In the wake of the announcement of the U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish formal relations, an Israeli delegation is scheduled to travel to the Gulf this week to discuss the details.
Israel and the United States are holding contacts with additional states, including Bahrain and Oman, over the possibility of joining the regional move.
White House sources told Haaretz they hope that within a few weeks, presumably in early September, they will hold a formal signing ceremony that the leaders of all states involved will attend.
Over the next few weeks, Israel and the UAE are expected to discuss the details of bilateral agreements on topics including investment, agriculture, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, health care, culture and the environment. The parties will also discuss the establishment of reciprocal embassies.
There are already secret offices representing Israeli interests in the Gulf, but in his statement on the treaty Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced “the establishment of a full and formal peace” that “includes the mutual opening of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors.” Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, who led the efforts to obtain the agreement, also said the deal involves embassies in both countries.
Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat is coordinating the preparations for the talks between the delegations, in cooperation with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who led the contacts together with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. The Foreign Ministry and Foreign Minister Gabi Askhenazi were not key partners in the development and were briefed on it only after the White House issued its formal announcement.
Netanyahu and his close aides emphasized during many conversations over the weekend that the agreement is based on the formula of “peace for peace” and not “peace for territory,” in other words, that Israel was not asked to make concessions on the Palestinian issue in order to formalize the relations with the UAE. But at a White House news conference hours after the agreement was announced, President Donald Trump made it clear that in exchange for the deal, Israel had agreed not to move forward with its plan to annex West Bank settlements. UAE officials said this as well.
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When Trump was asked about Netanyahu’s claim that annexation was only “temporarily suspended,” the president said: “Israel agreed not to do it. It is more than taking it off the table. They agreed not to do it. I think his is a very smart concession by Israel. [Annexation] is off the table now.”
But U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who is an enthusiastic supporter of annexation, added during that news conference that it was only a temporary suspension. Trump referred a few of the questions about annexation to Friedman, who told the reporters that “it’s off the table now, but it’s not off the table permanently. ... I think you can’t do [peace and annexation] at the same time. ... We’ve prioritized peace over the sovereignty movement, but it’s not off the table.”
When asked whether the United States has asked Israel to permanently consider abandoning annexation, Friedman replied: “No, this is a temporary process. There’s been no request.” He added: “The word ‘suspend’ was chosen carefully by all the parties. ... [Annexation is] off the table now, but it’s not off the table permanently.”
In his opening remarks at the press briefing, Trump noted that “Israel is also suspending settlements in the West Bank, which is a big deal.”
In response to a question from Haaretz asking for clarification, the White House said Trump was referring to the suspension of the annexation plan, and not to a freeze on construction in the settlements, as some people understood Trump’s remark.
In Trump’s remarks and in Kushner’s briefing on the topic, it was emphasized that the Israel-UAE agreement will allow Muslims from Gulf states that join the accords to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. “This is also great for people of both religions; that’s why we call this the ‘Abraham Accords,’” Trump said. “You have a lot of people who want to be able to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And they can now take flights from Abu Dhabi or Dubai to Israel to do so. This will show the Muslim world that the mosque is open and welcome for all people to pray. That’s a narrative that a lot of the extremists and the Iranians have tried to push that they need to cause instability so that they can save the mosque. The mosque is available for people to go visit. And then this makes it much easier for people to do that.”
Kushner added at the briefing that the idea behind the move to bring Israel and the moderate Gulf states closer began with Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. The current agreement has been in the works for a year and a half and became more serious after the administration’s Middle East peace plan was published. Kusher said the op-ed in June 2020 by UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba proposing “annexation or normalization” was the moment the idea become concrete.
Kushner said that Israel’s intention to apply sovereignty to territories in the West Bank was something UAE thought would delay the progress they had made in the region. He added that after Otaiba’s op-ed, “we started a discussion with UAE, saying maybe this is something we can do.” Kushner said that after Otaiba’s piece, the negotiations kicked into high gear over a deal for normalization instead of annexation. The talks ended only around a week ago.
On Thursday the UAE’s foreign ministry stressed that the country has been working intensely in recent months on the goal of stopping the annexation. “The tripartite talks led to an agreement to stop the Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands,” the ministry’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “The United Arab Emirates acted with vigor these past few months in order to achieve this diplomatic accomplishment that will bring stability to the area and advance the peace process.”
U.S. officials believe Bahrain and Oman are likely to be next in line to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Both states expressed support for the agreement, and Netanyahu thanked Bahrain, Oman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi for their support. Iran and Turkey, in contrast, are among the deals’ chief detractors.
For years, the overt and covert ties between Israel and the Gulf states, including the UAE, Bahrain and Oman, have been growing increasingly closer, together with additional states including Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all of this against the backdrop of the mutual tensions with Iran. Netanyahu has met openly with Gulf rulers on a number of occasions, including at last year’s Warsaw Conference. In late 2018, Netanyahu made a public visit to Oman. Israeli representatives, businesspeople and security officials fly to Gulf states regularly. The new agreements are expected to formalize these previously informal relations.