President Donald Trump on Thursday announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will normalize diplomatic relations, hailing the news as a major breakthrough that will “advance peace in the Middle East.”
The deal, while preliminary, represents a rare diplomatic win for Trump, a self-styled dealmaker who has struggled to advance negotiations with foes like Iran North Korea. It also represents a rare U.S. victory in the Middle East, where the lines of conflict have barely budged since the 1970s.
Trump spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed on Thursday, according to a joint statement issued by the three leaders.
“All three countries face many common challenges and will mutually benefit from today’s historic agreement,” the statement read.
“By uniting two of America’s closest and most capable partners in the region, something which said could not be done, this deal is a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous Middle East,” Trump said while announcing the news at the Oval Office. “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.”
The president said the deal was the biggest step towards peace in the region in the past 25 years.
“Everybody said this would be impossible,” Trump said.
As part of the agreement, Israel will suspend its plans to annex parts of land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. Instead, according to the statement, it will “focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”
Israeli and Emirati delegations are set to sign wide-ranging bilateral agreements in planned meetings in the following weeks, on areas spanning from establishing embassies to the fostering tourism.
“Opening direct ties between two of the Middle East’s most dynamic societies and advanced economies will transform the region by spurring economic growth, enhancing technological innovation, and forging closer people-to-people relations,” the statement read.
Trump said the deal would also allow Muslims from across the world to visit important historic sites in Israel.
The announcement was the groundbreaking result of years of slow, often secret efforts at building ties between the two countries.
The deal is driven in large part by Israel and the UAE’s shared fear of a common foe: the Islamist regime in Iran. But it also comes as the cause of the Palestinians has faded amid a sclerotic leadership in Ramallah and widespread frustration over the repeated failure of U.S.-led peace efforts.
A U.S. diplomat told POLITICO that in the United States, the issue was handled by a small circle, led by Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and his deputy, Middle East peace envoy Avi Berkowitz. Kushner was a primary architect of a Trump administration peace proposal for the Israelis and Palestinians that came down largely in favor of what Israel wanted.
“It’s precedent-setting,” the U.S. diplomat said. “If one Gulf country can do it, why not the others? It opens the door to potentially a cascade of similar openings.” Although the diplomat stressed that it’s never simple to predict what will happen in the Middle East, countries like Oman and Bahrain could follow the UAE’s lead. A country like Saudi Arabia might take longer.
The UAE was also motivated by the polarized geopolitics of the Middle East, where countries have split into roughly two opposing camps centered around their stance toward Israel: Iran, Turkey and Qatar as the “resistance” axis; and Saudi Arabia, UAE and to a lesser extent Egypt in the pro-U.S. camp.
But while ties between the U.S. and the Arab Gulf states have blossomed under Trump, Democrats have been harshly critical of Saudi Arabia over the murder of Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi. The civilian toll of the Saudi-UAE war with pro-Iran forces in Yemen, meanwhile, has damaged the Emiratis’ standing with powerful lawmakers in Congress.
The UAE’s diplomatic effort was “seriously spurred by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which pushed the UAE once again to differentiate itself from Saudi Arabia,” said Jon Alterman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International who regularly leads trips to the UAE.
“The desire, surely, is to appeal to Democrats, who had been growing more openly skeptical of the UAE, but that is only one element,” Alterman said, noting that the Emiratis have been leery of the perception that they have grown too close to Trump in a divided Washington where power can swing dramatically between parties every two or four years.
Rob Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that the UAE was “handsomely paid” when the Trump administration last year pushed through sales of billions in advanced military hardware, including weapons systems that would normally be subject to U.S. restrictions meant to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge.”
The deal also leaves the Palestinians, who have rejected the Trump administration’s peace plans as overly biased toward Israel, even more isolated — even as they managed to forestall Israeli moves toward outright annexation of parts of the West Bank.
“I’m sure the Palestinians will be hopping mad, but I’m not sure they’ve lost much here, practically, and avoiding annexation can only be an excellent thing for them,” said Husain Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “On the other hand, it does suggest that Israel can make major progress with Arab countries without giving up anything they’ve already secured in the occupied territories, which is great news for Israel. And, in that sense, very bad for the Palestinians.”