In a historic accomplishment for the Trump administration, Bahrain has joined the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in formally establishing diplomatic relations with Israel at a signing ceremony hosted by President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, September 15.
It is the first such public agreement between Israel and an Arab state since the 1994 signing of the peace agreement with Jordan. It appears to set the stage for the establishment of a region-wide alliance between Israel and the pro-American Sunni Arab states to counter the growing influence and military threat posed by Iran. Those Arab nations are now willing to publicly recognize, after maintaining a state of war against Israel for more than 70 years, that Iran is their common enemy, and that Israel is their only potential ally in the region rich and powerful enough to protect them.
The signing ceremony was held at 12:00 p.m. on the South Lawn of the White House, where Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin signed the ill-fated Oslo Peace Accords, on September 13, 1993, under the watchful eye of President Bill Clinton.
One hour earlier, Trump met privately with Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. Shortly thereafter, Trump and Netanyahu were joined by the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain for a brief, four-way discussion.
The prior agreement between the UAE and Israel was announced by the White House on August 13, to the astonishment of the international community. Until that point, Trump’s efforts to launch a new Middle East peacemaking initiative, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were viewed by the US diplomatic establishment and its West European allies as much too pro-Israel, and certain to destroy what slim hope remained of reviving the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the US has been pursuing in vain for the past 20 years.
Following a phone conversation between President Trump and the leaders of Bahrain and Israel last Friday, September 11, Trump tweeted: “Another historic breakthrough today! Our two great friends Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain agree to a Peace Deal — the second Arab country to make peace with Israel in 30 days!”
Trump released a joint statement by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain announcing that Bahrain would join in the previously announced September 15 White House signing ceremony for the UAE-Israel agreement, and sign its own Declaration of Peace with Israel at that time. The joint statement declared the Israeli-Bahrain agreement to be “a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East. 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.”
Afterwards, Trump said, “We think ultimately we will have most countries join and you’re going to have the Palestinians in a very good position. They’re going to want to come in because all of their [Arab] friends are in [making peace with Israel].”
TRUMP’S GREATEST DIPLOMATIC ACHIEVEMENT YET
Even Trump’s most bitter critics were forced to admit that the Israel-UAE deal was another diplomatic feather in his cap, though the hostile mainstream media sought to downplay the accomplishment to limit the political benefit to Trump less than two months before Election Day. Foreign policy has not been a significant issue in the presidential campaign so far, but Trump is eager to promote his recent Middle East peacemaking successes in contrast to the lack of progress on that front during Joe Biden’s eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.
In fact, President Obama’s willingness to cede control of the Middle East to Iran by agreeing to the loose terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal convinced many Arab leaders that they needed Israel as their strong ally in the region to withstand the growing Iranian threat.
In the short term, the addition of Bahrain to the White House signing ceremony for the deal between the UAE and Israel enables Trump to rightfully boast that his unconventional, transactional, personalized brand of diplomacy has achieved more progress towards Middle East peace over the past three years than the previous quarter century of efforts by the narrow-minded career diplomats of the State Department.
Trump has been nominated twice in recent days for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, once by Norwegian parliamentarian Christian Tyburg-Gjedde, for brokering the UAE-Israel accord, and a second time, by Magnus Jacobsson, a Swedish parliamentarian, for his successful efforts to normalize diplomatic economic relations between Christian-populated Serbia and its Muslim-populated former province of Kosovo.
MAKING THE CASE FOR TRUMP’S NOBEL PRIZE
Of course, the mainstream media would go crazy if Trump were granted the honor, despite the fact that he richly deserves it for his efforts leading to the historic Israeli peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain alone.
The media has consistently denied Trump the credit he deserves for his many other national security and foreign policy accomplishments. These include the decisive US-led military defeat of ISIS and the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as the assassination of the most dangerous international terrorist mastermind in the world, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Trump has strengthened the Western military alliance in the face of increasing Russian aggression by pressuring NATO allies to pay their fair share of the costs for the common defense. He is the first American president to recognize and push back against the combined economic and military threat to American leadership posed by communist China. His personal diplomacy successfully defused the potential nuclear crisis with North Korea which he inherited by Barack Obama. Most recently, Trump’s unconventional Middle East peacemaking strategy, combined with his firm support for Israel, are now defying the predictions of the media commentators and foreign policy experts that it was doomed to fail.
