Israel struck a diplomatic agreement with the United Arab Emirates on Thursday to establish “full normalization of relations” even as it forgoes for now plans to annex occupied West Bank territory in order to focus on improving its ties with the rest of the Arab world.
In a surprise statement issued by the White House, President Trump said he brokered a deal that would lead to Israel and the Emirates signing a string of bilateral agreements on investment, tourism, security, technology, energy and other areas while moving to allow direct flights between their countries and set up reciprocal embassies.
“As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world,” according to a statement released by the White House and described as a joint declaration of Israel, the Emirates and the United States.
If fulfilled, the agreement would make the Emirates the third Arab country to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel after Egypt, which signed a landmark peace agreement in 1979, and Jordan, which signed a treaty in 1994. It could reorder the long stalemate in the region, potentially leading other Arab nations to follow suit in an increasingly open alignment with Israel against their mutual enemy in Iran while taking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explosive annexation plan off the table, at least for the moment.
But it generated an immediate backlash among some Israeli settlers and their political allies who have been eager to establish sovereignty over West Bank territory, as well as from Palestinians who felt abandoned by an Arab nation to remain locked in an untenable status quo even without the threat of annexation looming.
Mr. Trump summoned reporters to the Oval Office to hail the agreement, which he said was sealed during a call with Mr. Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates.
“This deal is a significant step toward building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East,” Mr. Trump said. “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.”
The extent of the president’s personal role in forging the deal beyond the final congratulatory phone call was not immediately clear. But he was eager to claim credit at a time when he has been struggling with a deadly pandemic and an economic collapse amid a re-election contest in which he trails his presumptive Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., by double digits in the polls.
Mr. Trump was surrounded in the Oval Office by a large delegation of aides and officials who heaped praise on him, including Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been spearheading Middle East peace efforts for more than three years.
The president said there would be a signing ceremony at the White House within weeks, echoing famous ceremonies in the past under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and he jokingly said it should be called the “Donald J. Trump Accord.” At a later briefing, Robert C. O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, even proclaimed that the president should win the Nobel Peace Prize.
As he has repeatedly in recent days, Mr. Trump predicted that he would strike a quick agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear agreement if he were re-elected, although there was no sign that such a rapprochement was really imminent. “If I win the election,” he said, “I will have a deal with Iran within 30 days.”
Both Israeli and Emirati leaders credited Mr. Trump and termed it a significant breakthrough after years of enmity. Mr. Netanyahu reposted a Twitter message from Mr. Trump announcing the agreement and added, in Hebrew: “A historic day.” President Reuven Rivlin of Israel praised the deal and invited Prince Mohammed to visit Jerusalem.
In his own tweet, Prince Mohammed emphasized Israel’s agreement to suspend annexation. “During a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories,” he wrote. “The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”
Mr. Biden congratulated both Israel and the Emirates in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Trump. He instead pointed back to his own work in the region as vice president while reminding the players of his opposition to annexation if he wins in November.
“I personally spent time with leaders of both Israel and the U.A.E. during our administration building the case for cooperation and broader engagement and the benefits it could deliver to both nations, and I am gratified by today’s announcement,” Mr. Biden said.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the agreement was “a win-win-win-lose” in that it provided diplomatic victories for the Emirates, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump. “The big losers are the Palestinians who have watched the Arab world move closer to Israel seemingly rewarding Netanyahu for ignoring the Palestinians and undermining Palestinians interests,” he said.
In Israel, the development came at a perilous moment for Mr. Netanyahu, who is leading a fragile, fractious coalition government and faces trial on corruption charges. His annexation promise, made repeatedly throughout three recent elections, had left him in a box after Mr. Kushner opposed his moving forward without working through Mr. Trump’s official peace plan. But shortly after the agreement on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu and his domestic rivals announced that they had made progress in coalition talks.
Benny Gantz, who fought Mr. Netanyahu to a draw in three successive elections and now serves as defense minister and as alternate prime minister, credited the prime minister and Mr. Trump.
“I am certain that the agreement will have many positive implications for the future of the entire Middle East and for Israel’s standing in the world and in the region,” he said in a statement. “I call upon other Arab nations to advance diplomatic relations in additional peace agreements.”
