In a surprising international development, on Friday President Trump announced that the Persian Gulf island Kingdom of Bahrain is joining the United Arab Emirates in normalizing relations with Israel. Leaders of the three nations will meet at the White House next week for an official signing ceremony.
The news came amidst the Trump administration’s diplomatic push for broader Middle East peace between Israel and its neighbors. The administration helped broker an August breakthrough in relations between the UAE and Israel, immediately opening up diplomatic, travel, and business relations between the two nations. With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu traveling to the United States next week for the signing of the historic agreement, President Trump has teased that another nation may participate in the signing ceremony.
“Next week at the White House we’ll be having a signing between the UAE and Israel, and we could have another country added into that. And I will tell you that countries are lining up that want to go into it,” Trump stated on Thursday during a press briefing at the White House.
“You’ll be hearing other countries coming in over a relatively short period of time. And you could have peace in the Middle East,” Trump said.
While insider expectations were that UAE’s neighboring country of Bahrain would be that additional nation that Trump alluded to, particularly given Bahrain’s overtures to Israel over the years, Trump’s announcement via Twitter on Friday confirmed it.
Trump also confirmed via a joint statement released by the three nations that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalif spoke via phone today and leaders from Bahrain are expected arrive in Washington to join the signing ceremony next week.
The news continues to reflect a rapidly changing diplomatic environment, which an embattled President Trump touts as key evidence of his foreign policy successes. Regardless of other controversies the President is finding himself mired in, Trump has received praise for his roles in the diplomatic breakthrough. Earlier in the week, Trump was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Norwegian legislator, and even President Trump’s Democratic rival for the presidency has begrudgingly acknowledged the President’s mideast success.
In a private recording of Biden speaking to a virtual fundraiser organized by the pro-Israel group J Street obtained by the Times of Israel, the former vice-president acknowledged the importance of the Israel-UAE agreement, even if he did so in an indirect fashion.
“I think Trump is going to accidentally do something positive here, in terms of this issue of… other Arab states.” Biden said. He continued, “Even our brethren in the Arab world… have come to realize that it is in their interest that there be a two-state solution [and] that Israel is able to live in peace and be recognized.”
In Israel, diplomats and business leaders are abuzz at the opening of ties between the two countries. With regular flights between the two countries now open (and allowed to transit over Saudi and Bahraini skies), delegations of bankers, investors, and other potential collaborators have been rapidly developing relationships with their Gulf counterparts. An example of the dramatic change in relations is the fact that on Thursday one of Abu Dhabi’s leading technology companies, Group 42, announced it is opening a wholly-owned subsidiary in Israel. Similarly, Israeli business leaders who were part of a delegation from Bank Hapaolim, one of Israel largest banks, began sharing pictures of their meetings in the UAE with their Emirati counterparts. To many in the region and the world, seeing such images was once unthinkable, particularly in the context of Trump’s announcement coming 19 years after the 9/11 tragedy when Americans woke up the risks of Middle East conflict.
Despite having clandestine trading and other relationships with Gulf nations for years, the opening of official relations between Israel and the Gulf nations comes as regional alliances are reshaped. Both Israel and the Gulf nations have an interest in containing Iran as a regional power, and a peaceful relationship with Israel likely also opens the door to the Gulf nations being able to purchase long-sought after advanced weaponry from the United States. The Gulf countries have also reportedly lost the willingness to be patient with Palestinian leadership’s inability to resolve its decades long conflict with Israel.
But there are also economic interests at play, and the combination of the two will pay clear dividends for both Israel and the Gulf nation’s interests. What is less clear, however, is how the new arrangements will impact the leaders of the countries, particularly in Israel where Prime Minister Netanyahu is under extreme pressure from his critics for how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic and the economic impacts of the crisis.
It is also unclear what the impact of his success in helping broker Middle East peace will be on President Trump’s political fortunes. The President remains locked in a fierce reelection contest, trailing Biden in most national polls. With Americans focused on interests at home, particularly the pandemic and the economy, it is unclear whether the impact of international success will have any meaningful impact the presidential race.
One thing is certain, however. As Israel and some of its Arab neighbors find greater opportunities for peaceful coexistence and co-operation, there is much to be optimistic about for both the region and the people who live in it…
Regardless of politics.