(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump will be center stage as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sign accords establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, an achievement the president’s supporters say merits the Nobel Peace Prize and his detractors claim is mostly illusory.
The UAE and Bahrain will become just the third and fourth Mideast nations to formally recognize Israel at a White House ceremony on Tuesday that the president sees as vindication of his peacemaking skills after decades of failed efforts by his predecessors in both parties.
“You’ll see some very great things happening in the Middle East,” Trump said Tuesday in a meeting with the UAE’s foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, before the signing ceremony. “You’ll have peace and it will be a real peace.”
Although there are parallels to accords that brought diplomatic recognition to Israel by Egypt in 1978 and Jordan in 1994, Tuesday’s agreements signal something new: official recognition of the long-standing informal ties between Gulf nations and Israel. They also represent a regional move away from letting the fate of the Palestinian territories dictate ties with Israel.
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“The strategy began with the reality: For decades this town’s foreign policy with respect to the Middle East gave the Palestinians a veto right, that they could act in a way that prevented any Arab nation from engaging with the most important democracy in the Middle East,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told the Atlantic Council in Washington hours before the ceremony. “We took a different view.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined Trump and the foreign ministers from the UAE and Bahrain for the noon event. The ceremony offers a reprieve for Netanyahu, who continues to confront corruption charges and has been pilloried for his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He had to order a second nationwide lockdown that goes into effect Friday, the eve of a major Jewish holiday.
At the White House, Trump predicted other countries that he didn’t name would reach similar accords with Israel. “We’ll be signing up other nations,” Trump said. “We’re very far down the road with about five countries. Five additional countries.”
The agreements continue to be denounced by Palestinian leaders — who call it a “betrayal” of their cause — but they have had little success in rallying traditionally supportive Arab nations to their defense.
“This is Arab states saying there are shifting regional dynamics and we have interests that we’re not willing to have held hostage to progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, the director of the Israel-Palestinian Conflict Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The accords also drew condemnation from Iran, which sees itself confronting an increasingly unified opposition across the Mideast as it struggles with U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.
Pompeo said Tuesday that the Trump administration had a “deep recognition that the primary destabilizing force in the Middle East was not the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It was rather the threat posed by the extraterritorial ambitions of the clerical regime in Iran. So we flipped what the previous administration was doing on its head.”
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Heading into the White House ceremony, many details of the accords remain undisclosed. Skeptics will look for timelines for opening embassies and concrete agreements on trade and financial ties.
An administration official briefing reporters on Monday declined to get into specifics and said a full text of the accords won’t be available until after the signing. Issues such as access to a contested Jerusalem shrine and commitments by Netanyahu to not annex West Bank land aren’t expected to be in the agreements signed Tuesday, the official said.
One detail was divulged: Bahrain and the UAE will sign separate, bilateral agreements and all three countries plus the U.S. will sign a joint accord, the official said.
“The people of the region are tired of conflict,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., said. “The accord is good for the region but also for the U.S.”
Despite the unknowns, the Trump administration is touting it as a defining moment that could pave the way for other countries to recognize Israel, possibly including the ultimate prize: a Saudi-Israel agreement. And it’s all being done with an eye toward the November election, with top Trump advisers eager to cast him as a statesman and a diplomat, looking after Israel’s interests.
Early signs suggest the so-called Abraham Accords are indeed leading to change. The Saudis and Bahrainis granted overflight rights to all flights emanating from Israel. Last week, an Israeli business delegation went to the UAE. Major Israeli and Emirati banks are in discussions on banking cooperation. A major UAE hotel chain said it will start offering kosher food.
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The burst of activity also underscores how the deal has brought out into the open all the quiet diplomatic, security and business ties that have been deepening for years, especially between Israel and the UAE.
People familiar with the process said the move was largely the result of pressure by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Netanyahu’s threat to annex the West Bank this summer also provided the impetus for the UAE to offer diplomatic recognition in an effort to head off a move that would have set back ties for years.
“The initiative comes more from the Emiratis, and the White House picked up on it,” said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You’ve got to give them credit for that.”
Crown Prince Mohammed, however, isn’t attending Tuesday’s ceremony. And in a sign of how much suspicion remains between the nations, a person familiar with the matter said that in the lead-up to the deal, UAE negotiators had no direct interaction with the Israelis. Everything was done through the U.S. — primarily Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and his team.
The Trump administration has been eager to play up the significance of the accord.
In a Sept. 9 interview with Fox News, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the UAE deal was one of several recent developments that made Trump worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. “I don’t know if anyone else has a record similar,” O’Brien said. “And so he should get the prize.”
Administration skeptics don’t go that far. One complication they point to is how quickly the administration will be able to move on the UAE’s request for advanced F-35 jets despite Israel’s opposition to the proposal. Congress could stand in the way, or Democrat Joe Biden could take U.S. strategy in a different direction if he defeats Trump in November.
“This debate could take longer than people suspect it might, and trying to cram it through in this way doesn’t build confidence between these countries and the U.S.,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
More broadly, the agreements are a sign that the Middle East is changing and countries are starting to respond to competing pressures even as the Israelis and Palestinians remain deadlocked. There’s the economic opportunity that ties to Israel can provide, especially as the region struggles with the devastation of the pandemic.
And there’s a mutual recognition of the threat posed by Iran and by U.S. leaders seeking to avoid future military entanglements in the region, said Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s bringing to an end the great Middle Eastern conflict of the 20th century, but the problem is it may be the harbinger of the great Middle Eastern conflict of the 21st century, which would be the Sunni states and Israel against Iran and its Shia allies,” said Pollack.
(Updates with Trump comment in seventh paragraph.)
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