Still, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party argued on Thursday that the deal with the United Arab Emirates proved that the prime minister was right not to surrender territory to the Palestinians as part of any peace agreement, as has long been the formula promoted by the international community.
“The Israeli and global left always said it was impossible to bring peace with the Arab states in the absence of peace with the Palestinians,” the party said in a statement. “That there was no other way except withdrawal to the 1967 lines, the evacuation of settlements, the partition of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state. For the first time in history, Prime Minister Netanyahu has broken the paradigm of ‘land for peace’ and has brought ‘peace for peace.’”
Palestinian leaders have long opposed normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states because it would legitimize the continuing occupation and they quickly denounced the agreement on Thursday.
“This is a black day in the history of Palestine,” Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said in an interview. “This agreement is a total departure from the Arab consensus. The Palestinian people have not authorized anyone to make concessions to Israel in exchange for anything.”
Hamas, the rival group that controls Gaza, echoed that sentiment. “The American-Israeli-Emirati agreement is dangerous and tantamount to a free reward for the Israeli occupation for its crimes and violations at the expense of the Palestinian people,” Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement. “It will encourage Israel to perpetrate more crimes and violations at the expense of our people and its holy sites.”
On the other side, some on the Israeli right expressed anger at Mr. Netanyahu for breaking his annexation promise. In a televised news conference, he said annexation had been only “temporarily” postponed at the request of Mr. Trump to advance the peace move and he reaffirmed his commitment to applying Israeli sovereignty in parts of the West Bank.
“Just as I brought peace with an Arab country,” Mr. Netanyahu declared, “I will bring sovereignty.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the fragility of the nascent relations with Israel, Emirati representatives said that they expected Israel to characterize the halt to annexation as only a “pause,” but that in practical terms, the deal would most likely postpone the prospect of such a move until after the American presidential election. That might bring in an administration in Washington more opposed to the idea and could amount to an indefinite cancellation, the Emiratis argued.
The Emiratis insisted that the concrete steps toward normalization — including opening embassies — would be dependent on the continued halt of any annexation proposals. Those Emirati pledges, however, remained nonpublic and subject to potential revision.
In practical terms, the agreement makes public a de facto alliance between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that had long been an open secret in the region. For the Emirates, the agreement not only bolsters that relationship, it enhances the Emirati standing in Washington at a time when the Emirates has come under new criticism for its role in the civil war in Yemen and for its aggressive policies in Libya and elsewhere.
That Mr. Trump announced the agreement before either of the other parties suggested American politics may have figured prominently in the Emirati analysis.
For Israel, the agreement is the first public normalization of relations with any of the Persian Gulf monarchies — a long-sought diplomatic goal. After securing the recognition of its neighbors Egypt and Jordan years ago, the recognition of the oil-rich monarchies has been the biggest missing piece for Israel in establishing normal relations with the Arab world around it.
American diplomats involved in efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks say that Israeli diplomats often sought the normalization of relations with the Persian Gulf kingdoms as part of the process.
In recent months, Israel and the Emirates had collaborated covertly on combating the coronavirus, when the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, quietly acquired some equipment Israel needed to fight the coronavirus from Gulf States, according to European news media reports.
The impetus for the agreement can be traced back to early June, when Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates’ ambassador to the United States who has worked closely with the Trump administration, wrote an op-ed article in Israel’s popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper appealing directly to Israelis, in Hebrew, to deter Mr. Netanyahu from following through on his promise to annex occupied territory.
“Annexation will definitely, and immediately, reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and the United Arab Emirates,” Mr. al-Otaiba wrote at the time. The headline boiled it down to a clear trade-off: “It’s Either Annexation or Normalization.”
Mr. Kushner said that proved a turning point. “After that, we started a discussion with U.A.E. saying maybe this is something we can do,” he said. The Emiratis were open to the idea, he said, and so he then approached the Israelis. After six weeks of secret discussions, Mr. Kushner said they reached a preliminary agreement a week ago and finished the details on Wednesday.
Martin S. Indyk, who served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under President Barack Obama, said the deal gave both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu a way to escape a political box of their own making with the annexation drive.
“It gets Trump out of the corner he was in having agreed to legitimizing the settlements and then discovering that the Arab world had a problem with that,” he said. “Now he’s got something he can claim credit for.”
Adam Rasgon and Ben Hubbard contributed reporting.