Taken as a whole, Trump’s foreign policy record far outshines that of Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 after less than a year in office, before he had accomplished anything to deserve it.
BAHRAIN WAS A LIKELY CANDIDATE
The deal with Bahrain did not come as a complete surprise. Last year, in June, Bahrain hosted the rollout of the $50 billion economic investment portion of Trump’s Middle East peace plan in its capital, Manama, over strong objections from the Palestinians and their remaining allies in the Arab world.
An official of the Israeli foreign ministry confirmed that it is now “working toward the opening of an Israeli embassy in Bahrain.” Israeli foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, a co-leader of the Blue and White party, was already consulting with his Bahraini counterpart, and tweeted, “I look forward to deepening and strengthening the relations between our two countries. Together we will work towards peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Other Sunni-Arab states now being pressured by the US to join the new alliance with Israel — with the implicit blessing of Saudi Arabia — include Oman, Morocco and Sudan.
OMAN STILL HEDGING ITS BETS
The government of Oman issued a statement formally welcoming Bahrain’s decision to normalize relations with Israel in the hope that it will lead to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but gave no indication it would fulfill expectations that Oman would become the next Persian Gulf state to open formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
“The sultanate hopes this new strategic path taken by some Arab countries will contribute to bringing about a peace based on an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and on establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital,” the official government statement said.
An October 2018 visit to Oman by Netanyahu was widely seen at the time as one of the first public signs of warming relations between Israel and the Sunni Arab world. He was hosted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died earlier this year and was succeeded by his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who appears to have continued the openness to Israel.
At the same time, Oman has cultivated its role as a neutral go-between, maintaining friendly relations with the main opposing factions in the region. This includes the pro-Western Sunni Arab alliance — led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — as well as the Iranian faction, which includes Shiite militias, Houthi rebels fighting a brutal civil war in Yemen against a Saudi-led Sunni alliance, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based, Iranian-supported international terrorist network.
The leaders of Oman, no doubt, took note of the immediate condemnation by Iran of the agreement between Israel and Bahrain. “The rulers of Bahrain will henceforth be complicit for the crimes of the Zionist regime, as a constant threat to the security of the region and of the Muslim world,” the Iranian foreign ministry said. Hezbollah was similarly quick to denounce Bahrain’s move as “a great betrayal” and “a painful blow to the back of the Palestinian people.”
US HAS BEEN PUSHING ISRAEL’S CLAIMS
Recognition of Israel’s claim to Yerushalayim as its capital has become an integral part of US diplomacy with nations throughout the world.
For example, the Trump administration announced earlier this month that as part of the peace deal it brokered between Serbia and its breakaway Muslim majority province of Kosovo, both governments agreed to move their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed the prospect of Serbia and Kosovo joining the US and Guatemala as the only countries in the world with their Israeli embassies currently located in Yerushalayim. However, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic threatened to cancel the move of Serbia’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim if Israel recognizes the independence of Kosovo, which Vucic views as rebellious Serbian province.
Both former Yugoslav territories were warned last week by a spokesman for the Brussels-based EU Commission that they risked having their application for membership in the EU if they violated its long-held policy that the status of Yerushalayim can only be resolved as part of a larger permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In an unmistakable sign of their disapproval of Trump, EU diplomats organized an informal boycott of the White House signing ceremony of the agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. The only senior European diplomat present, out of the 700 dignitaries who were there, was Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who responded to a personal invitation he received from President Trump.
While the EU issued a statement expressing mild support for the new peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it emphasized the importance of satisfying Palestinian demands through “a negotiated and viable two-state solution built upon the internationally agreed parameters.”
The ethnically multi-national Central African republic of Chad, which has a majority Muslim population, announced that it will also establish diplomatic relations with Israel in the near future, and consider locating its embassy in Yerushalayim.
