WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will serve as a witness Tuesday when the leaders of Israel and two Gulf Arab nations sign agreements formalizing diplomatic relations in a ceremony on the White House South Lawn.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are set to sign the accords in front of 700 invited guests. The deal follows months of diplomatic outreach led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.
Tuesday’s ceremony highlights a realignment in the Middle East, as Arab nations once devoted to Palestinian statehood move away from that commitment to solidify their ties with Israel. It will also showcase Trump’s close ties with Netanyahu and give the president a rare foreign policy victory ahead of November’s election.
Netanyahu called the agreement “a massive turning point in the history of Israel as well as the history of the Middle East” in a videotaped statement from Washington on Monday.
“It will have a huge a positive impact on all Israelis,” he said. “I promise you, from what I see here, that more countries are on the way.”
Trump and his allies are hoping the agreements will burnish his credentials as a peacemaker with the presidential election less than two months away. Trump’s campaign has touted the agreements on Facebook as “historic Middle East peace deals,” which experts noted was an overstatement.
“With the U.S. elections approaching, it seems that the administration felt the need to lock in a diplomatic win. There have not been many in the last four years,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank.
He said the biggest winner in the deal is the UAE, because the Israelis will be “eager to make deals on Emirati terms” and the UAE has also improved its standing with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington at a moment of deep polarization. Lawmakers in both parties have grown increasingly frustrated with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their conduct in the war in Yemen, which has killed more than 60,000 civilians and created a horrific humanitarian catastrophe.
“The biggest losers are probably the Palestinians. They saw their own weak negotiating hand with Israel and were counting on Arab solidarity to strengthen it,” Alterman wrote in an analysis published Tuesday. “It is unclear whether a weaker position will drive Palestinians toward greater conciliation or less conciliation with Israel.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday’s breakthrough marks the start of a broader shift in the Middle East.
For decades, U.S. policy “gave the Palestinians a veto right” to block Arab countries “from engaging with the most important democracy in the Middle East,” on everything from commercial activity to security cooperation, Pompeo said. But the Trump administration helped persuade the UAE and other Arab countries that Iran poses the greatest threat in the region and that closer ties with Israel would isolate the regime in Tehran.
“This administration is taking a fundamentally different approach to creating an opportunity for increased stability in the Middle East and less risk to America,” Pompeo said in a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank.
The text of the agreements has not been made public, but the pacts are expected to restore full diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Arab countries. The agreements are not “peace” accords. The UAE and Bahrain were never at war with Israel and their leaders have been quietly inching toward closer relations with the Jewish state for years.
A senior administration official said Israeli officials would sign two separate agreements, one with the UAE and a second with Bahrain. Then representatives of all three countries would sign a joint agreement, which this official referred to as the Abraham Accords. The official briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The White House ceremony will unfold as the world remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guests were seated in white chairs that were jammed close together and did not adhere to social distancing. Some wore face masks, but others did not.
The senior administration official said masks were recommended but not required at the signing, even as the U.S. and Israel struggle to get their outbreaks under control. Netanyahu ordered a second three-week lockdown in Israel on Friday amid a surge in coronavirus cases there.
Trump is scheduled to meet privately with Netanyahu in the Oval Office before the signing ceremony. He also plans to meet separately with the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain.
While officials said they would hew closely to the joint statements issued when the deals were first announced, it remained unclear if the agreements would require further action by the three governments or what binding obligations they would commit each to enforcing.
As part of the deal with the UAE, Israel agreed to temporarily halt its controversial plan to annex parts of the West Bank, land that Palestinians see as vital to their hopes of a future state.
A joint statement released when the agreement with the UAE was announced last month said that, with Netanyahu’s annexation plan paused, Israel will instead “focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”
Announcement of the agreement was followed by the first direct commercial flight between the two countries.
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Trump announced last week that Bahrain also would move to normalize relations with Israel. The island kingdom is a pivotal U.S. ally in the Middle East and hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
The only other Arab nations to have active diplomatic ties with Israel are Egypt and Jordan.
After the White House unveiled the UAE deal, questions emerged about whether the Trump administration had agreed to sell that country F-35 fighter jets as part of the agreement.
Last month, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, H.E. Anwar Gargash, confirmed UAE is pursuing a deal on the F-35s with the Trump administration. But he said it’s been a longstanding request and sidestepped questions about whether it was part of the Israel-UAE peace deal.
During an appearance on NBC News’ Today show on Tuesday, Kushner predicted the agreement would be the “beginning of the end of the Israel-Arab conflict.”
“We’re seeing more countries saying we’re tired of the fighting, we want to move forward,” he said. “And we’re seeing this start to come together in the Middle East.”
Kushner’s much-touted plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not gained any traction. Some critics view the agreement with the UAE and Bahrain as an “abandonment” of the Palestinians.
“While normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states is in itself to be desired, this abandonment of the Palestinians, will not serve the interests of peace, nor the real interests of Israel,” Jerome Segal, president of the Jewish Peace Lobby, an advocacy group based in Maryland, said when the agreement was announced.
“Unfortunately, it will underscore the narrative of the Israeli right-wing, that any semblance of justice for the Palestinians can be ignored,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press