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UAE agrees to normalise ties with Israel in bid to halt West Bank annexation

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File photo: President Donald Trump welcomes Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the White House in Washington, Monday, May 15, 2017.
File photo: President Donald Trump welcomes Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the White House in Washington, Monday, May 15, 2017.   -   Copyright  Andrew Harnik/AP
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The United Arab Emirates and Israel have agreed to establish full diplomatic ties as part of a deal to halt the annexation of occupied land sought by the Palestinians for their future state.

The announcement makes the UAE the first Gulf Arab state to do so and only the third Arab nation to have active diplomatic ties to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and US President Donald Trump released a joint statement saying they hoped the "historic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East".

Trump tweeted a statement from the countries, acknowledging the deal. He then told reporters in the Oval Office that it was “a truly historic moment.”

“Now that the ice has been broken I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates,” he said.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the US, said in a statement the move was "a win for diplomacy and for the region".

Netanyahu also tweeted, writing "Historic day" in Hebrew.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority labelled the agreement a "betrayal" of the Palestinian cause and called for an "emergency meeting" of the Arab League to denounce it.

Political commentators underlined the significance of the deal but questioned the timing for the UAE.

Democratic candidate for the 2020 US elections, Joe Biden, agreed with his Republican rival Trump on the accord, hailing it as "historic".

The recognition grants a rare diplomatic win to Trump ahead of the November election as his efforts to see an end to the war in Afghanistan have yet to come to fruition while efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians have made no headway.

For Israel, the announcement comes after years of boasting by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his government enjoys closer ties to Arab nations than publicly acknowledged. Netanyahu has sought to build settlements on lands sought by the Palestinians and embraced a Trump proposal that would allow him to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank while granting Palestinians limited autonomy in other areas.

For the UAE, home to skyscraper-studded Dubai and the rolling, oil-rich sand dunes of Abu Dhabi, it further burnishes its international campaign to be seen as a beacon of tolerance in the Middle East despite being governed by autocratic rulers. It also puts the UAE out first in a regional recognition race among neighbouring Gulf Arab states.

And for the Palestinians, who long have relied on Arab backing in their struggle for independence, the announcement marked both a win and setback. While Thursday's deal halts Israeli annexation plans, the Palestinians have repeatedly urged Arab governments not to normalize relations with Israel until a peace agreement establishing an independent Palestinian state is reached.

A joint statement from the U.S., the UAE and Israel was issued immediately after Trump's tweet. It said delegations would meet in the coming weeks to sign deals on direct flights, security, telecommunications, energy, tourism and health care. The two countries also will partner on fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

“Opening direct ties between two of the Middle East's most dynamic societies and advanced economics will transform the region by spurring economic growth, enhancing technological innovation and forging closer people-to-people relations,” said the statement by Trump, Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the day-to-day ruler of the UAE. It said the leaders had a three-way call discussing the deal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the deal.

“This is a remarkable achievement for two of the world’s most forward-leaning, technologically advanced states, and reflects their shared regional vision of an economically integrated region,” he said in a statement. “It also illustrates their commitment to confronting common threats, as small — but strong — nations.”

He added: "Blessed are the peacemakers. Mabruk and Mazal Tov.”

Among Arab nations, only Egypt and Jordan have active diplomatic ties with Israel. Egypt made a peace deal with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. Mauritania recognized Israel in 1999, but later ended relations in 2009 over Israel’s war in Gaza at the time.

In addition to Trump, the main U.S. mediators for the agreement were the president’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, special Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

The UAE is a U.S.-allied federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. Formed in 1971, the country like other Arab nations at the time did not recognize Israel over its occupation of land home to the Palestinians.

“Arab oil is not dearer than Arab blood,” the UAE’s founding ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, once pronounced when agreeing to an oil boycott over U.S. military support to Israel in the 1973 Mideast war.

The UAE relied on white-collar Palestinians in creating its nation. Over time, it maintained its stance that Israel allows the creation of a Palestinian state on land it seized in the 1967 war.

But in recent years, ties between Gulf Arab nations and Israel have quietly grown, in part over their shared enmity of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Prince Mohammed also shares Israel’s distrust of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the militant group Hamas that holds the Gaza Strip.

It remains unclear what prompted Israel and the UAE to make the announcement now. In June, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S. warned in an Israeli newspaper op-ed that Israel’s planned annexing the Jordan Valley and other parts of the occupied West Bank would “upend” Israel’s efforts to improve ties with Arab nations.

