WASHINGTON – Israel on Tuesday signed historic diplomatic pacts with two Gulf Arab states at a White House ceremony that President Donald Trump declared will mark the “dawn of a new Middle East,” casting himself as an international peacemaker at the height of his reelection campaign.
The bilateral agreements formalize the normalization of Israel's already thawing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in line with their common opposition to Iran. But the agreements do not address the decadeslong 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.
Hundreds of people massed on the sun-washed South Lawn to witness the signing of agreements in a festive atmosphere little marked by the coronavirus pandemic. Attendees did not practice social distancing and most guests didn't wear masks.
“We're here this afternoon to change the course of history,” Trump said from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.”
Two federal lawmakers representing northeast Indiana attended the ceremony.
“Saying 'Peace in the Middle East' used to be a phrase that meant 'never going to happen.' Now, 'Peace in the Middle East' is President Trump's foreign policy legacy,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, said in a statement.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., said in a statement that the pacts “mark a historic step forward toward peace and stability in the Middle East” and would “work to counter the world's leading state sponsor of terror – Iran.” Young is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Under the agreements, the countries have committed to exchange embassies and ambassadors and to cooperate on a broad array of issues, including education, health care, trade and security.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the day “is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace.”
Neither Netanyahu nor Trump mentioned the Palestinians in their remarks, but the UAE and Bahraini foreign ministers spoke of the importance of creating a Palestinian state.
Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan even thanked Netanyahu for “halting the annexation” of West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians in exchange for Emirati recognition. 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,” al-Nahyan said. Bahrani Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani said Bahrain would stand with the Palestinians. “Today is a truly historic occasion,” he said. “A moment for hope and opportunity.”
But in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants fired two rockets into Israel, apparently meant to coincide with the ceremony. Earlier in the day, Palestinian activists held small demonstrations in the West Bank and in Gaza, where they trampled and set fire to pictures of Trump, Netanyahu and the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain.
And, although the UAE and Bahrain have a history of suppressing dissent and critical public opinion, 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 Netanyahu.
There are no active wars to be ended by the agreements, but Israel and the U.S. hope they could usher in a major shift in the region if other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, follow suit. That could have implications for Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Until now, Israel has had peace deals only with Egypt and Jordan.
Other Arab countries believed to be close to recognizing Israel include Oman, Sudan and Morocco.
“We are very down the road with about five different countries,” Trump told reporters before the ceremony.
Questions remain, however, about the implications of the agreements. Even in Israel, where the accords have received widespread acclaim, there is concern they might result in U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry to the UAE and Bahrain, thus potentially upsetting Israel's qualitative military edge in the region. Trump said he is OK with selling military aircraft to the UAE.
Brian Francisco of The Journal Gazette contributed to this report.