Israel, 2 Gulf nations seal new accords at White House ceremony, angering Palestinians
Palestinians fire rockets toward Israel during signing ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Declaring it "the dawn of a new Middle East," U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed historic diplomatic pacts with Israel and two Gulf Arab nations that he hopes will lead to a new order in the Mideast and cast him as a peacemaker at the height of his re-election campaign.
Hundreds of people massed on the sun-washed South Lawn of the White House to witness the signing of agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The bilateral agreements formalize the normalization of the Jewish state's already thawing relations with the two Arab nations, in line with their common opposition to Iran and its aggression in the region.
"We're here this afternoon to change the course of history," Trump said from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn. "After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East."
The agreements do not address the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the U.A.E., Bahrain and other Arab countries support the Palestinians, the Trump administration has persuaded the two countries not to let that conflict keep them from having normal relations with Israel.
Trump's political backers are looking for the agreements to boost his standing as a statesman with just seven weeks to go before the Nov. 3 election.
Until now, foreign policy has not had a major role in a campaign dominated by the coronavirus, racial issues and the economy. The pandemic was in the backdrop of the White House ceremony, where there was no physical distancing and most guests didn't wear masks.
No end to active wars
The agreements won't end active wars, but supporters believe they could pave the way for a broader Arab-Israeli rapprochement after decades of enmity and only two previous peace deals.
Skeptics, including many longtime Mideast analysts and former officials, have expressed doubts about their impact and lamented that they ignore the Palestinians, who have rejected them as a stab in the back by fellow Arabs.
During the ceremony, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, thanked Israel for "halting the annexation of Palestinian territories," although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel has only temporarily suspended its plans to annex West Bank settlements.
"Today, we are already witnessing a change in the heart of the Middle East — a change that will send hope around the world," Al Nahyan said.
Even the harshest critics have allowed that the agreements could usher in a major shift in the region should other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, follow suit, with implications for Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Other Arab countries believed to be close to recognizing Israel include Oman, Sudan and Morocco.
"We are very down the road with about five different countries," Trump told reporters before the ceremony.
In addition to the bilateral agreements signed by Israel, the U.A.E. and Bahrain, all three are signing a document dubbed the Abraham Accords after the patriarch of the world's three major monotheistic religions.
"This day is a pivot of history," Netanyahu said. "It heralds a new dawn of peace."
"Despite the many challenges and hardships that we all face — despite all that, let us pause a moment to appreciate this remarkable day."
The Palestinians have not embraced the U.S. vision. Palestinian activists held small demonstrations Tuesday in the West Bank and in Gaza, where they trampled and set fire to pictures of Trump, Netanyahu and the leaders of the U.A.E. and Bahrain.
Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired two rockets into Israel, wounding two people in an attack that was apparently timed to coincide with the signing.
The Israeli military said two rockets were fired from Gaza and that one was intercepted by air defences. Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service, said it treated two people for injuries from broken glass.
The military earlier said that rocket sirens sounded in Ashdod and Ashkelon, cities in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip.
Israel concerned about F-35 sales
Even in Israel, where the accords have received widespread acclaim, there is concern they might result in U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry to the U.A.E. and Bahrain, thus potentially upsetting Israel's qualitative military edge in the region.
Trump said he is OK with selling military aircraft to the U.A.E. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also welcomed the agreements but said she wants to learn details, specifically what the Trump administration has told the U.A.E. about buying American-made F-35 aircraft and about Israel agreeing to freeze efforts to annex portions of the West Bank.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani said Bahrain would stand with the Palestinians. "Today is a truly historic occasion," he said. "A moment for hope and opportunity."
And while the U.A.E. and Bahrain have a history of suppressing dissent and critical public opinion, there have been indications that the agreements are not nearly as popular or well received as in Israel. Neither country sent its head of state or government to sign the deals with Netanyahu.
Bahrain's largest Shia-dominated opposition group, Al-Wefaq, which the government ordered dissolved in 2016 amid a years-long crackdown on dissent, said there is widespread rejection of normalization.
Al-Wefaq said in a statement that it joins other Bahrainis who reject the agreement to normalize ties with the "Zionist entity," and criticized the government for crushing the public's ability to express opinions "to obscure the extent of discontent" at normalization.
The ceremony follows months of intricate diplomacy headed by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and the president's envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.
On Aug. 13, the Israel-U.A.E. deal was announced. That was followed by the first direct commercial flight between the countries, and then the Sept. 11 announcement of the Bahrain-Israel agreement.