The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have signed historic agreements to normalise ties with Israel, becoming the first Arab states in a quarter century to break a longstanding taboo, in a strategic realignment of Middle East countries against Iran.
- Several hundred people gathered on the White House lawn to witness the signing
- Egypt and Jordan have both signed peace treaties with Israel
- Palestinian activists held demonstrations and militants fired two rockets into Israel from Gaza
US President Donald Trump hosted the White House ceremony, casting himself as an international peacemaker at the height of his re-election campaign.
“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history,” Mr Trump said from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn.
In front of a crowd of several hundred people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed accords with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani.
The bilateral agreements formalise the normalisation of Israel’s already thawing relations with the UAE and Bahrain in line with their common opposition to Iran.
The deals make them the third and fourth Arab states to take such steps to normalise relations since Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
But the agreements do not address the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who view the pacts as a stab in the back from their fellow Arabs and a betrayal of their cause for a Palestinian state.
Under the agreements, the countries have committed to exchange embassies and ambassadors and to cooperate on a broad array of issues, including education, healthcare, trade and security.
Mr Netanyahu said the day “is a pivot of history” which “heralds a new dawn of peace”.
Palestinians protest ‘deal of shame’
In the West Bank, Palestinian activists held demonstrations where they trampled and set fire to flags and pictures of Mr Trump, Mr Netanyahu and the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain.
Some held signs labelling the agreements “betrayal” and “the deal of shame”.
Other placards called diplomatic relations with Israel “a silent earthquake that ravages Palestine”.
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants fired two rockets into Israel, apparently meant to coincide with the ceremony.
The Israeli military said the rockets were fired from Gaza and one was intercepted by air defences.
Meeting Mr Netanyahu earlier in the Oval Office, Mr Trump said, “We’ll have at least five or six countries coming along very quickly” to forge their own accords with Israel.
Later Mr Trump told reporters Saudi Arabia would strike an agreement with Israel “at the right time”.
The Saudi cabinet stressed in a statement the need for a “just and comprehensive solution” to the Palestinian issue.
Neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Trump mentioned the Palestinians in their remarks, but both the UAE and Bahraini foreign ministers spoke of the importance of creating a Palestinian state.
Mr al-Nahyan, the brother of Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, even thanked Mr Netanyahu for “halting the annexation” of West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians in exchange for Emirati recognition.
Mr Netanyahu, however, 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,” Mr al-Nahyan said.
Bahrani Foreign Minister Mr al-Zayani said Bahrain would stand with the Palestinians.
“Today is a truly historic occasion — a moment for hope and opportunity,” he said.
There are no active wars to be ended by the agreements, but Israel and the US hope they could usher in a major shift in the region should other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, follow suit.
Oman, Sudan and Morocco are also believed to be close to recognising Israel.
Scepticism over peace implications
Sceptics, including many long-time Middle East analysts and former officials, have expressed doubts about the impact of the signings.
Even in Israel, where the accords have received widespread acclaim, there is concern they might result in US sales of sophisticated weaponry to the UAE and Bahrain, thus potentially upsetting Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.
Mr Trump said he is OK with selling military aircraft to the UAE.
The UAE and Bahrain have a history of suppressing dissent and critical public opinion, but there have been indications that the agreements are not nearly as popular or well-received as they are in Israel.
Neither country sent its head of state or government to sign the deals with Mr Netanyahu.
Bahrain’s largest Shiite-dominated opposition group, Al-Wefaq, which the government ordered dissolved in 2016 amid a years-long crackdown on dissent, said there is widespread rejection of normalisation.
Al-Wefaq criticised the Government for crushing the public’s ability to express their discontentment with the normalisation of ties with the “Zionist entity”.
The ceremony followed months of intricate diplomacy headed by Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and the President’s envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.
On August 13, the Israel-UAE deal was announced. That was followed by the first direct commercial flight between the countries, and then the September 11 announcement of the Bahrain-Israel agreement.
Besides Republicans, a few House Democrats attended the event, a notable development at a time when their leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is barely on speaking terms with the President.
Many Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, widely support the deal.