Israel and United Arab Emirates Strike Major Diplomatic Agreement

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.

The deal gave Mr. Trump a much-welcomed breakthrough at a time when he has been struggling at home with a deadly pandemic and economic collapse amid a re-election contest that polls show he is losing. 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.

The delicacy of the accord was on display after the announcement as the Emiratis maintained that it was contingent on Israel living up to its pledge to forgo annexation even as Mr. Netanyahu emphasized that it was only a temporary pause in deference to Mr. Trump. But both sides were playing to domestic constituencies to minimize concessions and officials expressed optimism that the deal would hold.

“This is a historic evening,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a news conference. “Today, a new era began in the relations of the state of Israel with the Arab world.” President Reuven Rivlin of Israel invited Prince Mohammed to visit Jerusalem, while the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality building was illuminated with the flags of Israel and the Emirates.

In a statement, Prince Mohammed emphasized the annexation suspension. “During a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories,” he wrote. “The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”

ImageChildren playing near a fence separating an Israeli settlement and Palestinian territories last year in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The rapprochement underscored the shifting political dynamics of a region where Sunni Arab states increasingly see Iran as a greater enemy than Israel and are less willing to condition relations on a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, has invested in clandestine relations with the Gulf States for years, and its director, Yossi Cohen, has met frequently with counterparts in the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, according to three intelligence officials.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman hosted Mr. Netanyahu for a state visit in 2018 that Mr. Cohen helped broker, even though the two nations have no diplomatic relations, and the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain hosted a White House-led conference last year meant to kick off Mr. Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Those two Gulf States could follow the Emirates in formalizing relations with Israel, but the big player remains Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s richest country and caretaker of the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Analysts said they suspected that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, would like to take such a step but will refrain given conservative elements in his country.

“There is a new elite in Saudi Arabia that would wish to do the same, but they don’t have the same freedom of movement that a country like the Emirates has,” said Yasmine Farouk, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When the Emirates began contemplating establishing formal relations a year ago, an adviser to Prince Mohammed counseled him that the keys would be to treat Israelis like equal neighbors and legitimate inhabitants of the Middle East, and therefore emphasize peace, but to make sure to ask for something in return on behalf of the Palestinians, a formula that ultimately informed its approach.

Mr. Cohen has made several secret trips in the past year to the Emirates seeking to enhance cooperation, and the outbreak of the coronavirus created an additional opening. The Mossad took responsibility for procurement of medical equipment that Israel lacked, and shipments arrived on secret flights from the Emirates.

A team to set up a lab was on the first public direct flight to Israel from the Emirates, although a plan to publicly declare cooperation in the battle against the pandemic in June proved too much too soon, as the Emirati government distanced itself shortly after Mr. Netanyahu announced it.

The impetus for Thursday’s agreement, however, can be traced back to around the same time, when Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates’ ambassador to the United States who has worked closely with the Trump administration, wrote an op-ed article in Israel’s popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper appealing directly to Israelis, in Hebrew, not to annex occupied territory.

“Annexation will definitely, and immediately, reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and the United Arab Emirates,” Mr. al-Otaiba wrote at the time. The headline boiled it down to a clear trade-off: “It’s Either Annexation or Normalization.”

Mr. Kushner said that proved a turning point. “After that, we started a discussion with U.A.E. saying maybe this is something we can do,” he said. The Emiratis were open to the idea, he said, and so he then approached the Israelis, who likewise expressed a willingness to consider it. Talks then proceeded through Mr. Kushner and the Americans.

The negotiations were closely held in the White House, with only a limited number of officials aware. Meetings and Thursday’s phone call were either omitted from schedules or listed with obscure language, according to an administration official. Mr. Kushner said a preliminary agreement was reached a week ago and final details completed on Wednesday for what was called “the Abraham accord,” after the figure common to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the agreement was “a win-win-win-lose” in that it provided diplomatic victories for the Emirates, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump. “The big losers are the Palestinians who have watched the Arab world move closer to Israel seemingly rewarding Netanyahu for ignoring the Palestinians and undermining Palestinians interests,” he said.

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, argued that the deal was actually overhyped by all sides. “UAE was already normalizing relations & the annexation plan was already postponed,” he wrote on Twitter. “No one is a winner in this despite the hoopla that we will hear about for some time. UAE broke the Arab peace plan without getting anything of worth.”

In Israel, the development came at a perilous moment for Mr. Netanyahu, who is leading a fragile, fractious coalition government and faces trial on corruption charges. His annexation promise, made repeatedly throughout three recent elections, had left him in a box after Mr. Kushner opposed his moving forward without working through Mr. Trump’s official peace plan. But shortly after the agreement on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu and his domestic rivals announced that they had made progress in coalition talks.

Martin S. Indyk, who served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under President Barack Obama, said the deal gave both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu a way to escape a political box of their own making with the president’s stalled peace plan and the prime minister’s politically problematic annexation drive.

“It gets Trump out of the corner he was in having agreed to legitimizing the settlements and then discovering that the Arab world had a problem with that,” he said. “Now he’s got something he can claim credit for.”

And he was quick to do so. Mr. Trump surrounded himself in the Oval Office by a large delegation of aides and officials who heaped effusive praise on him, and he jokingly said the agreement should be called the “Donald J. Trump Accord.” At a later briefing, Robert C. O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, even proclaimed that the president should win the Nobel Peace Prize.

As he has repeatedly in recent days, Mr. Trump predicted that he would next strike a quick agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear agreement if he were re-elected, although there was no sign that such a reconciliation was really imminent. “If I win the election,” he said, “I will have a deal with Iran within 30 days.”

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the putative Democratic presidential nominee, congratulated both Israel and the Emirates in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Trump. He instead pointed back to his own work in the region as vice president while reminding the players of his opposition to annexation if he wins in November.

“I personally spent time with leaders of both Israel and the U.A.E. during our administration building the case for cooperation and broader engagement and the benefits it could deliver to both nations, and I am gratified by today’s announcement,” Mr. Biden said.

Palestinian leaders have long opposed normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states because it would legitimize the continuing occupation.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, called Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and said that the agreement was “not binding on the Palestinian people.” Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, called it “dangerous and tantamount to a free reward for the Israeli occupation for its crimes and violations at the expense of the Palestinian people.”

Credit…Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA, via Shutterstock

On the other side, some on the Israeli right expressed anger at Mr. Netanyahu for breaking his annexation promise. In a televised news conference, he said annexation had been only “temporarily” postponed. “Just as I brought peace with an Arab country,” Mr. Netanyahu declared, “I will bring sovereignty.”

Emirati representatives said that they expected Israel to characterize the halt to annexation as only a “pause,” but that in practical terms, the deal would most likely postpone the prospect of such a move until after the American presidential election. That might bring in an administration in Washington more opposed to the idea and could amount to an indefinite cancellation, the Emiratis argued.

“Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem each had their own good reasons for finding a way to open the door to formal relations, but there’s no question the announcement today is also a boon to Donald Trump,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official. Even so, she said, both nations seemed to be positioning themselves for a possible Biden victory, as well, by taking issues off the table. “It seems both Bibi and MbZ,” she said, using nicknames for the Israeli an Emirati leaders, “have placed their bets for November.”

Reporting was contributed by Ben Hubbard, Michael LaForgia, Mark Landler and Adam Rasgon.

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