Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced on Thursday that they will normalise diplomatic ties and forge a broad new relationship, a move that reshapes the order of Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to the fight against Iran.
Under the accord, which U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker, Israel agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank. It also firms up opposition to regional power Iran, which the UAE, Israel and the United States view as the main threat in the conflict-riven Middle East.
Israel had signed peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. But the UAE, along with most other Arab nations, did not recognise Israel and had no formal diplomatic or economic relations with it until now. It becomes the first Gulf Arab country to reach such a deal with the Jewish state.
Officials from the three countries called the accord “historic” and a breakthrough toward peace. But Palestinian leaders, apparently taken by surprise, denounced it as a “stab in the back” to their cause.
A joint statement said Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed had “agreed to the full normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates”.
The accord will allow the two countries “to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region,” it said. Israel and the UAE are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies. A signing ceremony is due to be held at the White House.
“As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over areas of the West Bank as envisioned in a U.S. plan announced by Trump in January, it said.
The agreement, to be known as the Abraham Accord, also gives Trump a foreign policy accomplishment as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3. Speaking in the White House Oval Office, Trump said similar deals are being discussed with other countries in the region.
Trump said the agreement unites “two of America’s closest and most capable partners in the region” and represents “a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East.”
The UAE said it would remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people, who hope to create an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and that the agreement maintained the viability of a two-state solution to the longstanding Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The accord could also be a personal boost to Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption and whose domestic popularity has dropped over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a televised address, Netanyahu said the deal would lead to “full and formal peace” with the UAE and voiced hope that other countries in the region would follow its example. It also entailed acceding to a request from Trump to “temporarily wait” on implementing his annexation pledge. It’s an incomparably exciting moment, a historic moment for peace in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, rejected the accord. Spokesman Abu Rudeineh, reading from a statement outside Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank, said it was a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa (mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine) and the Palestinian cause”.
Asked if the Palestinian leadership had been aware the deal was coming, veteran negotiator Hanan Ashrawi told Reuters: “No. We were blindsided. … It is a complete sell-out.”
In Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the armed Islamist group Hamas, said: “Normalisation is a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause and it serves only the Israeli occupation.”
The UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed said the agreement would stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, for which Israel had been awaiting a green light from Washington. Senior UAE official Anwar Gargash said the deal had helped defuse what he called a ticking time-bomb. Gargash urged the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
‘NIGHTMARE’ FOR IRAN
Trump’s special envoy Brian Hook called the agreement a “nightmare” for Iran. An Iranian official said the agreement would not secure peace in the region. Railing against “criminal Israel”, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a special adviser to Iran’s parliamentary speaker, said in a tweet: “Abu Dhabi’s behaviour has no justification, turning back on the Palestine cause. W/ that strategic mistake, #UAE will be engulfed in Zionism fire.”
Iran and Israel are arch foes. Israel is particularly concerned about suspected Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Iran is also involved in proxy wars from Syria to Yemen, where the UAE has been a leading member of the Saudi-led coalition opposing Iran-aligned forces there.
With a population of less than 10 million but the Arab world’s second-largest economy thanks to oil, the UAE has exerted growing commercial and military clout in the Gulf and the wider region over the past two decades, much of it aimed at confronting Islamist militants and the influence of Iran.
Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the joint statement said.
“Everybody said this would be impossible,” Trump said. “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead,” Trump added. This was already being discussed with other states, he said.
The United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf Arab country to reach a deal on normalising relations with Israel on Thursday, securing an Israeli commitment to halt further annexations of Palestinian territories.
The agreement caps years of discreet contacts between the two countries in commerce and technology and may help the Gulf monarchy, increasingly assertive in regional hotspots, craft an image as a force for stability in a turbulent Middle East.
Senior official Anwar Gargash said the deal had helped defuse what he called the ticking time-bomb of Israel’s planned annexation of settlements in the occupied West Bank that was threatening a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, said the agreement was a bold but necessary step to take in the region. “The region is very polarised. You will hear the usual noise but I think it is important to move forward,” he told reporters in a briefing.
Israel has had no diplomatic relations with Arab countries in the Gulf, but common concerns with the UAE about Iran’s regional influence and activities had led to a limited thaw in relations in recent years. A joint statement by Israel, the UAE and the United States issued in Washington hailed the accord as a “historic diplomatic breakthrough” that would advance peace in the Middle East.
