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Israel to delay West Bank annexation plans for now in deal to discuss normalizing ties with UAE

President Donald Trump looks at Jared Kushner (C) and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin (R) during a meeting with leaders of Israel and UAE announcing a peace agreement to establish diplomatic ties with Israel and the UAE, in the Oval Office of the White House on August 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. In a joint statement between Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed said the countries "agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates." (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

The United Arab Emirates and Israel have agreed to work toward establishing full diplomatic ties as part of a deal to halt, for now, Israel’s controversial plans to annex occupied West Bank land sought by Palestinians for their future state.

If the UAE establishes formal ties with Israel, it would be only the third Arab country — after Jordan and Egypt — to recognize Israel, and the first Gulf nation to do so.

In announcing the agreement Thursday at the White House, President Donald Trump hailed it as a historic breakthrough that signaled a “new era” of peace in the Middle East. But throughout the region and in Washington, the agreement, while considered important, was seen as a long way from changing reality in one of the world’s most conflicted areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the UAE’s de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, issued a joint statement with Trump that said “opening direct ties between two of the Middle East’s most dynamic societies and advanced economies” would spur growth and forge “closer people-to-people relations.”

The statement said they would name their pact after Abraham, the biblical father of all three of the region’s major religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

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In return, according to the statement, Israel would suspend its plans to annex much of the West Bank lands claimed by the Palestinians — a land grab permitted in a controversial and much-criticized “vision” for peace that Trump released this year after months of purported negotiation by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and other pro-Israel members of his government.

Instead, under the agreement announced Thursday, Israel will “focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Israel, almost since its founding more than 70 years ago, has been regarded as a pariah in the region.

Most Arab countries forbid direct travel from their nations to Israel. There is no telephone service between many Arab countries and Israel. With rare exception, conferences in Arab countries will not officially include Israelis. It was huge news recently when the Israeli anthem was played upon the win by an Israeli athlete in an international judo tournament in Abu Dhabi.

Only Egypt, on Israel’s southern border, and Jordan to the east have official relations and embassies in Tel Aviv (with Israeli embassies in Cairo and Amman). The isolation has kept a kind of faux seal on Israel’s presence, in the view of many Arab countries — and cemented Israel’s closest relationships with the U.S., Europe and India, and not its own regional neighbors.

“The UAE-Israel announcement … breaks an important barrier,” said Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Thursday’s declaration, the officials involved said, was a prelude to delegations from Israel and UAE meeting in the coming weeks to forge bilateral agreements in an array of sectors, including tourism, security, telecommunications, technology, energy and health care.

Direct flights would be established as well as reciprocal embassies — although it was likely the UAE would go to Tel Aviv and not the disputed holy city of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians and controversially recognized as Israeli by Trump, the only world leader to do so.

The statement by two of the United States’ most important Middle East allies makes de jure what had been a de facto peace between the two countries. The United Arab Emirates already has a community of some 3,000 Jews, according to Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of a U.S. organization that promotes Jewish-Muslim interfaith relations, and businesses in both countries have long-established commercial links.

Over the last year, relations have grown in the security realm as well, with the two governments working in tandem with the U.S. on containing Iran as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE this year worked with Israeli authorities to deliver coronavirus assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Palestinians, who have been largely left out of U.S.-Israel negotiations, condemned the UAE announcement, saying they felt betrayed. Maintaining a unified international Arab bloc against Israel has long been the Palestinians’ most important bargaining tool to gain statehood.

“The Palestinian leadership rejects what the United Arab Emirates has done and considers it a betrayal of Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause,” said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, alluding to one of Islam’s holiest sites in Jerusalem. The UAE action is an affront to Palestinians’ “legitimate rights in their homeland” and “an aggression against the Palestinian people.”

Crown Prince Zayed said on Twitter that stopping “further annexation of Palestinian territories” was his principal goal and that he and Israel had merely agreed to establishing a “road map towards establishing a bilateral relationship” — a far cry from actual normalization of ties.

Furthermore, Netanyahu had already put his annexation plans on hold at least until the U.S. presidential election in November for fear of harming Trump’s reelection hopes, diplomats told the Los Angeles Times.

Each leader has an interest in casting this agreement to his political advantage. While Zayed wants to be seen as stopping annexation, Trump — and to a lesser extent Netanyahu — has politics on his mind.

In making Thursday’s announcement at the Oval Office, Trump made no secret of his hopes that the deal would boost his reelection chances. He used lofty rhetoric to describe an important but limited deal, suggesting he had found the key to world peace. He lined up several of his government members, having each, one by one in stilted speeches, lavish praise on him more than address the issue at hand.

The Trump administration is widely regarded as the most pro-Israel, and anti-Palestinian, in recent U.S. history; Trump, whose family has business and ideological interests in occupied territories, refused to endorse the decades-old U.S. support for a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state sitting alongside Israel, and he accepted Israeli claims to Jerusalem as its capital with no regard for Palestinian claims.

Later Thursday, Kushner, briefing reporters, incorrectly portrayed Trump’s earlier peace plan for the Middle East, claiming it required sacrifices of Israel that brought countries such as the UAE onboard. Saying that Trump’s approach was game-changing, he told reporters that giving this president “another four years” would lead to an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity for the Middle East.

The announcement of possible Israeli-UAE ties was welcomed almost universally among American Jewish groups and U.S. lawmakers, among whom support for Israel is strong. But there were caveats.

Putative Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden noted that rapprochement was built on “the efforts of multiple administrations to foster a broader Arab-Israeli opening.”

The Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel organization that supports Palestinian statehood, said it applauded “the historic announcement” and hoped other Arab countries would join.

“Israel’s broader acceptance in the region is good for Israel and good for American interests in the Middle East,” the organization said in a statement. But “it remains the case that suspending annexation and beginning the process of normalization with the UAE is not the same as achieving regional peace or a permanent status agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

For Netanyahu, who hailed the agreement as “the opening of a new era,” the news provided welcome relief in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in his long tenure as Israel’s prime minister.

He is struggling to form a government, fight a raging coronavirus outbreak and possibly fight a reelection battle. He faces almost nightly demonstrations against his rule, and he miscalculated domestic reaction to the controversial Trump peace plan.

“This is an important and strategic milestone for new opportunities in our region,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party who rarely sees eye to eye with Netanyahu.

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.