As Arab Gulf starts opening to Israel, Palestinians face a reckoning

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s rapprochement with Gulf Arab states has left the Palestinians feeling abandoned by traditional allies and clutching an old playbook in a rapidly changing Middle East, analysts and critics say.

As the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain prepare to sign normalization accords with Israel at a White House ceremony on Tuesday, Palestinian leaders face calls to overhaul their strategy to avoid becoming marginalized in a region where Israel and most Sunni Arab regimes share a fear of Iran.

The Palestinian approach to securing freedom from Israeli occupation has for years relied on a longstanding pan-Arab position that called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s acceptance of Palestinian statehood, in return for normal relations with Arab countries.

But the Palestinians last week failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks.

Tuesday’s ceremony, hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump, will be “a black day in the history of Arab nations”, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.

Shtayyeh said the Palestinians are now discussing whether to “adjust Palestine’s relationship with the Arab League.”

But critics say the proposed move is too little too late, with President Mahmoud Abbas facing mounting criticism for their increasingly isolated position.

“There is very little indication that the (Palestinian) leadership is contemplating a break from its approach,” Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

The Palestinians’ strategy centers on holding Israel to account in international legal tribunals, and trying to break the United States’ dominance over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Baconi said.

“Arab and European support in that strategy is crucial, but it is questionable that the Palestinians will be able to secure either to the level required to ensure a just peace.”

TWO-STATE SOLUTION

Despite signs of shifting Arab support, Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the underlying Palestinian strategy for achieving a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza would not change.

“To stay on the grounds of international law, international legality, to seek peace based on ending Israeli occupation and a two-state solution … we cannot depart from these squares,” he told Reuters.

While conceding difficulties faced by a Palestinian leadership under Israeli occupation, analysts nevertheless say Abbas does have some options.

After years of in-fighting between the two main Palestinian factions, Abbas’s Fatah and Islamist Hamas, long-overdue elections would refresh the president and parliament’s mandate and boost their leverage abroad by increasing their legitimacy at home, analysts say.

“We need to … rebuild the PLO’s institutions from the ground up and cement relations between Palestinians here and in the diaspora,” Gaza analyst Talal Okal said.

Over six million diaspora Palestinians, he said, “can influence the communities they live in so the Palestinian cause has a place on the agendas of their host governments.”

TRUMP BOYCOTT

One area where Abbas has widespread public support – 70% in recent polls – is his two-year boycott of the Trump administration, which he accuses of pro-Israel bias over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and endorsement of Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Frustrated by the Palestinians’ refusal to take part in Trump-led talks, the White House has sought to bypass Abbas and his team, apparently hoping they will see the deals with the UAE and Bahrain as incentives to return to negotiations.

For more than two years Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has tried sidestepping Abbas to appeal to Palestinians directly, telling Al-Quds newspaper in 2018: “The world has moved forward while you have been left behind. Don’t allow your grandfather’s conflict to determine your children’s future.”

That has had little apparent success. And the Palestinian leadership at first engaged with the Trump administration. Until, said Erekat, they concluded that “these people want to dictate a solution, not negotiate a solution … they’re the ones who are departing from international law.”

Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East adviser under Republican and Democratic administrations, had cautionary words for both sides.

While the Gulf deals served notice that Palestinians “don’t have a veto on normalization as regional dynamics shift” the Israelis, he said, “cannot wish the Palestinians away — and standing pat also means increasing the risk of one state for two peoples.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Adel Abu Nemeh in Jericho and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell, William Maclean)

After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)

Pompeo says Trump administration eager for end to Gulf rift

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed on Monday for a solution to the three-year rift between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saying the Trump administration was eager to see it resolved.

Speaking at a State Department meeting with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Pompeo said it was important to concentrate on countering Iranian activity in the Middle East.

“To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” Pompeo said.

“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and has accused its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran, which is struggling for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

The boycotting nations have set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said last week there could be some progress within weeks in resolving the rift, citing signs of “flexibility” in negotiations.

With Trump’s facing re-election on Nov. 3, he is eager to show foreign policy successes in the Middle East, and last month the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal scheduled to be signed at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. Bahrain joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Tom Brown)

Trump to host Israel-United Arab Emirates deal-signing ceremony on Sept 15

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will hold a Sept. 15 signing ceremony for a groundbreaking Middle East agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, announced at the White House on Aug. 13 following what officials said were 18 months of talks, the Gulf state agreed to normal relations with Israel, while Israel agreed to continue with plans to suspend its annexation of the West Bank.

The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan would lead the two delegations to the ceremony.

