Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a landmark accord sealed by President Trump on Thursday that could presage a broader realignment in the region as the two agreed to “full normalization of relations” in exchange for Israel suspending annexation of occupied West Bank territory.
In a surprise announcement at the White House after a three-way phone call with Israeli and Emirati leaders, Mr. Trump said the deal would lead to greater cooperation on investment, tourism, security, technology, energy and other areas while the two countries move to allow regular direct passenger flights, open embassies and trade ambassadors for the first time.
If fulfilled, the pact would make the Emirates only the third Arab country to have normal diplomatic relations with Israel along with Egypt, which signed a peace agreement in 1979, and Jordan, which signed a treaty in 1994. It could reorder the long stalemate in the region, potentially leading other Arab nations to follow suit in forging an increasingly explicit alliance with Israel against their mutual enemy in Iran while taking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explosive annexation plan off the table, at least for now.
“This deal is a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East,” Mr. Trump told reporters in a hastily arranged event in the Oval Office. “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.”
But the agreement generated an immediate backlash in the region from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. At least some Israeli settlers and their political allies were disappointed that Mr. Netanyahu would give up his plan to claim sovereignty over West Bank territory, while Palestinians felt abandoned by an Arab nation leaving them to remain locked in an untenable status quo even without the threat of annexation.
“This is a black day in the history of Palestine,” Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said in an interview shortly before the Palestinian ambassador to the Emirates was recalled in protest. “This agreement is a total departure from the Arab consensus. The Palestinian people have not authorized anyone to make concessions to Israel in exchange for anything.”
Israel and the Emirates have long maintained a thinly veiled secret relationship over mutual interests, and the idea of formalizing it had come up several times over the past year. But the two sides essentially took it into the open after six weeks of indirect talks through Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, culminating in Thursday’s phone call between Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates.
Both Israel and the Emirates, each for its own reasons, were happy to credit Mr. Trump to advance their positions in Washington, and the president plans to stage a celebratory White House signing ceremony in coming weeks.
While the two countries lack formal diplomatic relations, around 3,000 Jews are estimated to live in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, many with dual citizenship. The growing Jewish community in the UAE – a country without any Jewish heritage – recently opened an official social media account, a testament to how the exchange between Israel and the Emirates has grown over the last decade.
Since 2015, Israel has had formal representation at the International Renewable Energy Agency based in Abu Dhabi, with Israeli officials visiting the Gulf state frequently.
Much of the rapprochement between the pair, unlikely partners at first glance, is often explained as a marriage of convenience forged in face of a shared goal of challenging Iran. In 2009, soon after former US President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Israeli and Emirati governments for the first time joined forces to pressure Washington into taking a stronger stance against the Islamic Republic.
A new regional order
Hence, in the context of a deep ideologically founded partnership between Netanyahu’s Israel and the UAE’s vision for a new regional order, it is hardly surprising that Israel has been fond of Abu Dhabi playing a more leading role in the forlorn Trump “peace initiative”. As a consequence, US presidential adviser Jared Kushner has taken bin Zayed’s view on Palestine as the benchmark for Arab tolerance on Palestinian betrayal.
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