Israel and the United Arab Emirates just agreed to a historic deal to normalize their long-strained relations — and it may not have happened without the input of President Donald Trump’s administration.
In a surprise announcement Thursday, the US, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates put out a joint statement outlining how the two Middle Eastern nations will develop ties in numerous areas including investment, security, tourism, technology, and energy, and will establish formal embassies in each other’s countries.
But at the heart of the agreement is a trade: As the statement lays out, Israel will “suspend declaring sovereignty over” parts of the West Bank that it had previously expressed intentions to annex. In exchange, the UAE will treat Israel as it would any other country it has friendly relations with — making it only the third Arab country to have such open relations with Jerusalem.
“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region,” the statement reads.
Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, finalized the terms of the agreement — to be known as the “Abraham Accords” in a nod to the patriarch of both the Jewish and Muslim faiths — during a Thursday phone call.
Trump also hinted in the Oval Office that more “things are happening,” while Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew that Thursday is “A historic day.”
This is a momentous agreement by almost any conceivable measure
The announcement was sudden, so everyone will learn more about it and its implications down the line. But for now, two main reasons stick out for why this is such a big deal.
First, it means Israel won’t — at least for now — annex parts of the West Bank, a move that would have all but shut the door on a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli-occupied West Bank is home to nearly 3 million Palestinians as well some 500,000 Jewish settlers, and would form a critical part of any future independent state of Palestine.
As my colleague Jen Kirby explained:
Under the two-state framework historically supported by the United States and the international community, the vast bulk of the West Bank would be returned to the Palestinians. As part of a final peace deal, Israelis and Palestinians would negotiate what to do about the settlements, with some heavily populated blocs near Israel’s recognized borders likely to be ceded to Israel. But peace talks have stalled for years, and there is no deal anywhere on the horizon.
Instead, the Israeli right has been pushing for Netanyahu’s government to just go ahead and unilaterally annex significant portions of the West Bank that it wants to keep, making them officially part of Israel proper, regardless of what the Palestinians think about it.
In January, the Trump administration unveiled its “peace plan,” developed by US and Israeli officials without the input of Palestinian leaders, who refused to participate. The plan helped create the conditions for Netanyahu to move forward with unilateral annexation, and for months, it looked as though Netanyahu was going to do it. In fact, it was supposed to officially happen as soon as July 1.
But it didn’t.
Now we know the likely reason for the stalled annexation: Trump and his team aimed to strike a deal to convince Netanyahu otherwise.
However, some claim the Israeli leader needed a way to back out of such a controversial promise. “Bibi climbs down from a tree it never seemed like he really wanted to be in,” Yair Rosenberg, a writer at the Jewish news-focused Tablet Magazine, tweeted after the deal’s revelation. Even if that is right, getting the UAE to normalize ties with the country is a pretty good way to get out of a corner.
Second, this makes life a bit easier for Israel. The last peace deal it struck with an Arab country was with Jordan in 1994 (it signed one with Egypt in 1979). Now Israel can claim it has more friends in the region, possibly reducing the pressure on it regarding its relations with Palestinians.
Granted, both nations had quietly been working together in myriad areas, namely technology, for several years. But now, the countries can openly work together in key areas, mostly pressingly on a cure for the coronavirus.
Indeed, Thursday’s joint statement said both countries would now accelerate their cooperation in search of a treatment and a vaccine. That’s a marked shift from just two months ago when Netanyahu announced a coronavirus partnership with the UAE, only to have the Arab country a few hours later say the only ties were between companies from both nations, not their governments.
This agreement may help the UAE do business with Israel, which in turn should help the Arab nation’s economy. Put together, this deal is mostly a win-win for the UAE: It helps itself, and reduces the risk of a calamity happening in the region.
But not everyone is happy about the agreement
Many caveats still apply, though. Among other possibilities, Israel and the UAE could hit many snags as they work on how, exactly, to normalize relations.
Netanyahu will likely face anger from the Israeli far right, particularly the thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank who hoped Netanyahu would follow through on his annexation promise. “We were tricked,” Shai Alon, head of the pro-settler Beit El Regional Council, said in a statement Thursday. “We’ve been betrayed.”
Palestinian leaders, too, have expressed outrage over the agreement. “Israel got rewarded for not declaring openly what it’s been doing to Palestine illegally & persistently since the beginning of the occupation,” tweeted Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the official national representative of the Palestinian people. “The UAE has come out in the open on its secret dealings/normalization with Israel. Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!”
Still, some experts are cautiously optimistic. “The UAE-Israel announcement is good news, and breaks an important barrier,” Dan Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, told me.
Two long-estranged nations have agreed to be openly friendly with each other, and the US helped — giving Trump one of his biggest foreign policy victories as the election draws near.
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