Similarly, the son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Eduard, declared in December that his father intends to keep the promise he made to Trump in 2018 to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. The move was postponed for fear that the move would damage Brazil’s trade ties with Arab countries.
Lazarus Chakwera, the president of Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa, said over the weekend that his country also plans to open a new embassy to Israel in Yerushalayim.
Israel is also reportedly close to reaching a free trade agreement with economically powerful South Korea, thanks to growing confidence among South Korea’s leaders that such a deal will not damage its extensive trade ties with the Arab world.
Also, Israel has just signed a historic military cooperation agreement with Greece and its ally, Cyprus, in response to the growing hostility towards Israel of Turkey’s Islamic-dominated government.
PALESTINIANS FIND THEMSELVES ISOLATED
Aside from Iran, the biggest loser from the rapid expansion of the Israeli-Sunni Arab regional alliance is Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, who now find themselves abandoned by their traditional Sunni Arab allies, both economically and diplomatically.
On Sunday, the secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s executive committee, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, said that the PA would sever its relations with any country that opens an embassy in Yerushalayim — but such warnings do not seem to have much of a deterrent effect. Erekat also admitted last week that most Arab countries have stopped making their promised contributions to cover the chronic deficit of the PA’s budget.
The PA joined with its arch rival for power, Hamas, on Sunday to declare hold a “day of popular rejection” to protest the “shameful” declarations by the UAE and Bahrain.
In a dramatic break from its reflexively anti-Zionist diplomatic stance, the Arab League rejected Palestinian demands that it condemn the UAE for recognizing Israel. It was yet another sign of the erosion of support for the Palestinian cause in the Arab world.
A statement by Prince Feisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi Foreign Minister attending an Arab League meeting, said his government still supports the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state based in the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but he made no direct mention of the UAE deal with Israel.
The Arab League also rejected a demand by PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki that the UAE be condemned for violating the Arab consensus as expressed by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which the Arab League had endorsed as recently as 2017.
Al-Maliki expressed his “surprise” at the refusal of the Arab League to even call an emergency meeting in response to the initial announcement of the Israeli-UAE agreement. He also called the Trump administration’s efforts to broker deals for recognition of Israel by more Arab states “blackmail” and a “stab in the back.”
EREKAT ACCUSES BAHRAIN OF BREAKING ITS PROMISE
Over the weekend, Erekat claimed that Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Abdul Latif al-Zayani, had broken a promise he had made during their meeting on September 6, after which Erekat tweeted in Arabic and English declaring “[Bahrain is] fully committed to the [Arab Peace Initiative] and ending the occupation, and that peace will happen [only when] there is a Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, based on the 1967 borders.”
In a weekend interview with Al Jazeera, Erekat angrily accused “our Bahraini brothers” of going back on the promise they had made to him to “adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative, and not make peace [with Israel just] a week ago!”
“They told me they will not do it,” Erekat added in a second interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday morning.
PALESTINIANS ARE DIVIDED AND LEADERLESS
The Palestinian leadership has been divided since 2007, when Hamas attacked and ousted PA security forces from Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor as the head of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, has squandered his right to call himself the leader of the Palestinian people. He is now in the 16th year of his four-year elected term as president of the PA, notorious for its mismanagement and corruption. The leaders of Hamas remain committed to the destruction of Israel, regardless of the consequences for the Arabs of Gaza who live under its dictatorial rule.
There has been an equally dramatic change in the American approach to peacemaking in the region since Donald Trump became president. In sharp contrast to the openly pro-Palestinian stance of Barack Obama, President Trump has not been willing to ignore the Palestinian refusal to engage in good faith peace negotiations with the Israeli government.
Trump demonstrated his increasing frustration with Palestinian obstructionism by unilaterally announcing, in December 2017, the US recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital. Six months later, Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to an existing State Department building in West Yerushalayim, raising barely a murmur of opposition from America’s allies in the Arab world.
