U.S. President Donald Trump hasn’t yet delivered the “deal of the century” he’s long sought in the Middle East, but his administration’s efforts have produced an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that even opponent Joe Biden is calling a historic step.
It’s an accomplishment that comes with plans for a White House signing ceremony on the cusp of the November presidential election. And it lets Trump claim a foreign policy win after he failed to deliver on efforts to secure a nuclear deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or force Iran’s leaders to the negotiating table through a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions.
Much has yet to be hashed out beyond the broad strokes outlined by Trump on Thursday: The UAE will move toward normalizing relations with Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to do so. And Israel will suspend further annexations in the West Bank.
“It has been a long-term, bipartisan goal to pursue normalization between Israel and Arab states,” Daniel Shapiro, an ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, said on Twitter. “The UAE-Israel announcement is good news, and breaks an important barrier. Everyone should welcome it.”
A lot can still go wrong. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled he still hopes Israel can eventually annex the West Bank, emphasizing the current freeze is temporary.
The Trump administration also made clear that it hopes other Gulf countries, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, will now follow the UAE’s lead. They do so at the risk of being seen seen as sabotaging the Palestinian cause and the anti-Israel sentiment that goes with it. Palestinian officials quickly condemned the UAE-Israel accord as a “betrayal.”
‘Kneecap this deal’
That rejection comes with the prospect of violence if it stirs up groups such as Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy. Even far right Israelis may be frustrated at the annexation suspension in the West Bank.
“Iran, Hezbollah, Israeli extremists, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood will all try to kneecap this deal with kinetic physical and cyberoperations,” said Paul Sullivan, an international security expert at the National Defense University in Washington. “Both Israel and the UAE need to be hyper-vigilant against threats on this.”
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Al Jazeera that the UAE move was a “stab against the Palestinian cause and will encourage the Israeli occupation to commit more aggression against our people.”
Asked about rejection by the Palestinians, Trump told reporters Thursday that “I think the Palestinians, without saying it necessarily — I think they very much want to be a part of what we’re doing.”
The unexpected announcement came after years of Trump administration efforts to broker a broad Middle East peace appeared to be foundering.
At the beginning of his term in 2017, Trump called on Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, to seek a sweeping agreement — that “deal of the century” — between Israel and the Palestinians. The efforts stalled after the Palestinians grew alienated by Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Kushner later laid out his plan, which promised economic investment for the Palestinians but annexation of swaths of the West Bank by Israel. Palestinian leaders quickly rejected it.
But ties between Israel and Gulf Arab states have warmed in recent years, in large part due to a shared distrust of Iran. Until now, they haven’t ripened into open relations, let alone normalization.
Kushner told reporters at the White House that UAE officials concerned about Israel’s annexation plans joined in secret talks over the past six weeks. That led to the decision to establish bilateral ties between Israel and the UAE in exchange for Netanyahu suspending his controversial annexation plan, Kushner said.
“We started a discussion with the UAE saying maybe this is something that we can do that shows that there’s a much greater interest to Israel in the short, medium, and long term than applying Israeli sovereignty,” said Kushner, who called Thursday’s announcement “a big breakthrough.”
Camp David accords
The deal would make Trump the third U.S. president — after Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — to get an Arab nation to establish ties with Israel. The planned White House signing ceremony will help Trump evoke the spirit of the original peace deal between Israel and Egypt facilitated by Carter as part of the Camp David accords in 1978.
The outcome will depend largely on how successful Israel and the UAE are in implementing their plan to normalize ties. The leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, made more nuanced comments than Trump on Thursday, saying that the UAE and Israel “agreed to cooperation and setting a road map toward establishing a bilateral relationship.”
For Trump, the move was a day of celebration. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, went as far as to suggest the president should be in the top tier of candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The president is going to be known in history as one of the changemakers and one of the remarkable leaders in the Middle East,” he said.
Yet a lot can still go awry, whether before or after the November election, according to Sullivan at National Defense University.
“This 4D chess game is far from over,” he said.
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