Asked by Reuters whether a UAE embassy could potentially be based in Jerusalem, Gargash said it was premature to discuss the issue. “We will definitely not locate anything in Jerusalem. West or East. Unless there is a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.” Gargash urged the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table but said that the issue was not in the hands of the UAE.
Delegations from Israel and the UAE, a regional business and investment hub, will meet in coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements on investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the statement said.
In Washington, senior White house officials said that under the deal, Israel had agreed to suspend applying sovereignty to areas of the West Bank that it had been discussing annexing. The UAE has adopted a more assertive foreign policy in recent years, flexing its muscles to counter what it sees as an Islamist threat in countries like Sudan and Libya, and working with Washington to confront the influence of adversary Iran.
President Donald Trump on Thursday managed to pull off a rare victory for U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East ahead of his Nov. 3 re-election bid by helping to broker a deal between American allies Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Gulf monarchy and Israel agreed to a normalization of diplomatic relations. Israel also said it would suspend annexing areas of the occupied West Bank as it had been planning to do.
Soon after he sealed the agreement by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of his strongest supporters, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Trump called it a “HUGE breakthrough” on Twitter and told reporters other similar Middle East deals are in the works.
“Everybody said this would be impossible,” Trump said. “After 49 years,” Trump added, “Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalize their diplomatic relations. They will exchange embassies and ambassadors, and begin cooperation across the board and on a broad range of areas, including tourism, education, healthcare, trade and security.”
The chance to play global statesman was compelling for Trump, who trails in public opinion polls ahead of what is shaping up as a tough election battle against Democratic challenger Joe Biden and has struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has battered the U.S. economy.
Two of the Republican president’s primary Middle East endeavors have sputtered in the past year. The new agreement, known as the Abraham Accord, has the potential to impact both. Trump has been unable to negotiate what has been billed as the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, and a peace plan he proposed in January that heavily favored the Israelis has not advanced in any significant way.
Trump, who walked away from the international nuclear deal with Iran, also has been unable to get concessions from Tehran in spite of a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at isolating the Iranians.
Israel and the UAE, along with the another strong regional U.S. ally in Saudi Arabia, count Iran as an important enemy, bolstering their joint opposition to Tehran.
Brian Hook, the U.S. State Department’s lead official on Iran who will be leaving his post soon, said the new agreement amounted to a “nightmare” for Iran in its efforts against Israel in the region.
The Netanyahu government’s West Bank annexation plans had been an uncomfortable development for Washington, seen by many as a possible death knell to the U.S. peace plan.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, asked how long Israel might suspend its annexation plan, said it was unclear but that the administration wanted to give other countries in the region a chance to seal similar agreements with Israel.
“We’ve prioritized peace over the sovereignty movement but it’s not off the table. It’s just something that will be deferred until we give peace every single chance,” he told reporters at the White House.
The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that the agreement with Israel was done to address the threat that further annexation of Palestinian territories posed to the two-state solution. A UAE representative was on hand in the White House ceremony when Trump unveiled the accord.
The agreement also deepens Washington’s alliance with the Emiratis, to whom the Trump administration has pushed to sell weapons over the objections of members of Congress angry over civilian casualties in the war in Yemen.
MORE DEALS IN THE WORKS?
White House officials said Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, Friedman and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz were deeply involved in negotiating the deal, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Echoing comments by Trump, Kushner told reporters in a conference call that other countries in the region may now come forward to strike a similar deal with Israel. “We’ve had numerous conversations with other Arab and Muslim countries in the region,” Kushner said.
Kushner said discussions between U.S., Israeli and UAE officials had been taking place for the past year and a half but accelerated in the past six weeks and an agreement in principle for a deal was reached a week ago, with details completed on Wednesday.
Israel has had no diplomatic relations with Gulf Arab countries, but common concerns with the UAE about Iran’s regional influence and activities had led to a limited thaw in relations in recent years. The UAE previously had warned that Israel could not expect to normalize relations with the Arab world if it annexed land in the occupied West Bank.
Biden said he was “gratified” by the announcement of the agreement. He said he had personally spent time with leaders of both Israel and the UAE as vice president under Barack Obama building the case for cooperation and broader engagement.
“It is a timely reminder that enmities and differences – even long standing ones – are not set in stone, and of the role American diplomacy can play,” Biden added.