DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates and Israel have agreed to establish full diplomatic ties as part of a deal to halt the annexation of occupied land sought by the Palestinians for their future state, President Donald Trump said Thursday.
The announcement makes the UAE the first Gulf Arab state to do so and only the third Arab nation to have active diplomatic ties with Israel.
“Today we usher in a new era of peace between Israel and the Arab world,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a nationally televised statement. “There is a good chance we will soon see more Arab countries joining this expanding circle of peace.”
In a statement released after an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership, the Palestinians called the agreement a “betrayal” and demanded it be retracted.
Netanyahu also said in the broadcast that the Trump administration asked that Israel put its West Bank annexation plans on hold to move forward with the agreement with the UAE.
He said there was “no change” to his plans to annex parts of the West Bank but added they were on “temporary hold” and that implementing annexation would be done with U.S. coordination.
His remarks appeared aimed at placating influential settlers who were angered by Israel’s shelving of plans to annex parts of the West Bank. But they contradicted statements from Emirati officials who viewed annexation as off the table.
Trump tweeted a statement from the countries, acknowledging the deal. He then told reporters in the Oval Office that it was “a truly historic moment.”
“Now that the ice has been broken I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the deal “a remarkable achievement for two of the world’s most forward leaning, technologically advanced states, and reflects their shared regional vision of an economically integrated region.”
Among Arab nations, only Egypt and Jordan have active diplomatic ties with Israel. Egypt made a peace deal with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. Mauritania recognized Israel in 1999, but later ended relations in 2009 over the Israel’s war in Gaza at the time.
In addition to Trump, the main U.S. mediators were the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, special Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz, special envoy for Iran Brian Hook and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
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The UAE is a U.S.-allied federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. Formed in 1971, the country like other Arab nations at the time did not recognize Israel over its occupation of land home to the Palestinians.
“Arab oil is not dearer than Arab blood,” the UAE’s founding ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, once pronounced when agreeing to an oil boycott over U.S. military support to Israel in the 1973 Mideast war.
The UAE relied on white-collar Palestinians in creating its nation. Over time, it maintained its stance that Israel allow the creation of a Palestinian state on land it seized in the 1967 war.
But in recent years, ties between Gulf Arab nations and Israel have quietly grown, in part over their shared enmity of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Prince Mohammed also shares Israel’s distrust of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency framed the deal as not just a move that helps the UAE and Israel, but one that also benefits the Palestinians. Top Emirati official Anwar Gargash said the move dealt a “death blow” to moves by Israel to annex Palestinian lands.
It remains unclear what prompted Israel and the UAE to make the announcement now. In June, the UAE ambassador to the U.S. warned in an Israeli newspaper op-ed that Israel’s planned annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the occupied West Bank would “upend” Israel’s efforts to improve ties with Arab nations.
The agreement gives Netanyahu a domestic boost at a time when Israel’s shaky coalition government is plagued by infighting and facing the possibility of early elections and when Netanyahu faces a corruption trial on charges of accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud in a series of scandals. Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet as the country grapples with a renewed coronavirus outbreak and skyrocketing unemployment as the result of earlier lockdowns.
Still, by putting on hold the annexation plan Netanyahu may be hedging his bets ahead of a possible change in the White House. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has made clear that he would oppose any moves by Israel to unilaterally redraw the Mideast map and annex lands sought by the Palestinians. He called the agreement between Israel and the UAE “a historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East.”
Netanyahu also risked criticism inside his own hard-line Likud Party, whose members strongly supported annexation. Netanyahu appears to be betting that Likud members — and the small, but influential settler movement — will agree the peace agreement delivers more benefits than unilateral annexation. Opinion polls have shown that annexation is not a high priority for the vast majority of the Israeli public.
Echoing Netanyahu, Kushner said: “Israel’s agreed to suspend those efforts at this time.”
Abandoning its annexation plan changes little on the ground. Israel already holds overall control of the West Bank and continues to expand its settlements there, while granting the Palestinians autonomy in a series of disconnected enclaves. Some 500,000 Israelis live in the rapidly expanding West Bank settlements.
Next year, Israel will take part in the UAE’s delayed Expo 2020, the world’s fair in Dubai. A secret synagogue also draws practicing Jews in Dubai. The UAE also has announced plans to build the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which will house a mosque, a church and a synagogue.
Israelis traveling with Western passports routinely enter the UAE without a problem, though one still can’t make a phone call between the two countries. Israelis also work in Dubai’s gold and diamond trade as well.
Emirati officials also have allowed Israeli officials to visit and the Israeli national anthem was played after an athlete won gold in an Abu Dhabi judo tournament. Israel also has a small mission representing its interests at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.
Lee reported from Bled, Slovenia, and Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington, Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.