“This is a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East,” the joint statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain and Trump read. “Opening direct dialogue and ties between these two dynamic societies and advanced economies will continue the positive transformation of the Middle East and increase stability, security and prosperity in the region.”
After presiding over a chaotic and at times sputtering approach to international relations during much of his presidency, Trump has in recent weeks been able to point to deals that have shown progress in tense regions of the world even if they fall short of the hyperbolic language Trump has used to describe them.
Last month, a historic peace deal between Israel and the UAE was announced to the surprise of many who follow developments in the region. And this month, Serbia and Kosovo agreed to normalize economic ties, a breakthrough brokered with the help of the Trump administration in a political standoff in Europe over Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be part of historic talks in Doha, Qatar, this weekend between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The announcements come at a politically opportune time for Trump, who is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden in national and key state polls as he continues to get poor marks from the public on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump attributes advances that eluded previous presidents to his unorthodox approach to diplomacy, and he appears eager to showcase his role as a peacemaker ahead of the Nov. 3 election, particularly in a swing state such as Florida, where the fate of Israel is a top political concern.
“This is a truly historic day,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “There have been two peace agreements with Israel in the last 72 years. This is now the second peace agreement that we’ve announced in the last month, and I am very hopeful that there will be more to follow.”
He spoke of “tremendous enthusiasm” among other Arab countries.
Bahrain is among at least two smaller Persian Gulf states expected to follow the UAE’s lead. Trump spoke this week to the leader of the other, Oman.
All take cues from Saudi Arabia, the regional diplomatic heavyweight and religious lodestar, so the agreements are seen as having Riyadh’s tacit blessing. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations are seen as motivated to have a better relationship with Israel because they have a common foe in Iran and are seeking to keep Tehran in check.
Bahrain considers Friday’s announcement a first step toward fully normalized ties with Israel, a person close to the Bahraini royal family said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the matter on the record.
The U.S. announcement made no distinction between the terms “diplomatic relations” and “normalized relations,” though the Bahrain announcement was less detailed than the one on full normalization between Israel and UAE. As part of that agreement, Israel shelved the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank — an issue given new urgency by the Trump administration’s willingness to back Israel’s assuming formal control over land containing Jewish settlements that are considered illegal under international law.
Trump said Israel and Bahrain would exchange ambassadors and open embassies for the first time, and begin work on cooperation in health, technology, agriculture and other areas. The agreement also provides for direct flights between Manama and Tel Aviv.
Israel and Bahrain are not at war, so their agreement is not a peace deal in the usual sense. Like most other Arab states, Bahrain had until now officially considered Israel to be an illegitimate usurper of Palestinian land and rights.
Egypt and Jordan were the only Arab states to have made formal peace with Israel before the UAE agreement in August.
As a practical matter, establishing full diplomatic relations means Bahrain is acknowledging Israel’s legitimacy, but there were signs that the kingdom is cautious about how it presents the matter.
Bahrain is sending its foreign minister, rather than the king or the country’s powerful crown prince, to the White House next week to attend a signing ceremony between Israel and the UAE.
The ceremony Tuesday will be patterned on White House celebrations of U.S.-backed peace agreements between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and between Israel and Jordan in 1994.
A statement from the official Bahrain News Agency focused on hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“During the call, HM King Hamad stressed the need to reach a just and comprehensive peace as a strategic option, in accordance with the two-state solution and relevant resolutions of international legitimacy,” the statement said, using the abbreviation for “his majesty.”
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and is a major hub for U.S. military activity in and around the Persian Gulf and for U.S. efforts to monitor Iranian military activity.
Bahrain was the site last year of the Trump administration’s rollout of an economic plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The plan envisions billions of dollars in outside investment, much of it from the gulf region, to improve employment prospects and living standards for Palestinians.
The more sensitive political proposal was released in January and included a map of a provisional Palestinian state in the West Bank. Palestinian leaders rejected it without holding negotiations. Trump administration efforts have since focused on establishing direct ties between Israel and its neighbors in a bid both to give Israel greater security and to apply pressure on Palestinian leaders to open talks.
“I think the Palestinians are going to end up doing something that’s going to be very smart for them, and all their friends are coming into this and they want to come into it, they want to come into it very badly,” Trump said Friday. “I can see a lot of good things happening with respect to the Palestinians, which would be really wonderful, whether you were on their side or not on their side.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut off contact with the Trump administration and renounced peace efforts after Trump’s announcement in December 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledging to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and previous U.S. administrations had declined to announce anything that could prejudge negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu issued a video celebrating the news about Bahrain.
“We have invested in peace for many years, and now peace will invest in us,” Netanyahu said. “It will lead to very large investments in the Israeli economy.”
News of the agreement broke after the start of the Jewish sabbath in Israel, muting the immediate reaction to an announcement that had been anticipated, at least potentially, for weeks.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the announcement as a betrayal of “the Palestinian cause” and of previous commitments made by Arab states.
“This step is a token of support for legitimizing the ugly crimes of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinian people, at a time when the occupying state is consolidating its takeover and annexation of the Palestinian land by military force,” Palestinian leaders said in a statement.
Palestinian officials had been blindsided by the UAE announcement and rejected UAE leaders’ characterization of the deal as a means to preserve a path to Palestinian statehood.
Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has led the White House peace efforts, echoed Trump’s confidence that other nations would decide to forge their own diplomatic and economic relationships with Israel, but he stopped short of predicting that Saudi Arabia would soon be among them.
“The leadership in the region is, they recognize that the approach that’s been taken in the past hasn’t worked, and they realize that their people want to see a more vibrant and exciting future,” Kushner told reporters Friday.
Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.