President Trump on Tuesday presided over a historic ceremony that saw Israel normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, marking a diplomatic achievement for the incumbent president as he heads into the final weeks of his reelection campaign.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed agreements with Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, foreign minister of Bahrain, and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, foreign minister of the UAE, to establish diplomatic relations during an event on the South Lawn of the White House.
The agreements, called the “Abraham Accords,” represent the first time an Arab country has normalized relations with Israel since Jordan did in 1994 and Egypt did in 1979.
The decision by the UAE and Bahrain, which previously had covert relations with Israel, to formally normalize ties with the Jewish state reflects their growing concern about shared threats posed by Iran, and the Trump administration is hoping the agreement ushers in more regional unity on its so-called maximum pressure campaign to isolate Tehran.
The administration is also hoping the agreement will put pressure on the Palestinians and give momentum to its stalled Israel-Palestinian peace plan.
In his remarks before the signing, Trump cast the development as a considerable movement toward peace in the Middle Eastern region. The foreign leaders praised Trump for his administration’s leadership shepherding the agreements, describing it as a hopeful moment for the future.
“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict, we mark a dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump said. “Thanks to the courage of the leaders present, we take a major stride towards a future in which people of all faiths and backgrounds live together in peace and prosperity.”
Roughly 800 people gathered for the ceremony, some wearing masks but many not during the coronavirus pandemic. The attendees included current and former Trump administration officials, members of Congress and foreign officials. Nearly a dozen Democrats attended the ceremony, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (N.Y.), a rarity amid high tensions in Washington. Engel lost his primary bid for reelection earlier this year.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), whom Trump has regularly derided for his vote to convict the president on an abuse of power charge during his impeachment and who has frequently criticized Trump’s foreign policy, was also invited to and attended the ceremony.
“Forging new partnerships between our friends in the Middle East is critical to countering the region’s malign actors such as Iran and is in the best interest of U.S. national security,” Romney said in a statement Tuesday. “I applaud the president and the administration’s hard-won efforts in facilitating these historic peace agreements with both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which advance the cause of peace and prosperity in the region.”
Trump signed agreements between the UAE and Israel and, separately, between Bahrain and Israel, while all four parties signed a declaration of the “Abraham Accords.”
The four-page treaty between the UAE and Israel states that the two nations shall establish embassies and exchange ambassadors, work to advance peace and stability in the region, and cooperate in a diverse set of areas including finance, civil aviation, healthcare, and tourism.
“Peace, diplomatic relations and full normalization of bilateral ties are hereby established between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel,” the document states.
The one-page declaration between Bahrain and Israel is much shorter, as a result of the condensed time period to produce it. It states that the leaders of both nations “agreed to establish full diplomatic relations, to promote lasting security, to eschew threats and the use of force, as well as advance coexistence and a culture of peace.”
The White House in August announced that the UAE and Israel had agreed to normalize relations. As part of the deal, Israel agreed to suspend annexation of occupied territory in the West Bank. In a surprise disclosure on Friday, Trump said that Bahrain would also join in the accord with Israel.
The development represents a much-needed foreign policy victory for Trump as he trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national polling and some key swing states less than two months from the November presidential election. Trump has faced consistent disapproval for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and Tuesday’s ceremony allowed him the opportunity to distract from his domestic woes to mark an accomplishment.
When the UAE deal was announced last month, Biden praised the agreement, but framed it as the result of “efforts of multiple administrations to foster a broader Arab-Israeli opening, including the efforts of the Obama-Biden administration.”
The White House has sought to use the developments as a means of promoting Trump as a peacemaker.
At the start of this year, Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan to broker peace between Israel and Palestine that heavily favored Israel’s priorities and has been rejected by the Palestinians. Trump asserted in a Fox News interview Tuesday that Palestine would “ultimately” come to the table and that peace would be brought to the Middle East.
Yet, as the parties signed the agreement at the White House, Israel’s military said that Palestinian militants fired rockets into Israel that wounded at least two people, underscoring the difficulty of resolving the persisting conflict in the Middle East.
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Tuesday prior to the signing ceremony that the U.S. is “very far down the road with five additional countries” who could join the agreement, but he did not name them.
He also continued to express optimism that Iran would come to the table for an agreement on its nuclear program, after Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.
Bahrain is a close ally with neighboring Saudi Arabia, and it is unlikely they would have normalized relations with Israel without Riyadh’s approval.
Asked last week whether the UAE and Bahrain deals are a prelude to a deal with Saudi Arabia, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner told reporters he felt it was an “inevitability” that all Middle Eastern nations would eventually normalize relations with Israel.
The UAE is also hoping the deal unlocks advanced weapons sales from the United States, such as the F-35 fighter jet, that were previously closed to them over concerns about maintaining Israel’s military advantage in the region. By law, the United States is committed to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge.”
Netanyahu has denied the accord included any side agreement about arms sales and has continued to express Israel’s opposition to the UAE buying the F-35.
But Trump on Tuesday morning said during the interview on Fox News he would “have absolutely no problem” selling Abu Dhabi the advanced fighter jet.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was not at the ceremony amid ice-cold relations with Trump, called the agreements “important.” But she also said questions remain about whether the Trump administration has promised the F-35 to the UAE, saying Congress “on a bipartisan basis will be watching and monitoring to ensure that Israel can maintain its qualitative military edge in the region.”
“It is also critically important that we fully understand the agreements’ details regarding the announced freeze of efforts by Israel to annex portions of the West Bank,” Pelosi added in a Tuesday statement, highlighting a House-passed resolution that endorsed a two-state solution and discouraged unilateral annexation.