“I am proud to embark next week to Washington, at the invitation of President Trump, to take part in the this historic ceremony at the White House for the foundation of the peace treaty between Israel and the United (Arab) Emirates,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Trump and other administration officials have said they expect Saudi Arabia and other countries to follow suit in recognizing Israel.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials accompanied an Israeli delegation last week on the first flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the agreement.

Iran has dismissed the agreement, which also served to firm up opposition to Tehran, a regional power seen by the UAE, Israel and the United States as the main threat in the Middle East.

The deal falls short of any grand Middle East peace plan to resolve decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians despite Trump’s pledge to do so.

The White House hope is that more such deals between Israel and the Gulf states will emerge, prompting the Palestinians to join negotiations.

Trump proposed a peace plan in January that heavily favored the Israelis, but it has not advanced in any significant way.

The Palestinian leadership initially called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause,” but has curbed its criticism, according to a draft resolution ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The draft, seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the U.S.-brokered deal.

The United Arab Emirates is planning to make its first official visit to Israel on Sept. 22, a source familiar with the provisional itinerary said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

Iran’s Rouhani: Talks possible if U.S. returns to 2015 nuclear deal

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – If the United States wants an agreement with Iran, it must first come back to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers that Washington abandoned two years ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday.

“Washington’s maximum pressure policy on Iran has failed 100%…If Washington wants an agreement with us, then they should apologize for exiting the deal and return to it,” Rouhani told a televised news conference.

Long-tense relations between the two adversaries have almost come to blows since 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the deal reached by his predecessor Barack Obama and reimposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

In response to what Washington calls its “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran to negotiate a new deal, Tehran has breached key limits on nuclear activity imposed by the 2015 accord, under which the Islamic Republic accepted curbs on its uranium enrichment program in return for relief from sanctions.

Trump has pledged to strike a new deal – under which he would seek stricter limits on enrichment, an end to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and involvement in various Middle East conflicts – within weeks if he wins re-election in November.

“Trump has been talking a lot … The next president, whether it is Trump or someone else, must adopt a different approach towards Iran,” Rouhani said.

In response to U.S. sanctions, Tehran has breached key limits on nuclear activity imposed by the 2015 accord.

Last week the United States moved to reinstate global U.N. sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo, arguing Tehran was in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal even though Washington itself abandoned that agreement two years ago.

Council members France, Britain and Germany (E3), which along with Russia and China remain in the accord, have dismissed the move as void given Washington’s departure from the deal and said it was harming efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear activity.

But France’s foreign minister, echoing the stance of Britain and Germany, told his Iranian counterpart that Paris was worried about the impact of the arms embargo expiring in October.

“The minister reiterated our concern about Iran’s destabilizing activities and the consequences of the expiration of the…embargo on conventional arms, and told him of the E3’s determination to seek solutions preserving security and regional stability,” ministry deputy spokesman Francois Delmas said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy in the Middle East, urged Britain to join the U.S. bid to reimpose U.N. sanctions during a visit by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to Jerusalem.

“Look at Iran’s aggression today, without a nuclear weapon. What a huge danger Iran would be to the entire world if it did get a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu told Raab, according to a statement released by the premier’s office.

Iran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear weapons.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish in Paris and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pompeo reassures Netanyahu U.S. will ensure Israel’s military advantage

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States will ensure Israel retains a military advantage in the Middle East under any future U.S. arms deals with the United Arab Emirates, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday.

“The United States has a legal requirement with respect to qualitative military edge. We will continue to honor that,” Pompeo told reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said he had been reassured on the issue by Pompeo, who began a Middle East visit in Jerusalem that will showcase U.S. support for Israeli-Arab peace efforts and building a front against Iran. It will also include Sudan, the UAE and Bahrain.

A U.S.-brokered deal on normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE was announced on Aug. 13. But there has been some dissent in Israel over the prospect of the Gulf power now obtaining advanced U.S. weaponry such as the F-35 warplane.

Speaking on CNN on Saturday, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said the UAE had been trying to get the F-35 for a long time.

“This new peace agreement should increase the probability of them getting it. But it’s something we’re reviewing,” he said.

Pompeo said Washington had provided the UAE with military support for more than 20 years, measures he described as needed to stave off shared threats from Iran – also Israel’s arch-foe.

“We’re deeply committed to doing that, to achieving that and we’ll do it in a way that preserves our commitment to Israel and I’m confident that objective will be achieved,” Pompeo said.

Bruised by the U.N. Security Council’s rejection of a U.S. draft resolution for extending an arms embargo on Iran, the Trump administration is seeking a “snapback” of U.N. sanctions that had been eased as part of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

“We are determined to use every tool that we have to ensure that they (Iran) can’t get access to high-end weapons systems,” Pompeo said. “We think it’s in the best interest of the whole world.”

