Israel is inking historic diplomatic deals with two Arab nations at the White House Tuesday, its first in over a quarter century, which could herald a dramatic shift in Middle East power dynamics.
At 7 p.m. Israel time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to sign normalization accords with the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain before hundreds on the White House South Lawn, only the third and fourth peace accords with Arab nations in Israel’s 72-year history.
The normalization of relations with the UAE and Bahrain follow Israel’s treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
In a ceremony aimed at showcasing presidential statesmanship, US President Donald Trump will host more than 700 guests Tuesday on the South Lawn to witness the sealing of the agreements. Trump and his allies hope the occasion will burnish Trump’s credentials as a peacemaker at the height of his reelection campaign.
The crowd will include representatives of supporting nations from the Washington-based diplomatic corps but few other dignitaries from overseas.
Omani Ambassador to the US Hunaina al-Mughairy will be among those attending, a spokesman for the embassy confirmed to The Times of Israel. Oman has been touted as another Gulf nation that could be on the verge of normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
Some congressional Democrats who have offered muted praise have also been invited to attend.
Three documents will be signed at the ceremony: In addition to the individual bilateral agreements signed by Israel with the UAE and Bahrain, all three will sign a trilateral document, officials said. The agreements are dubbed the “Abraham Accords” after the patriarch of the world’s three major monotheistic religions. Trump is expected to sign as a witness.
The specific contents of the individual documents to be signed were not known ahead of the ceremony.
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. The text of the documents was expected to be released soon after the ceremony is held.
Netanyahu is expected to bring the agreements to the government for approval and then the Knesset for ratification.
Watch a livestream of the event here:
Ahead of the ceremony, Trump and Netanyahu will hold a short private meeting. After the festivities conclude, the two will hold a working lunch with the Gulf representatives.
Though described by various officials as peace agreements, the accords aren’t ending any active wars. Rather they will formalize the normalization of the Jewish state’s already-warming relations with the two countries. And, while not addressing the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they may pave the way for a broader Arab-Israeli rapprochement after decades of enmity, a pair of wars and only two previous peace deals.
UAE Minister of state for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told journalists Tuesday that the documents would only refer to the two-state solution indirectly.
Skeptics, including many longtime Mideast observers, analysts, experts and former officials, have expressed doubts about the impact of the deals and lamented that they ignore the Palestinians, who have rejected them as a stab in the back by fellow Arabs.
Yet even the harshest critics have allowed that they could usher in a seismic shift in the region should other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, follow suit, with implications for Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Other Arab countries believed to be close to recognizing Israel include Oman, Sudan and Morocco.
Trump was ebullient over the new accords Tuesday, telling Fox News in an interview: “Everyone said this couldn’t happen.” He asserted that “we have many other [countries] going to be coming in over a short period of time.”
He added that he believed the Palestinians would soon have no choice but to come to the table as well, as “all the people that give them lots of money are coming into the deal.
“And you’re going to have peace in the Middle East, without being stupid and shooting everybody and killing everybody and having blood all over the sand.”
He added that the Palestinians had been “very difficult to deal with” and called US financial support over the decades “almost like hostage type money, it was bribe money and it was foolish.”
Trump halted all aid to the Palestinian Authority after Ramallah cut ties with Washington over its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and the relocation of the US embassy there.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who led the negotiations, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday: “These agreements are a huge accomplishment for the countries involved and have led to a tremendous sense of hope and optimism in the region… Instead of focusing on past conflicts, people are now focused on creating a vibrant future filled with endless possibilities.”
As for the Palestinians, “they have an offer on the table,” Kushner said. “At some point when they decide they want to live better lives, I believe they’ll engage. But you know we can’t want peace for them, for their people, more than they want it themselves.”
Tuesday’s ceremony follows months of intricate diplomacy headed by Kushner and Trump’s envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, that first bore fruit August 13 when the Israel-UAE deal was announced. That was followed by the first direct commercial flight between the countries, and then the September 11 announcement of the Bahrain-Israel agreement.
A senior White House official said Monday the UAE-Israel agreement would be longer and more detailed than the Bahrain agreement because there had been more time to finalize it. Still, the lack of clarity even a day before the ceremony has raised some suspicions about the durability of the agreements.
Even in Israel, where the accords have received widespread acclaim, there is concern that that they might result in US sales of sophisticated weaponry to the UAE and Bahrain, including advanced F-35 jet fighters, thus potentially upsetting Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.
Trump said Tuesday he would have “no problem,” selling the jets to the UAE.
Meanwhile, a politically vulnerable Netanyahu is facing questions about appearing at such a large event just days after he announced a new nationwide lockdown to fight a surge in coronavirus cases that will impose severe restrictions on movement and gatherings. The White House is encouraging those attending Tuesday’s ceremony to wear masks, but not requiring them.
Netanyahu has also faced questions about keeping senior political partners, including Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, in dark about the deal. According to an Israeli report Tuesday, Netanyahu had to call Ashkenazi, who was not invited to the ceremony, while en route to the US after finding out that only the foreign minister is authorized to sign treaties.
Ashkenazi granted permission. On Tuesday, he celebrated the accord by raising the flags of the UAE and Bahrain over the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem.
The four flags flying over the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs today.
— גבי אשכנזי – Gabi Ashkenazi (@Gabi_Ashkenazi) September 15, 2020
While the UAE and Bahrain have a history of suppressing dissent and critical public opinion, there have been indications that the agreements are not as popular or well-received in the two Arab countries as they are in Israel. For one, neither country is sending its head of state or government to sign the deals with Netanyahu.
Bahrain’s largest Shiite-dominated opposition group, Al-Wefaq, which the government ordered dissolved in 2016 amid a years-long crackdown on dissent, said there is widespread rejection in the country of normalization.
Al-Wefaq said in a statement that it joins other Bahrainis who categorically reject the agreement to normalize ties with the “Zionist entity,” and criticized the government for crushing the public’s ability to express opinions “to obscure the extent of discontent” at normalization.
In the UAE, there has been speculation that Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, widely seen as the country’s day-to-day leader and architect of the Emirati push to improve relations with Israel, is intentionally steering clear of the signing ceremony.
Although Emirati protocol dictates that the foreign minister and not the crown prince of a specific emirate be dispatched to represent the country in lieu of the UAE’s president, who’s rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke more than six years ago, there has been speculation the crown prince is not attending the White House ceremony for political reasons.
He may not want to be seen throwing too much of his support behind Trump weeks ahead of a US presidential election in which the outcome is far from certain. While the pageantry of the White House signing ceremony offers Trump and Netanyahu a political triumph, Prince Mohammed faces neither reelection pressures nor protests at home.
The Emiratis may also be wary of appearing too close to Netanyahu, who publicly stated in August his opposition to the sale of US-made F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE.
While the UAE has said that Israel halting plans to annex West Bank settlements is a cornerstone of the agreement, Netanyahu has insisted that annexation is only suspended and remains on the table.
Sources with direct knowledge of the matter have told The Times of Israel that the Trump administration gave the UAE a commitment during normalization negotiations that Washington would not recognize Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank until 2024 at the earliest.