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UAE and Bahrain break with other Arab nations to recognize Israel

Bahrain's Abdullatif bin Rashid Zayani, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump and UAE's Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
From left, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday.
(Associated Press)

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 states to fully open ties with Israel, longed shunned by most Middle Eastern countries, in part because of 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 United Arab Emirates.

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.

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Emirati 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 Bahraini 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 Emirates 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 Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement. “The U.S. administration and the Israeli government will be held accountable.”

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“We are witnessing a black day in the history of the Arab nation,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad 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.

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Even before the documents were released later Tuesday, 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 Emirati foreign minister also said Israel had agreed to “halt” annexation of large parts of the West Bank claimed by Palestinians.

But despite earlier claims by several officials that Emirati participation was conditioned on stopping what much of the international community would consider an illegal land grab, there is no mention in the Emirates agreement released Tuesday of anything related to Palestinians or the occupied territory.

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Facing backlash from Israeli conservatives back home, Netanyahu had sought in recent days to downplay that part of the agreement as a temporary concession.

In the seven-page treaty signed by Israel and the Emirates — including annexes — the two countries state that “peace, diplomatic relations and full normalization of bilateral ties are hereby established.” The two will exchange resident ambassadors “as soon as is practicable” and agree to cooperate in a large number of fields, including civil aviation, investment, trade, telecommunications and water.

The shorter Bahrain-Israel document is a “declaration” with fewer specifics. The countries agree to “open an era of cooperation and friendship” that will lead to a “secure, stable and prosperous Middle East.” It calls for all parties to commit to “continuing the efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Middle East analysts said time will tell whether the deals bring substantial 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.

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Senior Israeli officials were not told in advance what the documents contained, creating a storm of controversy there. Virtually any agreement of substance would probably 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 Emirates on Aug. 13 announced it was agreeing to work on normalizing relations with Israel. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to sell the Emiratis F-35 stealth fighter jets.

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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.

Other analysts warned of the danger of an accelerated arms race once the sale is made. Congress has previously sought to block some sales to Persian Gulf states because of human rights abuse and other issues.

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.

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Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and point man for the Middle East, praised the Emirates 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.”

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Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, said on Twitter that “whatever benefits these agreements have for Israel and the gulf states, there are none for Palestinians.”

American Jewish groups welcomed the agreements as a step in ending Israel’s long international isolation. The Israeli-American Council in Los Angeles said in a statement it “commends Israel, UAE and Bahrain for their courage and commitment towards launching bilateral relations and for accelerating the winds of change in the region.”

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem. Staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.


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