The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed a historic agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Israel at a ceremony on Tuesday, and Donald Trump said more countries may soon follow suit in normalising ties with Israel.
“We’re very far down the road with about five countries, five additional countries,” Mr Trump told reporters in the White House ahead of the ceremony. The president said the US-brokered agreements would usher in the “dawn of a new Middle East”.
Mr Trump entered office saying he wanted to bring peace to the Middle East but has so far failed to bring about a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who have boycotted his efforts. He has since shifted his attention to securing diplomatic recognition for Israel among Arab states.
Trump administration officials have suggested Oman, Sudan and Morocco are among countries that might agree to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, although Saudi Arabia remains the big prize.
While Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, lavished praise on Mr Trump, top Democrats demanded more details. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, said it was “critically important” to fully understand details of a freeze on annexations by Israel.
She also said more detail was needed about the Trump administration’s commitment to allow UAE to purchase the F-35 fighter jet.
The UAE has wanted to buy F-35 aircraft for several years but the US is constrained by legislation that requires Israel to maintain its regional military advantage.
Mr Trump said on Tuesday it would be “very easy” to work out F-35 sales to the UAE. A senior US administration official said on Monday the aircraft deal would “only be done if Israel’s security wasn’t put at risk”.
Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, the de facto leader of the UAE, did not attend the signing. Instead, he sent his brother, foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed, depriving Mr Netanyahu of the historic photograph he sought alongside the crown prince. Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s foreign minister, also did not make the trip.
Mr Netanyahu faced criticism for leaving Israel hours after announcing a nationwide lockdown to tame a second wave of the coronavirus.
Israeli officials were pressured to remove their masks at the White House in order to appease Mr Trump’s scepticism about the coronavirus, two members of the travelling team told the Financial Times. A senior US administration official said earlier masks were encouraged but were “not required”.
The UAE’s rivals and the Palestinians have criticised the deal, criticising the pursuit of economic benefit at the expense of Arab solidarity against Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Bahraini opposition leaders have also denounced the move.
At the same time the accords were being signed, two rockets, fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, were intercepted near the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod by the military’s Iron Dome system.
Hundreds of Palestinians in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the occupied West Bank, protested on the streets, as their leadership lamented the normalisation as an abdication of a 2002 vow to delay relations with Israel until a Palestinian state is born.
While Israeli officials have touted the possibility of billions of dollars in new trade between Israel and the UAE, prior peace deals with Egypt and Jordan only produced uneasy coexistence, despite the geographical proximity.
The agreement “does not absolve Israel of the Palestinian issue”, said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, and foreign policy adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak. He pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s absence left out a key player in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
A senior administration official said ahead of the signing that it was “well understood” that Bahrain — one of the smallest and least wealthy Gulf states — had a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and would not have taken the step to normalise relations with Israel without consulting Riyadh.
Mike Evans, an Evangelical leader invited to attend the ceremony of 200 people and who frequently meets Mr Trump, said the deals would help the president, who is up for re-election in November, with Evangelical Christians who look to Israel as “Bible lands”.
Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said both sides would move to establish mutual embassies and consulates “very soon”. The UAE would seek bilateral agreements on air services, double taxation and investment protection to boost reciprocal investments.
But Mr Gargash said the UAE remained committed to Palestinian rights, arguing that forging ties with Israel would provide more Arab leverage in discussions with the Jewish state.
The Israeli commitment to suspend annexation of Palestinian territory, via a deal mediated by the US, was a substantial concession that “keeps a two-state solution on the table”, he said.