When Abbas continued to boycott negotiations with Jared Kushner and his team on the emerging White House peace plan, Trump closed the PLO office in Washington, DC, and cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in annual US financial support for the PA’s budget and UNRWA, the UN organization providing social welfare services to Palestinian “refugees” living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Because it made the mistake of challenging Trump by refusing to participate in his peace initiative, the PA today teeters on the brink of economic collapse, and is rapidly running out of diplomatic options. Its sole remaining survival strategy is to hold out in the hope of a Biden victory over Trump in the November election, leading to a return of American support for the failed two-state solution. By any reasonable measure, the Palestinian national cause is dying, and nobody in the Sunni Arab world, with the possible exception of Qatar, seems to think that it is still worth the considerable effort needed to salvage it.
ARAB STATES NOW HAVE OTHER CONCERNS
Veteran US Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross points out that the Sunni states are no longer preoccupied with the fate of the Palestinians. They are more concerned with much more immediate “threats from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they see Israel as a bulwark against both. They [also] see benefits from cooperation with Israel on security [and other] immense new challenges.” These include the coronavirus epidemic, worsening drought conditions, and unmet regional health, water and food security needs.
Ross notes that Arab states recognize that they need Israel’s “medical and research capabilities, its technical expertise on conservation, drip irrigation and use of wastewater, and its development of drought resistant crops.” They are being driven by their own national interests into closer cooperation with Israel. Furthermore, if Palestinian leaders do not abandon their failed obstructionist strategy, they risk being totally left behind by the rest of the Arab world.
VINDICATING NETANYAHU’S STRATEGY
The emerging Israeli-Arab alliance is also a vindication of the regional diplomatic strategy that Netanyahu has doggedly pursued since his return to power as prime minister in 2009. A regional peace agreement has always been Netanyahu’s preferred alternative to Israeli recognition of Palestinian statehood in return for the limited peace agreement envisioned by the Oslo peace process, which was pushed upon Israel by a series of American presidents, starting with Bill Clinton up to and including the administration of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Under intense pressure from the Obama White House to endorse the two-state solution, Netanyahu laid out his conditions for the formation of an independent Palestinian state in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. Netanyahu understood that no Palestinian leader would accept his demands, which included a complete demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, Israeli military control over Palestinian airspace, a flat rejection of the so-called Palestinian refugee right of return, permission for Israel to continue the expansion of existing West Bank settlements to accommodate the “natural growth” of their Jewish population, and the ultimate deal-breaker for any Palestinian leader — formal recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people, with its capital being the undivided city of Yerushalayim.
As Netanyahu had expected, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority flatly rejected the conditions he had announced, setting the stage for an increasingly bitter diplomatic deadlock between Israel and the PA which lasted for the remainder Obama’s presidency. During that period, Netanyahu worked behind the scenes to encourage cooperation between Israel and the leaders of the Sunni Arab states in the region, and to develop a de facto security alliance against the common threat presented by Iran. That effort has now borne fruit.
It was widely reported last month that the key to the UAE’s decision to publicly formalize its relations with Israel was its concern that Prime Minister Netanyahu would go forward with the annexation by Israel of its existing West Bank settlements before the November election. The Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, unveiled in January 2020, contradicted previous US policy by explicitly recognizing the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over its West Bank settlements. However, the plan’s implication that Trump would accept unilateral Israeli annexation of the settlements provoked hostile reactions by the international diplomatic community.
The Trump administration reacted by quickly changing course, exerting strong pressure on Netanyahu to delay his plans to annex the West Bank settlements as early as July 1 of this year. Unwilling to anger the White House over this point, Netanyahu was forced to accept and indefinite delay the move, angering his pro-settlement supporters.
FORCED DELAY OF ANNEXATION CREATED AN OPPORTUNITY
The opportunity to trade formal UAE recognition of Israel — a major long-term goal of Netanyahu’s diplomacy — for a delay in the annexation of the West Bank settlements, which was already unavoidable, was seen as a win-win opportunity for Netanyahu and Trump. At the same time, it gave the UAE diplomatic cover for its recognition of Israel, by enabling it to claim that it had acted to protect the Palestinians by obtaining an American guarantee that Netanyahu would delay the annexation of the settlements as a condition of the agreement.