The Palestinians warned the Trump administration against trying to sideline them in the Middle East diplomatic push.

“Recruiting Arabs to recognize Israel and open embassies does not make Israel a winner,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an interview with Reuters. “You are putting the whole region in a lose-lose situation because you are designing the road for a forever conflict in the region.”

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Angus MacSwan)

Sudan confirms ‘contacts’ with Israel, says UAE move is ‘brave’

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan on Tuesday confirmed having contacts with Israel, saying the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize relations with Israel is “a brave and bold step”, according to its foreign ministry spokesman.

Under the U.S.-brokered deal announced last week, the UAE becomes just the third Arab country to forge full relations with Israel in more than 70 years. The pact could reshape Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to the fight against Iran.

In February, Israeli officials said Israel and Sudan had agreed to move towards forging normal relations for the first time during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military-led, transitional sovereign council, in Uganda.

“The Emirates’ move is a brave and bold step and contributes to putting the Arab world on the right track to build peace in the region and to build sustainable peace,” Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Haydar Sadig told Reuters by phone on Tuesday, confirming remarks made earlier to regional media.

“I cannot deny that there are contacts between Sudan and Israel,” he added.

Netanyahu welcomed the remarks, saying on Twitter: “Israel, Sudan and the entire region will benefit from the peace agreement (with the UAE), and together can build a better future for all people in the region. We will do whatever is necessary to turn this vision into a reality.”

Back in February, Burhan confirmed the meeting with Netanyahu but cast doubt on any rapid normalization of ties, saying Sudan’s stance on the Palestinian issue remains unchanged, and that relations between the two countries was the responsibility of the civilian cabinet in Khartoum.

Scores of Sudanese protesters condemned Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu in February. Under the long rule of Islamist strongman Omar al-Bashir until his fall in a popular uprising in 2019, Khartoum counted among hardline Muslim foes of Israel.

Sadig said any normalization of relations with Israel would not be at the expense of “Sudan’s moral values and independence” and be “according to Sudan’s interests”.

“We will not accept unequal relations with Israel.”

Israel says it expects other Gulf Arab countries and Muslim nations in Africa to follow in normalizing ties after its breakthrough with the UAE.

(Aditional reporting Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel opposes any F-35 sale to UAE despite their warming ties

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel would oppose any U.S. F-35 warplane sales to the United Arab Emirates despite forging relations with the Gulf power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, citing a need to maintain Israeli military superiority in the region.

The statement followed a report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that the Trump administration planned a “giant” F-35 deal with the UAE as part of the Gulf country’s U.S.-brokered move last week to normalize ties with Israel.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and representatives of the UAE government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Under understandings dating back decades, Washington has refrained from Middle East arms sales that could blunt Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME). This has applied to the F-35, denied to Arab states, while Israel has bought and deployed it.

“In the talks (on the UAE normalization deal), Israel did not change its consistent positions against the sale to any country in the Middle East of weapons and defense technologies that could tip the (military) balance,” Netanyahu’s office said.

This opposition includes any proposed F-35 sale, it added.

The Trump administration has signaled that the UAE could clinch unspecified new U.S. arms sales after last Thursday’s normalization announcement.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, an observer in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, noted that past U.S. administrations had “against our wishes” sold the UAE more advanced F-16 warplanes than Israel possesses as well as F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia.

Even were Washington to sell F-35s to the UAE, Steinitz told public radio station Kan that they would be unlikely to pose a danger to Israel as the distance between the countries is more than twice the jet’s range without refueling.

“I would like to offer us reassurance. Any F-35 that ends up, ultimately, in the United Arab Emirates – not that we would be happy with this, as we always want to be the only ones (with such arms) in the region – threatens Iran far more than it does us,” he said, citing a foe common to Israel and many Gulf Arabs.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson, Angus MacSwan and Mike Collett-White)

Israel’s president invites UAE’s de facto leader to Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president on Monday invited the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader to visit Jerusalem, praising his role in achieving a “noble and courageous” deal to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE.

Both countries announced on Thursday they would forge formal ties under a U.S.-sponsored deal whose implementation could recast Middle East politics ranging from the Palestinian issue to dealing with Iran, the common foe of Israel and Gulf Arabs.

The deal drew anger and dismay in much of the Arab world and Iran but a quiet welcome in the Gulf.

“In these fateful days, leadership is measured by its courage and ability to be groundbreaking and far-sighted,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote in a letter to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

“I have no doubt that future generations will appreciate the way you, the brave and wise leaders, have restarted the discourse on peace, trust, dialogue between peoples and religions, cooperation and a promising future,” Rivlin wrote.