The agreement gives Netanyahu a domestic boost at a time when Israel’s shaky coalition government is plagued by infighting and facing the possibility of early elections in the coming months. Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet as the country grapples with a renewed coronavirus outbreak and skyrocketing unemployment as the result of earlier lockdown measures.

Netanyahu also delivered a valuable diplomatic achievement to his good friend, Trump, ahead of U.S. elections.

Still, by dropping the annexation plan Netanyahu may be hedging his bets ahead of a possible change in the White House. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has made clear that he would oppose any moves by Israel to unilaterally redraw the Mideast map and annexe lands sought by the Palestinians.

Netanyahu also risked criticism inside his own hard-line Likud Party, whose members strongly supported annexation. Netanyahu appears to be betting that Likud members — and the small, but influential settler movement — will agree the peace agreement delivers more benefits than unilateral annexation. Opinion polls have shown that annexation is not a high priority for the vast majority of the Israeli public.

Abandoning its annexation plan changes little on the ground. Israel already holds overall control of the West Bank and continues to expand its settlements there, while granting the Palestinians autonomy in a series of disconnected enclaves. Some 500,000 Israelis now live in the rapidly expanding West Bank settlements.

Next year, Israel will take part in the UAE’s delayed Expo 2020, the world’s fair being hosted by Dubai. A secret synagogue also draws practising Jews in Dubai. The UAE also has announced plans to build the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which will house a mosque, a church and a synagogue.

Israelis travelling with Western passports routinely enter the UAE without a problem, though one still can’t make a phone call between the two countries. Israelis also work in Dubai’s gold and diamond trade as well.

Emirati officials also have allowed Israeli officials to visit and the Israeli national anthem was played after an athlete won gold in an Abu Dhabi judo tournament. Israel also has a small mission representing its interests at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.

Israeli settlers may approve of Israel-UAE ties

Israeli lawmakers are welcoming the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is also Israel’s “alternate” prime minister under a power sharing deal, said Thursday’s agreement expressed an “alliance” between countries in the region who aim for stability and prosperity. He said the agreement will have “many positive implications” on the region and called on other Arab states to pursue peace deals with Israel.

He thanked President Trump, calling him a “true friend of Israel.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, part of Gantz’ Blue and White party, said he welcomed Israel’s backing down from “unilateral annexation” of the West Bank, saying Trump’s Mideast plan would be discussed in consultation with countries in the region.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said “negotiations and agreements, not unilateral steps like annexation” were key to Israel’s diplomatic relations.

A top official in the West Bank settler movement says freezing the annexation plan is a “fair price” for establishing relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Oded Revivi, a top leader in the Yesha settler council, had been a strong advocate of annexation.

But in a tweet on Thursday, he said: “The Israeli agreement to postpone the application of Israeli law in the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria is a fair price.”

The reaction could be a sign that even Israeli hard-liners who pushed for annexation will not criticize Netanyahu for abandoning their dream.

"Unscrewing a time bomb"

A top Emirati official says the deal announced by President Donald Trump for the United Arab Emirates to establish ties with Israel dealt a “death blow” to moves by Israel to annex Palestinian lands.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, told reporters on Thursday that the Emiratis wanted to “try and put one on one together” and develop an organic relationship that was already existing in many fields.

“Let us try and get something tangible,” he said.

He described it as a “bold step.” “We’ve come up with a realization,” he said. “Our relationship has not always been central... but we come out and argued that in every difficult political file in the region, when you do have bridges and contacts you become more important and influential in trying to affect results and trying to help.”

“The UAE is using its gravitas and promise of a relationship to unscrew a time bomb that is threatening a two-state solution,” Gargash said. When asked about a time frame for embassies opening, Gargash said it will not be long and “this is for real”. “We are not talking about step by step.”

“Is it perfect? Nothing is perfect in a very difficult region,” he said. “But I think we used our political chips right.”

Hamas accuses UAE of backstabbing Palestinians

The Hamas militant group has accused the United Arab Emirates of stabbing the Palestinians in the back by agreeing to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel.

“This announcement is a reward for the Israeli occupation’s crimes,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “The normalization is a stabbing in the back of our people.”

The Islamic militant Hamas movement seeks Israel’s destruction and has fought three wars against Israel since seizing control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.