WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Thursday managed to pull off a rare victory for US diplomacy in the Middle East ahead of his November 3 re-election bid by helping to broker a deal between American allies Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Gulf monarchy and Israel agreed to a normalization of diplomatic relations. Israel also said it would suspend annexing areas of the occupied West Bank as it had been planning to do.
Soon after he sealed the agreement by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of his strongest supporters, and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Trump called it a "HUGE breakthrough" on Twitter and told reporters other similar Middle East deals are in the works.
"Everybody said this would be impossible," Trump said.
"After 49 years," Trump added, "Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalize their diplomatic relations. They will exchange embassies and ambassadors, and begin cooperation across the board and on a broad range of areas, including tourism, education, healthcare, trade and security."
The chance to play global statesman was compelling for Trump, who trails in public opinion polls ahead of what is shaping up as a tough election battle against Democratic challenger Joe Biden and has struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has battered the US economy.
Two of the Republican president's primary Middle East endeavors have sputtered in the past year. The new agreement, known as the Abraham Accord, has the potential to impact both.
Trump has been unable to negotiate what has been billed as the "deal of the century" between Israel and the Palestinians, and a peace plan he proposed in January that heavily favoured the Israelis has not advanced in any significant way.
Trump, who walked away from the international nuclear deal with Iran, also has been unable to get concessions from Tehran in spite of a "maximum pressure" campaign aimed at isolating the Iranians.
Israel and the UAE, along with the other strong regional US ally in Saudi Arabia, count Iran as an important enemy, bolstering their joint opposition to Tehran.
Brian Hook, the US State Department's lead official on Iran who will be leaving his post soon, said the new agreement amounted to a "nightmare" for Iran in its efforts against Israel in the region.
The Netanyahu government's West Bank annexation plans had been an uncomfortable development for Washington, seen by many as a possible death knell to the US peace plan.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, asked how long Israel might suspend its annexation plan, said it was unclear but that the administration wanted to give other countries in the region a chance to seal similar agreements with Israel.
"We've prioritized peace over the sovereignty movement but it’s not off the table. It's just something that will be deferred until we give peace every single chance," he told reporters at the White House.
The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that the agreement with Israel was done to address the threat that further annexation of Palestinian territories posed to the two-state solution.
A UAE representative was on hand in the White House ceremony when Trump unveiled the accord.
The agreement also deepens Washington's alliance with the Emiratis, to whom the Trump administration has pushed to sell weapons over the objections of members of Congress angry over civilian casualties in the war in Yemen.
More deals in the works?
White House officials said Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, Friedman and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz were deeply involved in negotiating the deal, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien.
Echoing comments by Trump, Kushner told reporters in a conference call that other countries in the region may now come forward to strike a similar deal with Israel.
"We've had numerous conversations with other Arab and Muslim countries in the region," Kushner said.
Kushner said discussions between US, Israeli and UAE officials had been taking place for the past year and a half but accelerated in the past six weeks and an agreement in principle for a deal was reached a week ago, with details completed on Wednesday.
Israel has had no diplomatic relations with Gulf Arab countries, but common concerns with the UAE about Iran's regional influence and activities had led to a limited thaw in relations in recent years. The UAE previously had warned that Israel could not expect to normalize relations with the Arab world if it annexed land in the occupied West Bank.
Biden said he was "gratified" by the announcement of the agreement. He said he had personally spent time with leaders of both Israel and the UAE as vice president under Barack Obama building the case for cooperation and broader engagement.
"It is a timely reminder that enmities and differences - even long standing ones - are not set in stone, and of the role American diplomacy can play," Biden added.