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Israel signs deal establishing formal ties with two Arab states at the White House

President Trump praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sept. 15 for the Abraham Accord, which establishes formal ties between Israel two Arab states. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump presided over a White House signing ceremony Tuesday of agreements establishing formal ties between Israel and two Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, saying the accords would “change the course of history.”

With trumpet flourishes and speeches under the flags of all four nations, Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the UAE and Bahraini foreign ministers addressed an invited crowd seated in seasonably cool sunshine on the South Lawn.

The agreements mark the third and fourth Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel — and the first since Jordan took the step in 1994, following Egypt in 1979. Trump took full credit for setting the path and encouraging them to take it. A White House statement attributed the success to his “foreign policy vision and his acumen as a dealmaker.”

But the countries involved, Trump said Tuesday, “had to make that choice themselves.”

In formal remarks each leader delivered in turn from a podium set on the White House balcony looking down on the audience, both Trump and Netanyahu said that other Arab countries were prepared to take the same step.

At various points during the day, Trump said that five, six and “seven or eight or nine” Arab countries were queuing up to join. “Including the big ones,” he told reporters as he returned to the South Lawn later in the day to depart for an evening trip to Philadelphia. Asked about Saudi Arabia, he said that he had been in frequent contact with King Salman and that “at the right time, I think they will come in.”

Israel-UAE deal shows how the very notion of Middle East peace has shifted under Trump

The last-minute addition of Bahrain, whose announcement that it would normalize ties with Israel followed that of the UAE with far less fanfare, was seen as a sign of Saudi approval. The small island monarchy in the Persian Gulf is highly dependent on economic and security ties with the Saudis and closely coordinates its foreign policy with Riyadh.

After finishing their speeches on the balcony — from which opera singers serenaded the Trump family when he accepted the Republican nomination for reelection less than three weeks ago — the four men walked down the sweeping outdoor staircase to sit at a long table facing the seated crowd, said by the White House to number about 800.

The United States, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain all signed the Abraham Accords — named for the three Abrahamic religions rooted in what is now Israel and surrounding lands — that lays the ground for diplomatic, economic and other ties between Israel and the Persian Gulf neighbors. The two Arab states then signed bilateral agreements with Israel.

In addition to their historic nature, the agreements are also significant for relegating the Palestinians to the sidelines. Palestinian leaders have rejected the Trump peace efforts for three years, charging that they benefited Israel, and have called the two Arab nations traitors to their cause.

Addressing reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu, Trump predicted that the Palestinians would eventually come on board. “Obviously, we speak to them,” he said, even as he recalled that his administration had cut off $750 million in funding to the Palestinians because “they treat the United States so badly.”

Neither the UAE nor Bahrain is or ever has been at war with Israel, so the documents are not peace treaties in the formal sense. But until now, both Persian Gulf states had officially considered Israel to be illegitimate.

Arab states in the Persian Gulf have edged closer to Israel over the past decade, some with extensive but largely unpublicized ties, in response to a shared desire to blunt Iranian influence in the region.

Trump greeted all three leaders in the Oval Office separately before the signing ceremony. As he sat there with Netanyahu, he once again expressed a desire to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program after earlier in his administration ripping up an accord reached by Tehran with the Obama administration to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

He said he had been in communications with Iranian representatives and told them “you should wait to see the [U.S.] election first.” Trump also said “there is nothing . . . Iran would like to see better than Sleepy Joe Biden elected.”

But “I’m going to make a much better deal,” he said, predicting his own victory. “Iran will be very rich and very quickly.”

Inside the secret-not-secret courtship between Israel and UAE

The ceremony received wide and favorable attention in largely government-influenced news coverage throughout most of the Persian Gulf. One partial exception was in Qatar, whose Al Jazeera online quoted a Palestinian Authority official calling the signing a “sad day.”

“The only path for peace for the Palestinians is ending this brutal Israeli occupation and granting the Palestinians their inalienable rights for self-determination. Without that there is no path to peace in the region,” Al Jazeera quoted Ammar Hijazi, assistant minister of multilateral affairs for the Palestinian Authority, as saying.

Hijazi called the White House ceremony a “photo op” that “only crowns Israel as the policeman of the region” and paves the way for more U.S. weapons sales to the Arab countries.

Qatar has ruled out normalization of ties with Israel until the Palestinians are granted their own state, within borders from before Israel conquered significant territory in a 1967 war, and with East Jerusalem as its capital. Those conditions are part of the Arab Peace Initiative, written by Saudi Arabia and unanimously adopted by the Arab League in 2002, and which remains, at least symbolically, the group’s joint position.

Of the four leaders at the White House, only Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE foreign minister, mentioned either of the two outstanding concerns that have been raised about the new accords. In exchange for normalization with the UAE, Netanyahu agreed to suspend plans to annex Israeli-occupied parts of the West Bank, but it remains unclear how long that suspension will last.

“Thank you for choosing peace and for halting the annexation of Palestinian territories, a position that reinforces our shared will to achieve a better future for generations to come,” Zayed said in remarks directed at Netanyahu, during his balcony speech.

The other issue is what the White House has said is the potential sale of F-35s, the sophisticated U.S. stealth fighter jet, to the UAE. Only Israel has the planes in the Middle East, and many Israelis as well as members of Congress have raised concerns that selling them to the Emiratis would violate U.S. law requiring a “qualitative military edge” for Israel in its neighborhood.

The broadly worded, one-page Abraham Accords do not mention annexation or weapons sales, nor does the publicly released Israel-UAE accord, in which the word “Palestinian” does not appear.

The agreements have garnered widespread bipartisan support, but lawmakers have expressed some concerns. In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) cited questions “regarding the commitment that the UAE has received from the Trump administration to purchase American-made F-35 aircraft.”

“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.

Israelis watched the White House ceremony closely Tuesday evening, with all TV channels halting regular broadcasts to bring live images from Washington.

The broadcasts were interrupted only to report on a sudden round of rockets fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza as the leaders gave empowering speeches about forging peace.

Air raid sirens sounded in the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, with Israeli police saying that a rocket had left two people injured. The rocket fire was seen by Israelis as a message of disapproval from the militant Islamic group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip.

In Israeli reports on the Washington ceremony, close attention was paid to whether Netanyahu and members of his entourage were wearing masks and social distancing. As the novel coronavirus soars in Israel and the country heads into a second nationwide lockdown Friday, the start of the Jewish High Holy Days, Netanyahu’s decision to leave the country was closely scrutinized.

Few masks were in evidence at the ceremony, and no social distancing was enforced. In apparent deference to coronavirus protocols, however, there were no embraces or shaken hands among the leaders. Instead, they saluted each other, Middle Eastern-style, with hands on their hearts.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this story.