would follow. “This day is a pivot of history,” he said. “It heralds a new dawn of peace.”
“This peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all,” he added.
Palestinians expressed their anger over the agreements by launching rockets into Israel from Gaza during the White House ceremony.
The staging of the event seemed intended to invoke the scene more than 25 years ago in the same location when President Bill Clinton brokered an agreement — and iconic handshake — between former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Trump declared that “there’s going to be peace in [West Asia],” a phrase that typically suggests a resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
But Dennis Ross, a former West Asiant peace negotiator who helped to broker that 1993 agreement, said the two events were “very different.” He said the agreements signed Tuesday were “significant” because they demonstrated that “Palestinians cannot freeze the region and prevent open cooperation with Israel.”
On the other hand, he noted that “the UAE and Bahrain are countries not in a state of war with Israel and have quietly cooperated with it,” and that the day lacked the feeling in 1993 “that something both psychically and historically profound was taking place at the White House.”
Trump sought all the same to create a sense of drama as he was joined by his guests in making remarks from the South Portico porch, a highly unusual location for official events.
Then, to the sound of portentous horns and crashing cymbals, the four men moved to a long table in front of the South Portico to sign three sets of agreements before a seated audience that the White House estimated at 800 people, many of whom did not wear masks.
Among those in attendance was Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has made Middle East peace a central focus of his White House work and helped to broker the agreements.
But analysts noted that Kushner’s original goal of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is as distant as ever, months after Palestinian leaders declared a peace plan that he spent years crafting to be dead on arrival.
“It’s not conflict resolution and it’s not peace — this is a business deal,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group sharply critical of Netanyahu. “It’s very, very clear that there are aligned interests between Israel and these countries — military, security, diplomatic, economic — and those interests have been there for two decades.”
“This formalises that, but it shouldn’t be overplayed as resolving a core conflict for Israel with its neighbours,” he added. Israel’s decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, he said, “remains unaddressed with this agreement.”
Unmentioned in the official proceedings was the gravitational pull of Iran, which played a key role in bringing the parties together, analysts said.
“To state the obvious, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, deserves no small part of the credit for this breakthrough, having generated the conditions for long-standing quiet security consultations and cooperation between the Gulf and Israel,” said Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
What was clear in the event, carried live on major cable networks less than 50 days before the November election, were Trump’s political interests. The Trump campaign, eager to portray the belligerent president as a diplomat and peacemaker, has capitalised on the agreements with online ads suggesting he deserves nothing less than the Nobel Prize, for which two right-wing Scandinavian lawmakers have nominated him.
Netanyahu’s interests were well served, too. The Israeli prime minister, who has long had a symbiotic relationship with the American president, is weathering twin political crises at home: a resurgence of the coronavirus that has led him to order a new national lockdown, and a trial on felony corruption charges.
The two men never seemed closer than they did Tuesday. Meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office beforehand, Trump presented him with a large golden key embedded in a wooden box that he described as “a key to the White House, a key to our country.”
“You have the key to the hearts of the people of Israel,” Netanyahu replied.
“This is peace in West Asia without blood all over the sand,” Trump added.
There was at least one potentially discordant moment between them, however, when Trump said that if reelected, he would try to strike a deal with Iran, which has so far refused to negotiate with him after he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by the Barack Obama administration.
“I’m going to make a good deal with Iran,” Trump said. “I’m going to make a deal that’s great for Iran. It’s going to get them back. We’re going to help them in every way possible. And Iran will be very happy. Iran will be very rich and very quickly.”
Netanyahu has firmly opposed negotiations with what he calls “the murderous Iranian regime.” Maloney said his host’s remarks were “probably not what Bibi bargained for.”
As a condition for the Emirates’ agreement to normalise relations, Netanyahu agreed to freeze his plan to annex portions of the West Bank. But the Palestinians seemed an afterthought, barely mentioned in the day’s official remarks.
Palestinian leaders, however, showed no sign of reconsidering their adamant refusal to negotiate with Israel in the framework of a peace plan the Trump White House released in January or their view of Tuesday’s agreement.
A public statement from the Palestine Liberation Organisation called it “a black day in the history of the people of Palestine,” saying that peace requires “the end of Israel’s occupation.”
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Abdul Latif al-Zayani, emphasised the Palestinian cause in his remarks, however, saying that a “just, comprehensive and enduring two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be the foundation” of a regional peace.
And his Emirati counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, thanked Netanyahu for “halting the annexation of the Palestinian territories, a decision that reinforces our shared will to achieve a better future for generations to come.”
The Trump administration has also had to deny that it has agreed to a sale of American-made F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates that the Emiratis were said to have made a condition to Tuesday’s agreement.
Speaking on Fox News earlier in the day, Trump said he would “have absolutely no problem” selling F-35s to the Emirates, despite objections within Israel.
In a statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the agreements made for “an important day,” but warned of important unanswered questions, including about the F-35. Pelosi said Congress “will be watching and monitoring to ensure that Israel can maintain its qualitative military edge in the region,” referring to a term in US law prohibiting regional arms sales that could jeopardise Israel.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and the author of Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change, said it was possible to attach strings to a sale of the jets to the Emirates that could satisfy Israel’s concerns.
He noted that when a similar uproar greeted the Ronald Reagan administration’s push to sell fighter jets to Egypt, that country agreed not to deploy them at its Tobruk air base.
“If that’s the price of peace,” he said of the jet sales, “there are ways of reducing the threat, by not selling them tankers, barring them from deploying outside their territory or degrading the avionics,” to name a few.
Michael Crowley c.2020 The New York Times Company