“On behalf of the people of Israel and (me) personally, I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to Your Highness to visit Israel and Jerusalem and be our honored guest,” Rivlin said in the letter, which his spokesman released publicly.

The Palestinians have called the deal a “betrayal” by an Arab country that they have long looked to for support in establishing a state in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“I am hopeful,” Rivlin’s letter went on, “that this step will help build and strengthen the trust between us and the peoples of the region, a trust that will promote understanding between us all.

“Such trust, as demonstrated in the noble and courageous act, will set our region forward, bring economic well-being and provide prosperity and stability to the people of the Middle East as a whole.”

Palestine Liberation Organization official Wassel Abu Youssef condemned Rivlin’s invitation, saying “the visit of any Arab official to Jerusalem through the gate of normalization is rejected.”

Any such top-level Arab visit could be politically explosive given Jerusalem’s internationally disputed status.

Israel seized the eastern part of the city in 1967 and annexed it in a move that has not won world recognition. It considers all of Jerusalem its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they seek.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller with additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel, UAE to normalize relations in shift in Mideast politics, West Bank annexation on hold

By Maha El Dahan, Jeffrey Heller and Steve Holland

DUBAI/JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced on Thursday that they will normalize diplomatic ties and forge a broad new relationship, a move that reshapes the order of Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to Iran.

Under the accord, which U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker, Israel has agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank. The agreement also firms up opposition to regional power Iran, which the UAE, Israel and the United States view as the main threat in the conflict-riven Middle East.

Israel had signed peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. But the UAE, along with most other Arab nations, did not recognize Israel and had no formal diplomatic or economic relations with it until now. The UAE becomes the first Gulf Arab country to reach such a deal with the Jewish state.

The agreement was the product of lengthy discussions between Israel, the UAE and the United States that accelerated recently, White House officials said.

A joint statement said Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed had “agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates”.

“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region,” the statement said.

In a separate statement, the crown prince stressed that the agreement would stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, which Israel has said had been awaiting a green light from Washington.

The agreement, to be known as the Abraham Accords, also gives Trump a foreign policy accomplishment as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

“HUGE breakthrough today! Historic Peace Agreement between our two GREAT friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

In the White House Oval Office, Trump said similar deals are being discussed with other countries in the region.

The UAE said it would remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people and that the agreement maintained the viability of a two-state solution to the longstanding Israel-Palestinian conflict. There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinians, who hope to create an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said the agreement represented a “historic day” for his country. It could also be a personal boost to Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption and whose domestic popularity has dropped over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

A senior Israeli official said applying Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank was still on the agenda, adding, “The Trump administration asked us to temporarily suspend the (sovereignty) announcement so that the historic peace agreement with the UAE can be implemented.”

‘NIGHTMARE’ FOR IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a trip to Central European countries, said: “This is an enormous, historic step forward. Peace is the right path forward.”

Trump’s special envoy Brian Hook called the deal a “nightmare” for Iran.

There was no immediate response from the Iranian government but the Tasnim news agency, affiliated with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, called the accord “shameful”.

Iran and Israel are arch foes. Israel is particularly concerned about suspected Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Iran is also involved in proxy wars from Syria to Yemen, where the UAE has been a leading member of the Saudi-led coalition opposing Iran-aligned forces there.

With a population of less than 10 million but the Arab world’s second-largest economy thanks to oil, the UAE has exerted growing commercial and military clout in the Gulf and the wider region over the past two decades, much of it aimed at confronting Islamist militants and the influence of Iran.

U.S. lawmakers have tried to rein in Trump administration plans for arms sales, particularly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for use in the war in Yemen.

MORE DEALS IN PIPELINE?

Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the statement said.

The two countries, which agreed in June to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus in a sign of closer ties, are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies.

The joint statement said that “as a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over areas of the West Bank that were envisioned in a U.S. plan announced by Trump in January.

A signing ceremony including delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates is due to be held at the White House in the coming weeks.

“Everybody said this would be impossible,” Trump said. “After 49 years, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalize their diplomatic relations.”

Trump added, “This deal is a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East. Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.”

This was already being discussed with other states, he said.

The agreement envisions giving Muslims greater access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem by allowing them to fly from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, White House officials said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed “any initiative that can promote peace and security in the Middle East region,” a U.N. spokesman said.

Guterres had urged Israel in June to abandon plans to annex settlements in the West Bank, warning that this threatened prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Lisa Barrington, Steve Holland in Washington; Jeff Heller in Jerusalem, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Will Dunham)