Israel establishes full ties with Bahrain, UAE at White House

AFP 

Israel normalized relations with long-time foes Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at a White House ceremony on Tuesday as President Donald Trump said similar US-brokered deals were close between the Jewish state and several other nations including Saudi Arabia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE sealed the accords establishing full diplomatic ties with a ceremony on a flag-decorated White House South Lawn.

Hundreds of guests attended the event, which Trump is hoping will boost his reelection chances in November, despite the coronavirus pandemic but there were no handshakes to cement the historic agreements. Bahrain and the UAE are the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 and Trump hailed it as a "historic day for peace in the Middle East."

"After decades of division and conflict we mark the dawn of a new Middle East," he said. Trump said the agreements, which have been denounced as a "betrayal" by the Palestinians, "will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region." Speaking later to reporters, he said Israel would enter into similar deals with "seven or eight or nine" other countries soon including regional power Saudi Arabia "at the right time."

Netanyahu called the day a "pivot of history" and thanked Trump for his "decisive leadership." "It heralds a new dawn of peace," he said. "Ultimately it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all." "To all of Israel's friends in the Middle East, those who are with us today and those who will join us tomorrow, I say as-salaam alaikum, peace unto thee, shalom," Netanyahu said.

'Two-state solution'

Neither Trump nor Netanyahu made any reference to the Palestinians during their remarks, and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas said Tuesday that only an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories can bring peace to the Middle East. "Peace, security and stability will not be achieved in the region until the Israeli occupation ends," Abbas said.

As the accords were being signed in Washington, rockets were fired into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Two people were slightly wounded. For the Mideast, the deals mark a distinct shift in a decades-old status quo where Arab countries have tried to maintain unity against Israel over its treatment of the stateless Palestinians.

Both the UAE and Bahrain foreign ministers made a point of mentioning the Palestinians in their remarks before the signing ceremony. "Thank you for choosing peace and halting the annexation of Palestinian territories," UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan told Netanyahu. "I stand here today to extend a hand of peace."

Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani said a "just, comprehensive and enduring two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict" would be the "bedrock" for lasting Middle East peace. Trump, speaking to Fox News ahead of the ceremony, said the agreements would put pressure on the Palestinians to also negotiate or face being "left out in the cold."

"The Palestinians will ultimately come in too," he said. "And you're going to have peace in the Middle East without being stupid and shooting everybody, and killing everybody, and having blood all over the sand." Trump predicted that Iran -- a regional rival to Bahrain and the UAE -- would seek to make a deal with the United States if he is reelected.

"I think they want to make a deal," he said. "I'll make a very fair deal."

F-35 sale to UAE

All the four countries at the White House share a common hostility to Iran, which Trump has put under crippling economic and diplomatic pressure. The thaw will give Israel and its two new Arab partners a big economic opening, just when they are looking to rebuild after the international slowdown triggered by the pandemic. And it allows Trump to enjoy the optics of presiding over a historic breakthrough less than 50 days before the November 3 election, which opinion polls suggest he is currently on course to lose.

It also provides a dose of good news coverage to Netanyahu, a close Trump ally who faces a corruption trial and criticism over his handling of the pandemic. The UAE, meanwhile, has been using the negotiations as part of its campaign to pressure Washington to sell it the cutting edge F-35 warplane. Trump said Tuesday he was willing to sell the warplanes to the UAE despite Israeli opposition.

"I would have no problem in selling them the F-35," he told Fox News, adding that it would mean "tremendous jobs at home." The UAE is eying the stealth fighter jet as a component in its ambitious plans to make the small, wealthy country into a regional military power. Ahead of the signing ceremony, hundreds of Palestinians protested Tuesday against the normalization deals with Israel.

Clutching Palestinian flags and wearing blue face masks for protection against the coronavirus, demonstrators rallied in the cities of Nablus and Hebron in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Several dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrators also staged a protest outside the White House. "This is a backstab to the Palestinian people," said Zeina Hutchison, head of a coalition of pro-Palestinian associations behind the rally.