Six Things to Watch for at Israel-UAE-Bahrain Ceremony

From domestic to pandemic politics, electoral point scoring to weapon sales, what moves are expected to come from normalization?

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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U.S. President Donald Trump winks at Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., January 28, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump winks at Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., January 28, 2020. Credit: Brendan McDermid/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

At 7 P.M. Israel time, noon in Washington, D.C., U.S. President Donald Trump will host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, which will establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Arab Gulf states.

In the lead-up to the ceremony, here are several open ended questions that could impact how this historic event will be received in Israel, the Arab world and the United States.

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Will there be any reference to a Palestinian state?

Netanyahu has been saying for weeks now that the agreement with the UAE is built on the principle of "peace for peace," unlike previous peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries that included Israeli territorial concessions. However, the UAE has presented a more complicated picture in its public messaging, highlighting the fact that Netanyahu agreed to indefinitely halt annexation of parts of the West Bank as part of the deal, and insisting that the agreement would help the UAE pressure Israel to show more flexibility towards the Palestinians.

Hours before the ceremony, a senior Emirati official said in a press briefing that the full text of the agreement – which hasn't yet been made public – will include a reference to the two-state solution through the adoption of previous agreements that have been signed by Israel. It is worth watching what the text will exactly say, and whether Trump, Netanyahu or the Emirati and Bahraini representatives will actually speak from the stage about two states, Palestinian statehood and the fate of the settlements.

Demonstrators burn pictures of UAE, Barhain, Israel and U.S. leaders during a protest against the decisions by the Gulf states to normalize relations with Israel, Gaza, September 15, 2020.
Demonstrators burn pictures of UAE, Barhain, Israel and U.S. leaders during a protest against the decisions by the Gulf states to normalize relations with Israel, Gaza, September 15, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

What exactly is the United States giving the UAE?

For weeks, ever since the agreement with the UAE was first announced, there have been conflicting messages coming out from Washington, Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi with regards to the sale of F-35 stealth fighter planes and other advanced military systems to the UAE. Netanyahu has denied any Israeli 'green light' was given to the Americans for such a sale, but Emirati and American officials have hinted otherwise. Netanyahu has faced criticism back home in Israel for concealing this sensitive issue from his own government, as well as from the senior command of the IDF.

Trump reignited the controversy on Tuesday morning when he told Fox News during an interview that he has "no problem" with selling the F-35 to the UAE. The sale has created concern in Israel because of its potential impact on Israel's Qualitative Military Edge in the Middle East. Any mention of this at the event could damage Netanyahu's political standing in Israel, especially because this affair echoes the Submarine Scandal in which several of Netanyahu's close aides have been implicated.

How political will the event be?

The ceremony is taking place just a month and a half before the 2020 U.S. elections, at a time when many states already offer early voting opportunities. Trump's presidential campaign is running ads on social media about "bringing peace to the Middle East" and is counting on the event to bolster his standing on foreign policy. It remains to be seen, though, how explicit the politicization will be. Will any senior Democrats in Washington be invited to attend? How much flattery will Netanyahu direct at Trump in front of the cameras? Will Trump use the stage to attack his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden? And what will be the reactions to the agreement on Capitol Hill?

Will Netanyahu's rivals-turned-political allies be mentioned?

There are also questions related to Israeli politics. Netanyahu chose to deliberately not involve any other government ministers in the negotiations with the UAE, hoping to keep all the credit to himself. But the Trump administration has tried in recent months to keep a good working relationship with the leaders of Kahol Lavan, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. In fact, their opposition to unilateral settlement annexation helped sway the administration away from the idea, opening the door for the agreement with the UAE.

Will Trump mention Gantz, whom he met earlier this year in the White House? Will Netanyahu mention Ashkenazi, who had to provide him power of attorney on Tuesday to actually sign the agreement, after the Israeli attorney general clarified that only the foreign minister is legally certified to sign it.

Ashkenazi's term for giving Netanyahu the signature rights, by the way, was that the agreement will be brought to a vote before the government before it is officially enacted. Will that demand actually make it into the final text?

Benny Gantz (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 7, 2020.
Benny Gantz (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 7, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset

Will social distancing measures be respected?

Israel is about to enter a second lockdown this week, after the government lost control over the spread of COVID-19 across the country. Israelis will face severe restrictions on movement, and many businesses will have to shut down.

Under these circumstances, pictures from the ceremony showing Netanyahu and his entourage without masks and not adhering to social distancing could become fodder for the Israeli opposition, which is accusing Netanyahu of failing miserably in the fight against the pandemic.

Trump, however, is making a clear effort in recent days to claim that the United States has "turned the page" and that lockdowns and other measures to slow the pandemic are unnecessary. Trump has held massive rallies with hundreds of supporters without masks or social distancing. Will Tuesday's ceremony look like one of those rallies, or more like a responsible event where people adhere to the simple rules necessary to minimize the spread of the virus?

A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the coronavirus during a protest against him outside his official residence in Jerusalem, July 31, 2020.
A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the coronavirus during a protest against him outside his official residence in Jerusalem, July 31, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

Which countries will send their representatives to the ceremony?

The White House is hoping to see ambassadors and other representatives from as many countries as possible attending the event, but it's not clear right now how many will actually show up.

Although European countries on the whole have welcomed the deal, as of Tuesday afternoon, only Hungary confirmed they would be sending a representative to the ceremony. Elsewhere, Oman, widely seen as the next Arab country to consider normalization, has also announced they would be sending their ambassador.

Major attendance from senior European and Arab officials will be a 'win' for the Trump team and for Netanyahu; lower-level attendance, or no attendance at all, from these countries will be seen as somewhat of a consolation prize for the disgruntled Palestinian leadership.

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