UAE, Bahrain to normalise ties with Israel at White House signing ceremony


US President Donald Trump on Tuesday will preside over the signing of historic diplomatic deals between Israel and the Gulf states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that could herald a dramatic shift in Middle East power dynamics and boost his reelection hopes.

The event on the White House South Lawn, attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE, will be the first time the two Arab nations have established relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

“All sides are excited,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters.

Hundreds of people are invited to attend, and a symbolic handshake between the Arab representatives and Netanyahu is not ruled out, the official said.

“Coronavirus (is) in the background of everybody’s minds, although everybody will have been tested,” he said.

For the Mideast, the deals dubbed the Abraham Accords 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.

“It’s not a peace deal, it’s a normalisation of ties,” said FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Irris Makler. The move is truly significant, she added, “but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, because they were enemies with whom Israel had been at war.”

Sceptics, including many longtime Mideast observers, have expressed doubts about the impact of the deals and lamented that they ignore the Palestinians, who have rejected them as a stab in the back by fellow Arabs. 

Yet even the harshest critics have allowed that they could usher in a seismic shift in the region should other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, follow suit,

Feeling increasingly abandoned, Palestinian leaders on Sunday urged demonstrations in the occupied territories and outside embassies of the United States, Israel, Bahrain and the UAE to protest what they called “shameful agreements”.

But other, powerful forces are transforming the playing field in the region.

Hostility towards Iran

All four countries celebrating at the White House on Tuesday share a common hostility towards Iran, which Trump has put under crippling economic and diplomatic pressure.

The thaw will also 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 coronavirus pandemic.

Trump will enjoy the optics of presiding over a historic breakthrough less than 50 days before election day, which opinion polls show he is currently on course to lose.

After an often bruising, chaotic first term on the diplomatic front, Tuesday’s event is seen as a rare piece of good news that even some Democratic critics have applauded.

Netanyahu, a close Trump ally who faces a corruption trial and criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, could also use a dose of good news coverage.

“It’s Netanyahu’s victory almost as much as it is Israel’s,” said FRANCE 24’s Makler.

The UAE, meanwhile, has been using the negotiations as part of its campaign to pressure Washington to override Israeli objections and sell it the cutting edge F-35 warplane.

Trump has keenly promoted weapons sales during his government and would clearly be happy to tout job-creating announcements before the election.

Face masks ‘not required’

Details of exactly what’s in the Abraham Accords remain sketchy, with the documents yet to be published. The White House official said that there would be one common document and then separate bilateral agreements between Israel and the two Arab countries.

The lack of clarity even a day before the ceremony has raised some suspicions about the durability of the agreements.

Another important element left unclear on the eve of the signing was whether the large crowd expected at the White House would respect anti-coronavirus protocols.

Nearly 195,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the US.

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Trump, rarely seen in a mask, is leading a charge in the United States to lift restrictions, saying that the worst is over and Americans need to get back to normal life.

The senior administration official said mask wearing was encouraged but “we’re not going to require anybody to do so”.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Netanyahu is facing questions about appearing at such a large event just days after he announced a new nationwide lockdown to fight a surge in coronavirus cases that will impose severe restrictions on movement and gatherings.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)