Cementing a regional geopolitical shift few would have thought possible little more than a month ago, Israel on Tuesday signed landmark normalization deals with two Arab nations at a White House ceremony, with leaders hailing a “new dawn” for peace in the Middle East.
Hundreds of people amassed on the sun-washed South Lawn to witness the signing of agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The bilateral agreements, dubbed the Abraham Accords, formalize the normalization of the Jewish state’s already-thawing relations with the two Arab nations, in line with their common opposition to Iran and its aggression in the region.
“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history,” US President Donald Trump said from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.”
The UAE-Israel agreement is a full peace treaty. The Bahrain-Israel agreement is a “Declaration of Peace” in which the sides commit to establishing full diplomatic relations.
The agreements do not address the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the UAE, Bahrain and other Arab countries support the Palestinians, the Trump administration has persuaded the two countries not to let that conflict keep them from having normal relations with Israel.
Addressing the crowd before signing the agreements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the achievement as “a pivot of history.” He said the new peace momentum could end the Arab-Israeli conflict “once and for all.”
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan thanked Netanyahu for “halting the annexation of the Palestinian territories which reinforces our shared will to achieve a better future for generations to come.”
Abu Dhabi has cited stopping annexation as the impetus for agreeing to normalize ties with Israel, though Jerusalem insists that it has only temporarily suspended its plans to extend sovereignty to swaths of the West Bank sought by Palestinians for a state of their own. Multiple sources have told The Times of Israel that the US has assured the UAE it will not back Israeli annexation before 2024 at least.
The agreements were only the third and fourth peace accords in the Jewish state’s 72-year history.
Rather than shaking hands upon signing the peace agreements, the three leaders turned to each other, placed their hands on their hearts and bowed slightly, in apparent pandemic protocol.
Three documents were signed at the ceremony: In addition to the individual bilateral agreements signed by Israel with the UAE and Bahrain, all three signed a trilateral document, officials said. The agreements are dubbed the “Abraham Accords” after the patriarch of the world’s three major monotheistic religions. Trump signed as a witness.
The UAE agreement will still need to be approved by Israel’s government, and will likely go to the Knesset for ratification.
The texts of the agreements were made public just before midnight in Israel.
For the Mideast, the deals marked a distinct shift in a decades-old status quo where Arab countries have tried to maintain unity against Israel over its treatment of the stateless Palestinians.
Israel, Netanyahu said in his speech, was “filled with profound gratitude” to the leadership shown by Trump as well as Abu Dhabi and Manama, in “bringing hope to all the children of Abraham.”
He said Trump had “successfully brokered the historic peace we are signing today, a peace that has broad support in Israel, in the Middle East, in America — indeed, in the entire world.” This day, he said, “heralds a new dawn of peace.”
“To all our friends in the Middle East, those who are with us today and those who will join us tomorrow, I say: As-salamu alaykum,” Netanyahu said, switching briefly to Arabic. “Peace unto thee. Shalom.”
The Israeli leader stressed once again his position that “strength brings peace.”
Citing “the pulse of history,” Netanyahu said that long after the coronavirus pandemic ends, “the peace we make today will endure.”
The UAE’s Foreign Minister bin Zayed said: “We are already witnessing a change at the heart of the Middle East, a change that will send hope around the world.”
The accord’s “reverberations will be reflected on the entire region,” he added.
In the face of harsh Palestinian criticism, the diplomat insisted that the deal “will enable us to continue to stand by the Palestinian people and realize their hopes for an independent state within a stable and prosperous region.”
As he spoke, sirens sounded in southern Israel as rockets were fired out of Gaza, seemingly underlining Palestinian opposition to the accords, which they see as a “betrayal” of decades of Arab policy that isolated Israel in the absence of a Palestinian state.
“The normalization agreements between Bahrain, the UAE, and the Zionist entity are not worth the paper they were written on,” a spokesman for the Hamas terror group that rules the Strip said. “Our people insists on continuing its struggle until it secures the return of all its rights.”
The final speaker at the ceremony, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, spoke of “a moment of hope and opportunity for all the peoples of the Middle East” and “a historic step on the road for genuine and lasting peace” across the region.
“For too long, the Middle East has been set back by conflict and mistrust, causing untold destruction” and thwarting hopes of the region’s “youngest and brightest.”
“Now I am convinced we can change that,” he said.
Al-Zayani too noted the Palestinian cause, saying “Today’s agreement is an important first step and it’s now incumbent upon us to bring about the lasting peace and security that the region: A just, comprehensive and enduring two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the foundation, the bedrock to such peace.”
More than 700 guests were in attendance 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 included representatives of supporting nations from the Washington-based diplomatic corps but few other dignitaries from overseas.
Attending the ceremony, the head of the Jewish community of the United Arab Emirates said the peace treaty with Israel could have a “transformative effect” on Muslim-Jewish cooperation across the Middle East.
“We’ve been praying for this day for years, and today, those prayers have been answered. This moment will forever redefine life in the Middle East,” said Ross Kriel, the president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.
Omani Ambassador to the US Hunaina al-Mughairy was 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.
Feeling increasingly abandoned, Palestinian leaders urged demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza and outside embassies of the United States, Israel, Bahrain and the UAE to protest what they called “shameful agreements.”
But other, powerful forces are transforming the playing field in the region.
All four countries celebrating at the White House share a common hostility to Iran, which Trump has put under crippling economic and diplomatic pressure.
The thaw will also give Israel and its two new Arab partners a big economic opening, just when they are looking to rebuild after the international slowdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, speaking to Fox News ahead of the ceremony, said the agreements would put pressure on the Palestinians to also come to the negotiating table or they would be “left out in the cold.”
“We’re going to have a lot of other countries joining us very soon,” Trump said. “And the Palestinians will ultimately come in too. 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.”
Meeting with Netanyahu ahead of the ceremony, Trump said Jerusalem and Washington were “very far down the road” with five or six additional countries. “Frankly I think we could have had them here today,” he said.
He said “many countries, we can say most of the countries, in the Middle East want to sign this deal… We’ll have at least five or six countries coming along very quickly. They want to see peace. They’ve been seeking peace for a long time… You’re going to see a lot of very great activity. It’s going to be peace in the Middle East.”