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Israel signs accords with United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at White House ceremony

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump heralded a pair of historic agreements formalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and two Gulf Arab nations in a ceremony Tuesday on the White House South Lawn.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the accords – written in English, Hebrew and Arabic – marking a major geopolitical shift in the Middle East and giving Trump a platform as peacemaker as he heads into the fall reelection campaign. 

“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history,” Trump said at the beginning of the ceremony. "Together these agreements will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region."

Netanyahu called the agreements "a pivot of history" that "heralds a new dawn of peace." The foreign ministers from Bahrain and the UAE were equally sweeping in their praise for the pacts. 

"For too long, the Middle East has been set back by conflict and mistrust, causing untold destruction and thwarting the potential of generations of our best and brightest," said Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Bahrain's foreign affairs minister. "Now, I'm convinced. We have the opportunity to change that."

Tuesday's diplomatic pageantry at the White House, attended by 800 invited guests, followed months of behind-the-scenes outreach by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.

The signing ceremony highlights a realignment in the Middle East, as Arab nations once devoted to Palestinian statehood move away from that commitment to solidify their ties with Israel. It also showcased Trump's close ties with Netanyahu, who have sought to boost each other at critical moments in their respective political campaigns. Trump's staunchly pro-Israel stance is very popular among evangelicals and the broader GOP base. .

Netanyahu and Trump both predicted that other Arab countries would soon follow Bahrain and the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel.

Under the agreements, Trump said, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain will establish embassies, exchange ambassadors and cooperate on a broad range of issues, from trade to health care to security.

"They're going to work together. They are friends," he said. "There will be other countries very very soon that will follow these great leaders." 

President Donald Trump will serve as a witness when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signs an historic peace accord with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Trump and his allies are hoping the agreements will burnish his credentials as a peacemaker with the presidential election less than two months away. Trump’s campaign has touted the agreements on Facebook as “historic Middle East peace deals," which experts noted was an overstatement.

"With the U.S. elections approaching, it seems that the administration felt the need to lock in a diplomatic win. There have not been many in the last four years," said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank.

He said the biggest winner in the deal is the UAE because the Israelis will be "eager to make deals on Emirati terms" and the UAE has also improved its standing with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington at a moment of deep polarization. Lawmakers in both parties have grown increasingly frustrated with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their conduct in the war in Yemen, which has killed more than 60,000 civilians and created a horrific humanitarian catastrophe.  

"The biggest losers are probably the Palestinians. They saw their own weak negotiating hand with Israel and were counting on Arab solidarity to strengthen it," Alterman wrote in an analysis published Tuesday. "It is unclear whether a weaker position will drive Palestinians toward greater conciliation or less conciliation with Israel."

The accords won rare bipartisan plaudits from lawmakers in Congress – with some caveats.

“As we learn more about the full details of both agreements, questions remain – specifically, regarding the commitment that the UAE has received from the Trump Administration to purchase American-made F-35 aircraft,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. 

“It is also critically important that we fully understand the agreements’ details regarding the announced freeze of efforts by Israel to annex portions of the West Bank,” she said, noting the House is on record supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday's breakthrough marks a break from past U.S. policy that he said had favored the Palestinians.

For decades, U.S. policy "gave the Palestinians a veto right" to block Arab countries "from engaging with the most important democracy in the Middle East," on everything from commercial activity to security cooperation, Pompeo said. But the Trump administration helped persuade the UAE and other Arab countries that Iran poses the greatest threat in the region and that closer ties with Israel would isolate Tehran. 

"This administration is taking a fundamentally different approach to creating an opportunity for increased stability in the Middle East and less risk to America," Pompeo said in a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank.

The pacts call for the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Arab countries. The countries also make vague promises about working toward peace and security in the Middle East. Additional bilateral agreements will be negotiated in the coming weeks dealing with matters such as finance, aviation, health care, tourism, culture, energy and other areas.

The agreements are not "peace" accords, although Trump and the other signatories used that term repeatedly on Tuesday to emphasize the significance of the agreements. The UAE and Bahrain were never at war with Israel and their leaders have been quietly inching toward closer relations with the Jewish state for years. 

As part of the deal with the UAE, Israel agreed to temporarily halt its controversial plan to annex parts of the West Bank, land that Palestinians see as vital to their hopes of a future state.

With Netanyahu's annexation plan paused, Israel will instead "focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world," according to a joint statement released last month when Trump first announced the UAE-Israel deal. The first direct commercial flight between Israel and the UAE followed that August news.  

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Trump announced last week that Bahrain would join the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel. The island kingdom is a pivotal U.S. ally in the Middle East and hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

The only other Arab nations to have active diplomatic ties with Israel are Egypt and Jordan.

After the White House unveiled the UAE deal, questions emerged about whether the Trump administration had agreed to sell that country F-35 fighter jets as part of the agreement.

Last month, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, H.E. Anwar Gargash, confirmed UAE is pursuing a deal on the F-35s with the Trump administration. But he said it’s been a longstanding request and sidestepped questions about whether it was part of the Israel-UAE peace deal. 

During an appearance on NBC News’ Today show on Tuesday, Kushner predicted the agreement would be the “beginning of the end of the Israel-Arab conflict.”

“We're seeing more countries saying we're tired of the fighting, we want to move forward,” he said. “And we're seeing this start to come together in the Middle East.”

But Kushner's much-touted plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not gained any traction. Some critics view the agreement with the UAE and Bahrain as an "abandonment" of the Palestinians.

"While normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states is in itself to be desired, this abandonment of the Palestinians, will not serve the interests of peace, nor the real interests of Israel," Jerome Segal, president of the Jewish Peace Lobby, an advocacy group based in Maryland, said when the agreement was announced.

"Unfortunately, it will underscore the narrative of the Israeli right-wing, that any semblance of justice for the Palestinians can be ignored,” he said.

The White House ceremony unfolded as the world remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guests were seated in white chairs that were jammed close together and did not adhere to social distancing. Some wore face masks, but others did not.

A senior administration official said masks were recommended but not required at the signing, even as the U.S. and Israel struggle to get their outbreaks under control. Netanyahu ordered a second three-week lockdown in Israel on Friday amid a surge in coronavirus cases there.

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Contributing: The Associated Press