The Trump peace plan had already given the PA a four-year window in which it could reverse course and return to the negotiating table before Israel would be allowed to proceed with a further expansion into undeveloped West Bank territories. According to a recent report by the Times of Israel, citing three anonymous sources who claim to have “direct knowledge of the matter,” the UAE negotiated a commitment from the Trump White House to withhold any public endorsement of an Israeli annexation of its West Bank settlements during that same time frame, ending in January 2024.
While the outlines of the deal have been widely reported, until the Times of Israel report, its exact details remained somewhat vague. President Trump did confirm last month that Israeli annexation of the settlements has been “taken off the table,” in his words, for now, but he gave no indication how long that delay would last. However, Netanyahu insists that his plan to expand Israeli sovereignty to include all legal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, with the full support of the Trump White House, remains in effect.
HIGH HOPES FOR FURTHER PROGRESS
In an email interview with the Times of Israel, Hend Al Otaiba, a spokeswoman for the UAE Foreign Ministry, declared that “the Emirati people feel enthusiastic about the establishment of relations with Israel. Levels of excitement are particularly high among younger generations — this historic move is a reflection of our country’s forward-thinking leadership and future-oriented vision for the region, and it is the youth of this region who will reap the greatest share of the economic, cultural, and scientific rewards that this cooperation will usher in over time,” Al Otaiba explained.
However, the UAE spokeswoman sought to deflect questions about the reported connection between the agreement to recognize Israel and the UAE’s six-year-old request that it become the first Arab state allowed to purchase the most advanced warplane in the US arsenal, the F-35. Military experts consider Israel’s customized version of the stealthy F-35, which has been flying Israeli Air Force missions since 2017, to be the key to maintaining its qualitative military edge over all potential enemies in the region, by assuring Israel’s air superiority for decades to come.
THE END OF THE ERA OF “LAND FOR PEACE”
Prior to his Sunday evening departure from Ben Gurion airport for the signing ceremony in Washington, Netanyahu told the Israeli people, in a televised address, that he had finalized “two peace deals within one month” which would yield tremendous economic benefits for Israel.
In his message, Netanyahu noted that the deal with the UAE and Bahrain did not require the kind of territorial concessions that Israel was required to make in previous peace deals with the Palestinians. “This is a new era of peace,” he boasted, emphasizing that what is occurring now is “peace for peace” and “economy for economy,” instead of the obsolete Oslo concept of “land for peace.” “We have invested in peace for many years,” the prime minister added, “and now peace will invest in us. It will lead to very large investments in the Israeli economy and that is very important.”
In response to questions from the Israeli media, Netanyahu confirmed that the agreement with the UAE is a formal international peace treaty which will require ratification by the Knesset and a vote by the full cabinet. That is not expected to be a problem, because this is a rare moment of broad, bipartisan support for the prime minister who is facing a criminal trial on three charges of political corruption, and who has been struggling to maintain his coalition with the Blue and White party under its chairman, Benny Ganz. The signing also took place as the Israeli government was responding to a second spike in coronavirus cases by ordering another mandatory lockdown that will close schools and many businesses for the next three weeks.
The agreement with Bahrain is an informal joint statement expressing the commitment of both nations to peace, which does not require any further ratification.
The stairs leading up to the El Al plane that carried the prime minister and his family to Washington for the signing ceremony were adorned with Israeli, American, UAE and Bahraini flags, while the fuselage of the aircraft itself was painted with the word peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The UAE and Bahrain were represented at the signing ceremony by their foreign ministers, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, respectively.
BAHRAIN NOW CLAIMS IT SAVED THE PALESTINIANS
In anticipation of bitter criticism of the agreement by Iran, the Palestinians and their remaining Arab allies, the Bahrain state news agency issued a report claiming that the King of Bahrain had told Trump and Netanyahu that his country remains committed to the Palestinian cause and the necessity of reaching agreement a fair and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians based upon a two-state solution.
In the same vein, Bahrain’s ambassador to the US, Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa, tweeted: “The declaration of the establishment of relations between Bahrain and Israel is in the interest of the region’s security, stability and prosperity. It sends a positive and encouraging message to the people of Israel, that a just and comprehensive peace with the Palestinian people is the best path and the true interest for their future and the future of the peoples of the region.”
Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, the Shiite spiritual head of Bahrain’s banned opposition party, al Wefaq, spoke out over the weekend from exile in Iran, rejecting the decision by Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel, and calling upon people throughout the region to resist it.
KUSHNER TAKES A VICTORY LAP
In a briefing for the White House press corps last Friday, Jared Kushner noted the significance of the timing of the announcement of the Israel-Bahrain deal, calling it “a historic breakthrough for the president and also for the world and for those two countries,” coming on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.
Kushner declared that the deal “is the best thing that we can do to prevent another 9/11 from ever happening: to create peace and to aggressively counter extremism and terrorism, and President Trump has spared no effort in doing that.”
“There’s a new momentum and new hopefulness in the Middle East,” Kushner added. “The agreement that we made with the United Arab Emirates and Israel was even more popular than we expected, which is why this next agreement came so quickly. We were not sure what the reaction would be, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive. And more and more countries are rushing to try to figure out how they can do good things for their citizens and create a paradigm for a much more peaceful and prosperous future.”
In a rebuke to those who had criticized Kushner for abandoning the underlying assumptions of the Oslo peace process which had led to 25 years of failed US peacemaking efforts, the president’s son-in-law said, “The leaders in the region recognize that the approach that’s been taken in the past hasn’t worked and they realize that there are people who want to see a more vibrant and exciting future. I do believe that it’s an inevitability that all countries in the Middle East will normalize relations with Israel.
“It’s a very hard thing. I don’t know the timing on it, but I think people want to see the Middle East move forward. They want to seize the opportunity.”
Kushner also predicted, “I think that this will help reduce tension in the Muslim world and allow people to separate the Palestinian issue from their own national interests — from their foreign policy, which should be focused on their domestic priorities. And so I think you’re going to continue to see momentum.”
Kushner’s press briefing turned out to be a largely wasted effort. Mainstream liberal American news outlets, such as the Washington Post, mentioned the briefing only as an afterthought, in two paragraphs at the very end of its front-page story on the Bahrain agreement to recognize Israel. They refused to give Kushner the credit he deserved simply because he is Donald Trump’s son-in-law. By so doing, the media outlets deprived their audience of the key insights Kushner provided into the most successful American diplomatic effort in the Middle East in more than a quarter century.
SAUDI ARABIA NOT READY TO MAKE THE SAME MOVE
Kushner acknowledge that Saudi Arabia’s current leaders are unlikely to follow the example set by the UAE and Bahrain by recognizing Israel before a broader solution is reached for the Palestinian problem.
“King Salman and the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, feel very strongly about the Palestinian cause. They would like to see the Palestinians work a fair deal and improve the lives of their people,” Kushner said. “But again, they’re going to do what’s in the best interests of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi people.”
King Salman remains publicly committed to the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, which insists that the Arab world can only make peace with Israel after its full withdrawal from the West Bank, East Yerushalayim and the Golan Heights, its agreement to a resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem based upon the so-called “right of return,” and the establishment of a Palestinian state encompassing the entire West Bank, with its capital in East Yerushalayim.
However, former State Department Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller notes that the Saudis had clearly “greenlit” the UAE agreement with Israel. He believes this is a sign that the “Arab consensus on Palestine — if there ever was one — is breaking apart. Arab states will nominally stick to the 2002 peace initiative while some [like the UAE and Bahrain] will make their own arrangements with Israel.”
POSITIVE INTERNATIONAL REACTION
Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the US and to Israel, more bluntly observed that “the Arab States have always used the Palestinian issue as an instrument for their own national objectives. Obviously, they have reached the conclusion that it is not useful anymore. They have dumped it.”
After a conversation with Bahrain’s ambassador to the UN, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said, “Expanding the circle of peace in the Middle East can lead to a change at the UN as well. We are entering a new era in which we can publicly work together on security issues and the economic prosperity of Israel and the Arab countries. Together, we will face the challenges that threaten stability in the Middle East.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the Israel-Bahrain agreement demonstrates that “there is clear momentum for a new Middle East,” and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the agreement between Bahrain and Israel “excellent news.”
