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What We Learned From Trump's Israel‐UAE‐Bahrain Signing Ceremony

After the signing ceremony, it’s possible to offer a clear assessment of the new agreements’ benefits – and weaknesses

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Trump and the representatives from Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony in Washington, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.
Trump and the representatives from Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony in Washington, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.Credit: Alex Brandon,AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

On Tuesday afternoon, three hours before the beginning of the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House, Haaretz published a list of open-ended questions about the event, which we hoped would influence its reception in Israel, the United States and the Arab world. All of these questions were answered during the course of the ceremony, and now it’s possible to offer a clear assessment of the new agreement’ benefits – and weaknesses.

The first question we posed was whether or not there will be any reference to Palestinian statehood, or the old two-state solution formula, either in the text of the agreements or in the public speeches by U.S. President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

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In the lead-up to the ceremony, Netanyahu emphasized that the agreement is completely independent of the Palestinian issue, and includes no concessions toward the Palestinians. Trump and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain offered a more nuanced interpretation of the agreement’s impact on the Palestinian arena. The American president said that he wants the Palestinians to also become part of the broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world, while the Arab foreign ministers spoke in clear terms about Israel’s decision to halt settlement annexation indefinitely.

Prior to the ceremony, a senior Emirati official also said that the agreement would provide his country with the ability to apply more pressure on Israel to show flexibility toward the Palestinians – not exactly the way Netanyahu sold it to the Israeli public.

We also asked how politicized the event will be, considering that it was taking place just a month and a half before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The answer to that question arrived early in the event when Trump, sitting next to Netanyahu in the Oval Office, mocked his election rival, “Sleepy” Joe Biden, and spoke about reaching a comprehensive agreement with Iran if he wins a second term in the White House.

Trump helped Netanyahu immensely in Israel’s three election cycles between April 2019 and March 2020. At times it looked like his administration was an international extension of the Likud campaign. And on Monday, Netanyahu paid back the favor with an endless stream of flattery in front of the cameras. Trump is currently down in most public opinion polls and is facing strong criticism over his failed handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Netanyahu’s de-facto endorsement of his leadership could help him solidify his standing with Christian evangelical voters, who are a key part of his electoral coalition, and maybe even help him win some new supporters in the U.S. Jewish community.

Another question we asked was whether there would be any reference to Netanyahu’s political rivals-turned-partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who played a key role in “killing” Netanyahu’s annexation plan by telling Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, that they opposed it. Their anti-annexation “crusade” with the American administration helped divert the White House toward the other option: a diplomatic breakthrough with the Gulf states. But the two former Israel Defense Forces generals, who were not invited to attend the ceremony, received no credit whatsoever.

For Ashkenazi, however, there was a small consolation prize: Hours before the event, Israel’s attorney general notified Netanyahu that the prime minister has no legal authority to sign the agreement, and that he needs to receive power of attorney from the foreign minister in order to do so. Ashkenazi agreed to give Netanyahu the needed authorization, but under one condition: that the agreement will not take effect before being approved by the entire government – a tiny humiliation for Netanyahu, and an important win for Israeli democracy.

The last two questions we put forward had to do with the event’s theatrics: Would social distancing measures be observed, and which countries would send their representatives to attend it? The Trump administration took pride in the fact that the ambassadors of two other Arab countries – Oman and Sudan – were present at the ceremony. The vast majority of European countries, however, did not send their ambassadors, and neither did Jordan. As for coronavirus prevention measures, they were almost entirely absent, and the pandemic that has ravaged the world economy, led to the deaths of nearly 200,000 Americans and is about to send Israel into a second lockdown within a year wasn’t even mentioned, as if it were taking place in a different world.

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