President Donald Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and foreign ministers of two Arab Gulf states on Tuesday.
They were at the White House to sign an agreement called the Abraham Accords, which will normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Since the deal’s announcement, Israel appears to be backing away from annexing the West Bank. At least for now. But for many Palestinians, that’s hardly a victory, prompting many to consider that it's time for new leadership.
“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history,” said Trump, who helped broker the deal, addressing a crowd on the South Lawn. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.”
Even before Tuesday’s ceremony, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, was preparing for new tourism opportunities.
Last week, hotels in Abu Dhabi got a letter from the Department of Culture and Tourism that advised them to start including kosher meals on their menus and to designate a separate area in the kitchen for the preparation of kosher food.
This public statement would have been unthinkable not long ago. And it’s one example of what normalization between Arab Gulf states and Israel looks like on the ground.
The UAE-Israel deal will reportedly include direct flights, tourism, economic investments and more.
Israeli relations with some Gulf states is not new, said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and director of the Institute’s program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs in Washington.
“But in the past, those relationships were kind of under the table. Now, they’re announcing to the world that they’re openly having these relations.”
“But in the past, those relationships were kind of under the table. Now, they’re announcing to the world that they’re openly having these relations,” he said.
Elgindy explained that the Arab states didn’t publicize their dealings with Israel in part because of the Arab Peace Initiative, drawn up by the Saudis in 2002.
In that accord, Arab nations endorsed the idea of normalizing ties with Israel, if the Israelis ended their occupation and gave the Palestinians a state of their own.
“So, that’s why many Palestinians are upset because they view this as violating the Arab consensus, and for Palestinians, it’s kind of giving away an important piece of leverage that they have," said Elgindy.
“It’s a stab in the back to be quite honest," said Diana Buttu, a lawyer based in the West Bank.
“The idea that we see countries like the UAE and Bahrain normalizing with Israel, what they’re really, in effect doing, is saying that Israel’s behavior is acceptable when it’s actually not acceptable. International law says that it’s not acceptable.”
Buttu, a former spokeswoman with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, added that when the two other Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt, signed peace agreements with Israel, they got back land that Israel had seized.
“But in this case, this hasn’t happened at all,” she said.
Hussein Ibish, with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, views the Abraham Accords as a major success for the Trump administration.
The two Gulf states have a shared interest in forming an alliance, he said, most importantly in an effort to counter Iran and Turkey, their two regional rivals.
“The UAE is the proverbial fox that has many many different ideas, many different agenda items,” Ibish said.
The country wants to purchase powerful weapons from the US, including the “F35 fifth-generation fighter, the Growler Electronic Warfare plane, reaper drones with precision guidance and other things.”
Ibish said that in the past few years, the Gulf states have witnessed the US stepping away from the region. President Trump has repeatedly said he wants the US military out of the Middle East. So, according to Ibish, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel are all looking to forge closer regional relationships “even with countries that a few years ago they would have thought it’s impossible — precisely in the context of a waning US presence.”
As part of the normalization, Israel and the UAE will expand their intelligence sharing and surveillance technology, Ibish said.
That worries Maryam al-Khawaja, a human rights activist from Bahrain who was forced into exile in Denmark.
“We have already seen in the past how the Gulf states and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have benefited from buying surveillance technology and other forms of technology from the Israeli government that they’ve used to oppress their own local populations,” Khawaja said.
Khawaja said some Bahrainis have expressed anger about the kingdom’s deal with Israel, knowing that dissent is likely to get them into trouble.
“We’re looking at oppressive, absolute monarchies who control everything, and therefore, what the monarchies do represent only themselves and not the populations.”
“We’re looking at oppressive, absolute monarchies who control everything, and therefore, what the monarchies do represent only themselves and not the populations,” she said.
The Abraham Accords have prompted some Palestinians to question their leadership, according to Dana El Kurd, who teaches at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
“People are starting to voice their disgust and anger with Palestinian leadership at letting the situation devolve to this degree and rightfully accusing them of having no strategy,” Kurd said.
Buttu, the lawyer in the West Bank, also thinks it’s time for new elections.
“If you were born anytime after 1989, you’ve not been able to vote in any Palestinian election,” Buttu said, “and I think really now is the time for us to be looking at this leadership and asking the question not only is this the correct leadership but whether this is the right path.”
Kurd believes the Palestinians should walk away from the Oslo Accords that the Palestinian Liberation Organization signed with Israel in the 1990s. As painful as it is, she said, Palestinians should elect new leaders and put forward a new set of demands.
“We have a lot of Palestinian expertise out there, we have young leadership, we have a lot of people studying this. They can all help to provide a framework for Palestinian Liberation that’s outside the two-state solution and present that to the international community.”
“We have a lot of Palestinian expertise out there, we have young leadership, we have a lot of people studying this. They can all help to provide a framework for Palestinian Liberation that’s outside the two-state solution and present that to the international community,” Kurd said.
In the meantime, the Trump administration hopes the normalization deals with Israel open the door to other Arab states. The big question is Saudi Arabia — the kingdom hasn’t publicly agreed to a deal yet, but it did allow an Israeli plane to fly over its airspace after the UAE-Israel accord.
And, Oman applauded Bahrain’s decision to make a deal with the Israelis, a sign that it could be next.