Israel struck an 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 will lead to Israel and the U.A.E. 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 U.A.E. and the United States.
If fulfilled, the agreement would make the U.A.E. 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 between Israel and its neighbors, potentially leading other Arab nations to follow suit while taking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explosive annexation plan off the table at least for the moment.
But it could also generate a backlash among Israeli settlers and their political allies who have been anxious to establish sovereignty over West Bank territory as well as from Palestinians who feel abandoned by an Arab ally 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 telephone call with Mr. Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the U.A.E.
“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 role in forging the deal 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 Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., by double digits in a series of polls.
He 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. Mr. Trump said there will be a signing ceremony at the White House within weeks, echoing famous ceremonies in the past under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
As he has repeatedly in recent days, Mr. Trump also predicted that he would strike a quick agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear agreement if he is re-elected, although there is no sign that such a rapprochement is really in the offing. “If I win the election, I will have a deal with Iran within 30 days,” he said.
Both Israeli and Emirati leaders credited Mr. Trump and termed it a significant breakthrough after years of enmity. Mr. Netanyahu reposted a tweet from Mr. Trump announcing the agreement and added, in Hebrew: “A historic day.”
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 road map towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”
In a statement of his own, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo compared the agreement to the peace treaties Israel forged decades ago with Egypt and Jordan. “Today’s normalization agreement between Israel and the Emirates holds similar potential and the promise for a better day for the entire region,” he said.
The White House announcement came several weeks after Mr. Netanyahu announced a new partnership with the U.A.E. to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus, portraying it as a breakthrough, only to be embarrassed when the Emiratis issued a much more limited statement just hours later describing an agreement between private companies.
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 Likud party suggested that the deal with the U.A.E. proved that the prime minister was right not to surrender territory to the Palestinians as part of any peace agreement.
“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.’”
Benny Gantz, who fought Mr. Netanyahu to a draw in three successive elections and now serves as defense minister and 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.”
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, immediately denounced the agreement.
“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.”
Speaking on 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 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 — will 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 U.A.E. that had long been an open secret in the region. For the U.A.E., the agreement not only bolsters that relationship, it enhances the Emirati standing in Washington at a time when the U.A.E. 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 marks 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 Persian Gulf 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 U.A.E. 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 initial idea for the agreement may 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 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.
“It’s impossible to annex — and to continue to hope for a good relationship with the Arab world,” the print headline declared.
“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 Trump administration, the Israelis and the Emiratis then essentially “turned that idea on its head,” said Martin S. Indyk, who served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under President Barack Obama. “They explored the idea that if there was no annexation, could there be normalization,” Mr. Indyk said, “and instead of President Trump legitimizing annexation,” which had become fraught and complicated, “getting a commitment from Israel to stop annexation in return for normalization.”
Reporting was contributed by Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut.