Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed for Washington just after midnight Sunday, to attend a Tuesday ceremony at the White House at which he will sign declarations of normalization and peace with senior ministers from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“On our way to bring peace in exchange for peace,” he tweeted moments before the aircraft took off.
The texts of the agreements have not yet been released, but the two Gulf states have agreed to fully normalize ties with Israel, in a US-brokered diplomatic breakthrough widely seen as a dramatic shift in attitudes toward Israel in parts of the Arab world. The UAE and Bahrain will be Israel’s third and fourth Arab peace partners, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
Calling the trip “historic,” Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised address on Sunday evening that he had brought “two peace deals in one month,” and said they would mean an economic boon for Israel.
“That’s always good, but it’s particularly good during the coronavirus,” he said.
Later, when Netanyahu and his wife arrived on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, they boarded without commenting. However, Mossad spy agency chief Yossi Cohen briefly chatted with reporters, saying he felt “great excitement” at the trip and expressing hope that other countries would join the UAE and Bahrain in normalizing ties with Israel.
“We’re working on it,” he said.
The stairs to the flight were adorned with Israeli, American, UAE and Bahraini flags, while the aircraft itself was painted with the word peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
History: #unitedarabemirates & #Bahrain flags next to the #Israeli flag, outside the @IsraeliPM plane upon his departure to the USA. We look forward to this historic visit here in Washington DC.#Peace #PeaceInTheMiddleEast #UAEIsrael #BahrainIsrael ????????????️????????????️????????
Photo: @gilicohen10 pic.twitter.com/qXIIpRGybX
— Elad Strohmayer (@EladStr) September 13, 2020
The UAE and Bahrain will be represented at the signing ceremony by their foreign ministers, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, respectively.
The Trump administration is said to be working to get representatives of additional Arab nations to attend the signing ceremony as a sign of tacit support for the growing normalization trend.
Israeli press reports have said that the White House is keen on following up the normalization deals with new agreements with Morocco, Sudan and Oman, the last of which publicly welcomed Bahrain’s announcement of a deal this week.
The signing ceremony is still one step short of official ratification under Israeli law, which legal experts have said requires the imprimatur of the cabinet and Knesset for official peace treaties. But support for the agreements is very high in the Knesset and crosses partisan lines, so approval is expected to be overwhelming.
The normalization agreements are vehemently opposed by Palestinian political factions, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Hamas terror group, which jointly called on Sunday for Palestinians to hold a “day of popular rejection” to protest the “shameful” declarations. The events will be held “all across the country” on Tuesday and Friday, according to a statement by the groups. Iran and Turkey have also criticized the Gulf states for recognizing Israel.
Netanyahu is being joined by his family on the trip.
While the deals are popular among Israelis, the prime minister has drawn criticism for the timing of his flight, which comes as the country braces for a second major coronavirus-induced lockdown set to begin Friday that will see schools and many businesses shuttered for three weeks.
Anti-corruption protesters who have demonstrated against Netanyahu for weeks, including outside his official residence in Jerusalem, took their protest to Ben Gurion Airport Sunday evening, briefly closing the main roads into the facility by stopping their cars on the roads. They carried banners reading, “You’re detached, we’re fed up.”
נתב"ג עכשיו pic.twitter.com/JA1BzC2x9X
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) September 13, 2020
Netanyahu is flying on an El Al plane with his staff and accompanying reporters, after canceling plans to take a separate private jet. The Prime Minister’s Office had initially chartered the second plane, citing health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, which is more dangerous for the elderly. Netanyahu is 70.
As it announced on Sunday that the premier would not take the private jet, the Prime Minister’s Office blamed the outcry on media outlets attempting to “distract” from the peace agreement.
Unspecified “strict measures” would be taken to ensure the prime minister’s health on the El Al flight, officials said.
The first normalization agreement, between Israel and the UAE, was announced on August 13 by US President Donald Trump. According to all three governments in a joint statement, the agreement will see the UAE establishing full ties with Israel, thus bringing a longstanding, but mostly covert, relationship into the open.
The Israel-Bahrain deal was announced on Friday, when a joint statement released by Trump said Bahrain and Israel would join the September 15 ceremony and sign its own Declaration of Peace with Israel. Bahrain had been seen moving closer to Israel in recent years, and last year hosted the rollout of the economic element of the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.