DUBAI/JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump on Thursday (Aug 14) managed to pull off a rare victory for US diplomacy in the Middle East ahead of his Nov 3 re-election bid by helping to broker a deal between American allies Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Gulf monarchy and Israel agreed to a normalisation of diplomatic relations. Israel also said it would suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank.
Soon after he sealed the agreement by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of his strongest supporters, and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Trump called it a "HUGE breakthrough" on Twitter and told reporters other similar Middle East deals are in the works.
"Everybody said this would be impossible," Trump said.
"After 49 years," Trump added, "Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalise their diplomatic relations. They will exchange embassies and ambassadors, and begin cooperation across the board and on a broad range of areas, including tourism, education, healthcare, trade and security"
The chance to play global statesman was compelling for Trump, who trails in public opinion polls ahead of what is shaping up as a tough election battle against Democratic challenger Joe Biden and has struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has battered the US economy.
Two of the Republican president's primary Middle East endeavors have sputtered in the past year. The new agreement, known as the Abraham Accord, has the potential to impact both.
Trump has been unable to negotiate what has been billed as the "deal of the century" between Israel and the Palestinians, and a peace plan he proposed in January that heavily favored the Israelis has not advanced in any significant way.
Trump, who walked away from the international nuclear deal with Iran, also has been unable to get concessions from Teheran in spite of a "maximum pressure" campaign aimed at isolating the Iranians.
Israel and the UAE, along with the another strong regional US ally in Saudi Arabia, count Iran as an important enemy, bolstering their joint opposition to Teheran.
Brian Hook, the US State Department's lead official on Iran who will be leaving his post soon, said the new agreement amounted to a "nightmare" for Iran in its efforts against Israel in the region.
The UAE said it would remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people, who hope to create an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and that the agreement maintained the viability of a two-state solution to the longstanding Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In a tweet, the UAE's Crown Prince confirmed the deal: "During a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship," Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed said.
UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said any further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory would have ended hopes for peace in the region. In an interview with Sky News Arabia after the announcement of the deal, he said the UAE had dismantled a ticking time bomb that was threatening the two state solution.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, asked how long Israel might suspend its annexation plan, said it was unclear but that the administration wanted to give other countries in the region a chance to seal similar agreements with Israel.
"We've prioritised peace over the sovereignty movement but it's not off the table. It's just something that will be deferred until we give peace every single chance," he told reporters at the White House.
The accord could be a personal boost to Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption and whose domestic popularity has dropped over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a televised address, Netanyahu said the deal would lead to "full and formal peace" with the UAE and voiced hope that other countries in the region would follow its example. It also entailed acceding to a request from Trump to "temporarily wait"on implementing his annexation pledge, he said.
"It's an incomparably exciting moment, a historic moment for peace in the Middle East," Netanyahu said.
Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi accused the UAE of "normalisation" with Israel.
Ms Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on Twitter: "The UAE has come out in the open on its secret dealings/normalisation with Israel. Please don't do us a favour. We are nobody's fig leaf!"
White House officials said Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz were deeply involved in negotiating the deal, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien.
Delegations from Israel and the UAE will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the statement said.
The two countries are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was holding meetings with aides.
Asked if the Palestinian leadership had been aware the deal was coming, Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, told Reuters: "No. ... We were blindsided. Their secret dealings are now completely out in the open. It is a complete sell-out."
In Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the armed Islamist group Hamas, told Reuters, "Normalisation is a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause and it serves only the Israeli occupation."
The UAE's Sheikh Mohammed said the agreement would stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, for which Israel had been awaiting a green light from Washington.
Senior UAE official Anwar Gargash said the deal had helped defuse what he called a ticking time-bomb. He urged the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
'NIGHTMARE' FOR IRAN
Trump's special envoy Brian Hook called the agreement a"nightmare" for Iran.
The agreement will not secure peace in the region, a special adviser on international affairs to the speaker of Iran's parliament wrote on Twitter. The Tasnim news agency, affiliated with Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, called it "shameful".
Iran and Israel are arch foes. Israel is particularly concerned about suspected Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Iran is also involved in proxy wars from Syria to Yemen, where the UAE has been a leading member of the Saudi-led coalition opposing Iran-aligned forces there.
With a population of less than 10 million but the Arab world's second-largest economy thanks to oil, the UAE has exerted growing commercial and military clout in the Gulf and the wider region over the past two decades, much of it aimed at confronting Islamist militants and the influence of Iran.
Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the joint statement said.
The two countries, which agreed in June to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus in a sign of closer ties, are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies.
A signing ceremony is due to be held at the White House in the coming weeks.
"Everybody said this would be impossible," Trump said. "Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates' lead," Trump added.
This was already being discussed with other states, he said.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed"any initiative that can promote peace and security in the Middle East region," a UN spokesman said.
Guterres had urged Israel in June to abandon plans to annex settlements in the West Bank, warning that this threatened prospects for peace with the Palestinians.