Egypt and Jordan, the only two other Arab states which have a peace treaty with Israel, issued statements praising Israel’s deal with Bahrain, while mentioning their continued support for the Palestinian cause and the need to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.
FORMALIZING A DE FACTO ALLIANCE
In practical terms, the formal signing of peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain doesn’t change Israel’s regional strategic situation much. It formalizes and makes public the de facto strategic alliance against Iran that has been quietly developing over the past several years between Israel and the pro-US Arab Gulf states, with the open encouragement of the Trump administration.
The establishment of formal diplomatic relations paves the way for the continued expansion of that cooperative relationship between Israel and its regional Arab allies into new areas, including diplomacy, business, academic and cultural exchanges.
For example, on Sunday, Professor Alon Chen, the president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot, Israel, held a virtual signing ceremony with Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chairman of the board of trustees for of the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi. They ratified a memo of understanding between the two graduate level institutions for joint research going forward in the strategically important field of artificial intelligence.
KOSHER HOTELS IN ABU DHABI?
The UAE’s announcement of its recognition agreement was followed last week by the first direct flight ever of an Israeli civilian airliner to Abu Dhabi. That flight was quickly followed by announcement from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that they will begin to allow Israeli airliners to fly over their airspace to destinations in the Persian Gulf and beyond to Asia, cutting several hours off scheduled flight times from Israel to popular tourist and business destinations in the Far East.
In anticipation of a flood of Israeli tourists, the UAE government has ordered luxury hotels in the capital city of Abu Dhabi to begin offering a full menu of kosher meals.
A SEA-CHANGE IN ARAB THINKING
But for Israel, its public acceptance by two more of its Arab neighbors is a giant step towards the realization of its long-cherished goal of regionwide acceptance, along with cooperation and trade with much of the Arab world. It also indicates a pragmatic but nonetheless welcome change in the thinking of the leaders of the Sunni Arab world, which has consistently challenged Israel’s legitimacy as a permanent presence in the region since its founding as an independent Jewish state in 1948.
Writing in the Washington Post, commentators David Makovsky and Daniel B. Shapiro suggested that Israel’s peaceful relationships with Egypt and Jordan have helped stabilize the region and avoid an escalation of violent incidents along Israel’s borders. For example, “Egypt and Israel have worked closely to keep a truce between Israel and Gaza going for the past year and a half. Jordan has, in the past, partnered with the United States to shape Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic discussions. Most recently, a warning by Jordan’s King Abdullah II against Israel annexing portions of the West Bank played an important role in taking that option off the table. Israel had something to lose with Jordan and did not want to incur the risk.”
As a result, Trump and Netanyahu were able to achieve the breakthrough with the UAE, which is already paying major diplomatic dividends for them both.
The progress is limited but nonetheless encouraging. Saudi Arabia and Oman are not yet ready to follow the example being set by the UAE and Bahrain. In fact, some observers have suggested that Saudi leaders are closely watching the Arab world’s reaction to Bahrain’s move as a test case before they venture any further in enhancing the public image of their alliance of convenience with Israel.
PALESTINIANS STILL IN DENIAL
Despite their recent setbacks, Palestinian leaders remain deeply steeped in denial. Erekat, for example, still insists that the Palestinian cause remains popular throughout the Arab world. “We know that for all the Arab peoples — despite the positions of some Arab regimes — that Jerusalem is their Jerusalem, that its holy sites are their holy sites, that Palestine is theirs, and that its martyrs are their martyrs,” he declared.
The truth is that Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are not going anywhere, and Israel’s leaders still have to find ways to manage the fact of their continued presence. But the resolution of the historic Israeli-Palestinian dispute is no longer anywhere near the top of Israel’s strategic agenda, nor that of its Sunni Arab neighbors. They can now afford to wait, maintaining the current uneasy status quo until a new generation of Palestinian leaders emerge, in Gaza and the West Bank, with whom more progress towards a lasting bilateral peace, perhaps in the context of a much broader regionwide agreement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, may be possible.