Declaring “the dawn of a new Middle East,” President Donald Trump on Tuesday presided over the signing of historic diplomatic pacts between Israel and two Gulf Arab nations that he hopes will lead to a new order in the Mideast and cast him as a peacemaker at the height of his reelection campaign.
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 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,” 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 agreements, two in one month, are the first peace deals in more than a quarter of a century, he said.
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"Together, these agreements will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region—something which nobody thought was possible," Trump said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Emirati and Bahraini foreign ministers inked the deals before the crowd, which include representatives of supporting nations from the Washington-based diplomatic corps but few other dignitaries from overseas. Some congressional Democrats who have offered muted praise have been invited to attend.
"This day is a pivot of history," Netanyahu said. "It heralds a new dawn of peace."
He praised Trump for confronting what he called "the tyrants of Iran."
“Despite the many challenges and hardships that we all face — despite all that, let us pause a moment to appreciate this remarkable day," he said.
In addition to the individual bilateral agreements signed by Israel, 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 is signing as a witness.
The agreements won’t end active wars but will rather 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.
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.
During the ceremony, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, thanked Israel for “halting the annexation of Palestinian territories," although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel has only temporarily suspended its plans to annex West Bank settlements.
“Today, we are already witnessing a change in the heart of the Middle East — a change that will send hope around the world,” al-Nahyan said.
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.
"We are very down the road with about five different countries,” Trump told reporters before the ceremony.
“These agreements are a huge accomplishment for the countries involved and have led to a tremendous sense of hope and optimism in the region,” said Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who led the negotiations. “I think what you’re seeing now is the beginning of the end of the Israel-Arab conflict that’s been going on for a long time.”
As for the Palestinians, Kushner told NBC's "TODAY" show that the U.S. can't force them to make a deal because "we can't want peace more than other people want peace," but "when they are ready, [Trump] will engage."
Tuesday's ceremony follows months of intricate diplomacy headed by Kushner and Trump's envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, that first bore fruit Aug. 13 when the Israel-UAE deal was announced. That was followed by the first direct commercial flight between the countries, and then the Sept. 11 announcement of the Bahrain-Israel agreement.
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.
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 they might result in U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry to the UAE and Bahrain, thus potentially upsetting Israel's qualitative military edge in the region. 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.
And while the UAE and Bahrain have a history of suppressing dissent and critical public opinion, there have been indications that the agreements are not nearly as popular or well-received as 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 yearslong 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 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's 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE.
While the UAE has said that Israel not moving ahead with 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.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.