Hoping to bolster his foreign policy credentials ahead of November’s election, President Trump on Tuesday oversaw the formal recognition of Israel by two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, during a White House South Lawn ceremony.
The two Persian Gulf nations became only the third and fourth Arab countries to fully open ties with Israel, a country that most Middle Eastern nations have long refused to recognize, in part for its failure to resolve the conflict with Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan had previously established ties with Israel.
The historic step in Arab-Israeli relations was orchestrated by the Trump administration, which dangled U.S. arms sales as an incentive for the UAE.
In an elaborately choreographed ceremony, Trump hailed the agreements as a “foundation” for peace in the region that could finally end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the agreements marked “a change in the heart of the Middle East.” He was joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Zayani.
Israel is not at war with either country and already enjoys business and security ties, albeit discreetly, with both Arab states. Tuesday’s agreements broke a decades-old commitment by most of the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel only after it agreed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank have condemned the UAE and Bahrain for moving forward without a peace deal for the Palestinians. Rockets were reportedly fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel as the ceremony took place, injuring two Israelis.
“Efforts to bypass the Palestinian people and their leadership will have dangerous consequences,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement. “The U.S. administration and the Israeli government will be held accountable.”
“We are witnessing a black day in the history of the Arab nation,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said on Twitter.
At the White House, there were no handshakes, possibly in observance of coronavirus restrictions. The leaders, who did not wear masks, read statements from a White House balcony to about 200 people below, sitting side by side. Some in the audience wore masks, but the administration did not require them. The men then descended a staircase and sat at tables on the lawn to sign statements in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Trump predicted additional Arab countries would soon join in recognizing Israel, but declined to name any.
He used an Oval Office meeting before the ceremony to take several digs at his Democratic presidential rival, Joe Biden, and to criticize the Palestinians, who flatly rejected as one-sided his administration’s attempts to broker a resolution with Israel.
Copies of the the agreements were not immediately released to the public, making it difficult to discern how far they go and whether they are binding. But both Arab diplomats made their recognition of Israel clear in their statements, using its name and acknowledging Netanyahu.
However, unlike Trump or Netanyahu, both Arab leaders also made a point of recognizing the Palestinians and saying that Tuesday’s agreements must lead to a two-state solution, a long-held vision of a viable sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The UAE foreign minister also made a point of noting Israel has agreed to “halt” annexation of large parts of the West Bank claimed by Palestinians. Netanyahu, facing backlash from Israeli conservatives back home, has sought to downplay that part of the agreement as a temporary concession.
Middle East analysts said time will tell whether the deals bring change to the region. “Whether these transactions lead to transformations will depend on how many Arabs sign up and what happens with Palestinians,” veteran Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller said on Twitter.
Officials in the home countries cast some doubt on the significance of the agreements. Even senior Israeli officials were not told in advance what the documents contained, creating a storm of controversy there. Virtually any agreement of substance would have to be ratified by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
Like Trump, Netanyahu badly needs a political boost. The embattled prime minister faces criminal corruption charges, an economy buckling under the pressure of coronavirus-related slowdowns and a swelling protest movement demanding his resignation.
“Diplomatic sleight of hand can’t absolve Netanyahu of the domestic omni-shambles,” said Gershom Gorenberg, a prominent Israeli historian and author.
The UAE on Aug. 13 announced it was agreeing to work on normalizing relations with Israel. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to sell the UAE F-35 stealth fighter jets, and Israel would agree to suspend plans to annex West Bank land.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she welcomed Tuesday’s agreements, but urged a renewed commitment to the two-state solution. She also expressed concern that the sale of the fighter jets, the most sophisticated of such weaponry, could tip the region’s military balance against Israel.
“The U.S. Congress, on a bipartisan basis, will be watching and monitoring to ensure that Israel can maintain its qualitative military edge in the region,” Pelosi said.
The Trump administration has not disclosed what concessions, if any, were granted to Bahrain for its agreement. The kingdom is home to the largest U.S. naval base in the Middle East.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and point man for the Middle East, praised the UAE and Bahrain decisions. The administration is betting the agreements signed Tuesday will further isolate Palestinians from the rest of the Arab world.
“I think that this will help reduce tension in the Muslim world and allow people to, you know, separate the Palestinian issue from their own national interests, and from their foreign policy,” Kushner told reporters.
The Trump administration also sees an emerging alliance between Israel and some gulf countries as a bulwark against Iran.
“There was this deep belief inside the foreign policy establishment in the United States — indeed, in most Western countries — that you had to resolve the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel before Arab nations would have a shared view that Israel had a right to exist,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told French radio Tuesday. “These nations have come to understand that the threat, the harm, the risk to their people doesn’t come from the Jewish state. It doesn’t come from Israel, but rather comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem. Staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.