Trio establish formal relations at ceremony viewed as image boost for Trump and Netanyahu

Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have signed agreements to establish formal relations, ending a decades-old taboo in Arab diplomacy as power and priorities shift in the Middle East.

“Today’s signing sets history on a new course,” Donald Trump told a crowd outside the White House where the deal was signed. “This an incredible day for the world,” he said.

Long shunned because of its occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israel has always been considered a regional pariah. Yet as mostly autocratic Arab governments grow apathetic towards the Palestinian cause, and with Israel and the Gulf states sharing a common enemy in Iran, some relations have flourished discreetly in recent years.

After welcoming the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, earlier on Tuesday, Trump said “five or six” other countries were close to making similar deals with Israel, but did not name them. “I think Israel is not isolated anymore,” he said.

Both men have sought to capitalise on regional changes while facing domestic condemnation for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Only a few people among the dozens of attendees at Tuesday’s ceremony wore face masks

By signing “peace agreements”, the two embattled leaders can boast of significant foreign policy wins even as frustration festers at home.

As well as Netanyahu, Trump hosted the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, on the White House’s South Lawn – the same spot where Bill Clinton famously stood in 1993 as the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, shook hands.

In reference to the three monotheistic religions, Trump’s “Abraham accords” will establish open business, direct flights and diplomatic relations. However, they fall short of full peace deals as the three countries already maintain significant informal ties and have not been at war.

The texts of the agreements had little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had been the obstacle to diplomatic progress until now. The committed the parties only to “continuing the efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution”.

There was no mention of suspension of Israel’s plans to annex the West Bank, which had been hailed by the UAE as a major gain of its deal. The Israel-UAE text had a substantial annex about the various ways, diplomatic and economic, the two states intended to become closer. The Israel-Bahrain agreement was a much thinner document, with little substance other than a stated commitment to establish diplomatic relations.

Regardless, Trump presented the deals as between “warring” nations. “Even Bibi gets tired of war,” he joked in a meeting Netanyahu, using the Israeli leader’s nickname.

Trump is up for re-election on 3 November and is looking to gather support from pro-Israel, and often Christian evangelical, voters. Before Tuesday’s ceremony, a jazz band played a version of the 1970s disco hit Love Is in the Air.

Like Trump, Netanyahu also needs an image boost. On Friday, Israel will go into an unpopular second lockdown, a move that has largely been blamed on the 70-year-old leader’s decision to reopen the country too soon and too quickly after similar restrictions in the spring.

Netanyahu is also on trial for corruption charges, which he denies, and has faced weekly protests that have swelled with people who accuse him of mishandling the pandemic.

Israel hopes other Gulf countries, possibly Oman but also ideally Saudi Arabia, will also sign deals based on shared concern about Iran’s rising military influence. Israel, which considers Iran its archenemy, has bombed Iranian forces in neighbouring Syria. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is competing with Iran for regional dominance.

“Israel doesn’t feel isolated at all,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday while sitting next to Trump before the ceremony. “It’s enjoying the greatest diplomatic triumph of its history. I think the people who feel isolated are the tyrants of Tehran.”

Netanyahu has consistently argued that Israel’s much-condemned role over the fate of millions of Palestinians need not be tied to his country’s relationship with the Arab world.

Under the UAE deal, Netanyahu agreed only to “suspend” but not fully abandon his ambitions to annex the occupied West Bank – a clause Palestinians officials said showed they had been ignored. On Tuesday, Netanyahu said: “Ultimately, strength brings peace.”

However, Israel continues to engage in conflicts on several fronts. As the ceremony took place, the country’s military reported air raid sirens in cities near the Gaza Strip.

The military said two rockets had been fired from Gaza, and one was shot down. Israeli medics reported two 30-year-old men were lightly wounded by glass in the southern city of Ashdod.

Meanwhile, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said Tuesday would be a “black day” and “added to the calendar of Palestinian pain”.

Israel has only previously made peace deals with former enemies and direct neighbours Egypt and Jordan, and Tuesday’s event was greeted with widespread optimism in the country.

Ari Shavit, an Israeli writer, said the ceremony was “more than just a dazzling photo-op”.

“It is going to be the inaugural event that launches a new Middle East. Naturally, every one of the participants at the event has his own interests and angles. That is the way the world works. But when push comes to shove, peace is bigger than Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu,” he wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.