President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday joined the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House to mark historic normalization agreements between Israel and the two Arab countries.
Trump hailed the occasion, claiming the signing of the Abraham Accords will “change the course of history,” and marks “the dawn of a new Middle East.”
“Together these agreements will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region, something which nobody thought was possible, certainly not in this day and age,” Trump said. “These agreements prove that the nations of the region are breaking free from failed approaches of the past. Today’s signing sets history on a new course and there will be other countries very very soon that will follow these great leaders.”
Netanyahu described the day as a “pivot of history, a new dawn of peace.”
The last time such a ceremony took place in Washington was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton looked on as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein signed a declaration that paved the way for a peace deal months later.
For Trump, the timing was crucial. Less than two months before an election in which he trails in the polls, normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain are major foreign policy achievements, even if the region was gradually moving towards these relationships regardless of who occupied the White House.
How did we get here?
For years, Israel has had covert relations with many of the Sunni Gulf states, driven in recent years by a mutual de facto alliance against Iran. Even so, the relations pre-date the Iran nuclear deal by more than a decade in some cases, as Gulf states looked to take advantage of Israel’s high-tech scene and Israel looked to secure its place in a turbulent Middle East.
Chief among these behind-the-scenes relations was the United Arab Emirates, with numerous public examples of the growing ties between the two states becoming more common. In late-2015, Israel opened a diplomatic-level mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. In 2018, then-culture minister Miri Regev made a state visit to the Grand Mosque on the heels of an Israeli gold medal at a judo tournament in the Emirates. Israel was also invited to Expo 2020 Dubai, a world expo that has since been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Like the UAE, Bahrain also had covert ties with Israel stretching back years. In addition, Bahrain has a small but sustained Jewish community, with one of its members serving as the country’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-2013. The small Gulf kingdom also hosted the unveiling of the economic portion of the White House’s plan for Middle East peace, signaling a willingness to engage with the US — and subsequently Israel — on the issue, even at a time when no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears possible.
Crucially the UAE and Bahrain are also close allies of the US, with each country hosting a significant US military presence. The US Air Force has deployed F-35 fighter jets to an air base in Abu Dhabi, while the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Central Command are based in Bahrain. That military presence has drawn the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain closer to the US, and because of the anti-Iran alliance, closer to Israel.
What do Israel, the UAE and Bahrain get from this?
A prominent American rabbi who acts as a personal adviser to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa once told me that for the Gulf Arab states, the road to Washington runs through Jerusalem. In other words, if these states wanted to grow closer to President Trump and the White House, building relations with Israeli leaders was a surefire way to achieve that goal.
The UAE made clear that one of the benefits it sees from the normalization agreement with Israel is that it should be easier to acquire F-35s from the United States, a view also shared by Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner. That would give the Emiratis the latest fighter jet in the US inventory and a significant edge over any other military in the region, with the exception of Israel.
The UAE also ensured a suspension of Israel’s intended annexation of parts of the West Bank, and made it clear this was one of its conditions for normalizing relations. Though it’s unclear how long the suspension lasts, for the UAE, this kept alive the possibility of a two-state solution, which it says is the only possible end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking at the White House Tuesday, the Emirati foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed thanked Israel for “halting” the planned annexation of Palestinian territories, saying it “reinforces our shared will to achieve a better future for generations to come.”
Less clear is what specific goals Bahrain intends to achieve from the normalization agreement. For both the UAE and Bahrain, the agreements also open up the possibility of purchasing Israeli high-tech, including military technology such as the Iron Dome missile defense system, as well as cooperation on economics, health, tourism and more.
Politically, it is also a win-win situation for the UAE and Bahrain. Either Trump wins a second term in November and they have already scored points with his administration, or a Biden administration takes over and they are on strong footing having secured normalization agreements with Israel.
As for Israel, Netanyahu gets to tout a major foreign policy achievement, one that only two other Israeli leaders have been able to achieve. Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Yitzhak Rabin signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. Netanyahu will sign normalization agreements with two countries in one day.
Crucially, the White House ceremony helps distract from Netanyahu’s domestic issues: a tattered economy dealing with 18% unemployment, a coronavirus crisis that has forced Israel into a second general lockdown, and his own trial on corruption charges. He has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. What was Trump’s role and why is this happening at the White House?
The Trump administration saw an opportunity in a shifting Middle East and took advantage of it. Unable to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump and his advisors shifted focus to the rest of the region. Long gone are the days when the conflict defined the news cycle in the Middle East. Now the biggest regional battle is between Iran on one side the and Gulf Sunni states on the other. It is in this conflict where Trump saw an opening to push Israel closer to the Arab states.
For decades, Washington has been the key broker of peace in the Middle East and the crucial moderator in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was President Jimmy Carter who stood between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and Bill Clinton between Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein. Now it will be Trump standing between Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain.
But now the White House vision of the region hardly includes the Palestinians. Trump has invited the Palestinians to the negotiating table, but only under a vision of the Middle East heavily skewed towards Israel and against the Palestinians. If they don’t want to engage, the White House seems more than happy to leave them behind.
Why is it happening now?
To be clear, these agreements looked inevitable, whether they happened now or in a few years. Trump and Netanyahu pushed for them to happen now. Beset by problems domestically — and with Trump trailing in the polls less than two months before an election — there was a shared will for an all-out push to make something major happen. In recent weeks, Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region, trying to build on the momentum of the agreement between Israel and the UAE.
Those efforts aren’t over yet. The Gulf nation of Oman commended the agreement between Israel and Bahrain, signaling that they may be next in line to normalize relations with Israel. And Saudi Arabia? And while a similar deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would represent a monumental shift in the region, it seems unlikely in the short-term.
Why do the Palestinians feel sold out?
In a word, the Palestinians feel betrayed. The 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before Arab states normalized relations with Israel. The UAE and Bahrain have flipped the narrative, moving towards normalization with no progress on the conflict. Palestinians accused the UAE and Bahrain of betraying Jerusalem, the al-Aqsa mosque, and the Palestinian cause.
And because this was pushed by the White House, it is another entry on the growing list of grievances Palestinian leaders have against Trump. The Palestinians cut off contact with the White House after the Trump administration moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and took other pro-Israel steps.
But the list of options available to the Palestinians is shrinking. The Palestinians have the support of Iran, Turkey, and a few others, but its traditional Arab partners are moving closer to Israel. In a sign of that movement, the Arab League failed to pass a resolution backed by the Palestinians that would have condemned the UAE-Israel agreement.