Israel and the United Arab Emirates struck a landmark deal Thursday to establish formal diplomatic ties and dramatically deepen mutual economic cooperation, issuing a surprise joint announcement with President Trump that could reshape the power structure of the Middle East and further isolate America’s chief foe in the region, Iran.
The agreement makes the UAE, a key U.S. partner, the third Arab nation after Egypt and Jordan to have established active diplomatic ties with Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the development will kick off “a new era of peace” between his nation and the entire Arab world.
As part of the deal, Mr. Netanyahu halted his government’s controversial plan to annex areas of the West Bank, although that wasn’t enough to satisfy frustrated Palestinian leaders, who cast the Israel-UAE normalization as a betrayal and said it amounted to “treason” on the part of the Emirates.
In the U.S., however, the development drew widespread praise, even from the president’s likely Democratic opponent in the November election, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden. Trump administration supporters described it as a hard-fought and much-needed diplomatic win for a president facing sagging poll numbers and criticism over his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Successive U.S. administrations have sought to persuade Arab nations to accept Israel. The Trump administration elevated such efforts behind the scenes in recent years by attempting to find common ground between Jerusalem and Gulf Arab monarchies against the shared rival of Iran.
Mr. Trump vowed that the Israel-UAE normalization will be the first of several old walls between Israel and the Arab world to come tumbling down. The normalization is likely to establish embassies in each other’s country, allow direct flights, and spark collaborations on energy, tourism and communications.
Now that “the ice has been broken,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office, he expects other nations to follow suit. “Things are happening that I can’t talk about, but they’re extremely positive,” he said. “Everybody said this would be impossible.”
It remains to be seen how the development will affect the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which has struggled to gain traction since it was rolled out early this year. A key aspect of the plan has involved efforts to get wealthy Gulf Arab powers to underwrite massive economic development for Palestinians.
A joint statement by the U.S., Israel and the UAE said the Israel-UAE normalization will “unlock the great potential in the region” and fuel economic growth.
Mr. Trump’s national security team praised the agreement. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, an architect of the administration’s wider Middle East policy, credited Mr. Trump’s “untraditional approach” to foreign policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the “remarkable achievement” will normalize relations between of two of the region’s most forward-leaning and liberal states.
Analysts say the development carries deep strategic benefits for Washington.
The UAE is an ally of America’s other chief partner in the region, Saudi Arabia, and is seen by many as a counterweight to Iran. It has routinely butted heads with Tehran over hot spots such as Yemen, where the Emirates participated in a bloody proxy war for years against Iran-backed militants before withdrawing most of its forces last year.
Growing alliances between Israel and the Arab world are expected to frustrate Iranian attempts to project its influence throughout the region. Israel has long been the focus of Tehran’s ire, with Iranian leaders routinely vowing to destroy the country.
The news Thursday may be a sign that Iran’s power is fading and the balance of power is shifting. “The peace deal between UAE and Israel is an extraordinary breakthrough that will bring even greater opportunities for regional peace and prosperity in its wake,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
“The mullahs in Iran are the only losers,” he said.
The alliance also could give the U.S. much-needed negotiating leverage with Tehran. Mr. Trump predicted that he would strike a new nuclear agreement with the Iranians within 30 days of his reelection.
The president withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran in 2018.
Halt on annexation
The announcement temporarily shelved Mr. Netanyahu’s contentious plan to annex part of the West Bank. The Israeli leader, who faces his own political troubles amid major corruption charges, said the annexation plan is not dead but merely on hold.
He echoed Mr. Trump in predicting that other Arab states will follow the UAE’s lead.
“Today we usher in a new era of peace between Israel and the Arab world,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “There is a good chance we will soon see more Arab countries joining this expanding circle of peace.”
But Palestinian leaders were furious. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, described the agreement as “treason.” Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi tweeted that the announcement finally exposed the UAE’s “secret dealings/normalization” with Israel.
“Israel got rewarded for not declaring openly what it’s been doing to Palestine illegally & persistently since the beginning of the occupation,” he said. “Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!”
Although UAE leaders in past decades pledged solidarity with others in the Arab world against Israel, alliances have shifted.
UAE leaders, like those in Saudi Arabia and other nations, have sought stronger economic and more peaceful diplomatic relations with the West while distancing themselves from Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist outfits, many of which are allied with Iran and get much of their funding directly from Tehran.
At the core of the agreement, the nations’ leaders said, is a desire to establish deeper ties between the people of Israel and the UAE and to wipe away historic barriers.
“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,” read the joint statement from Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who acts as the day-to-day ruler of the UAE.
The agreement received bipartisan praise in Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, expressed hope that “other Arab states will seize on this momentum and take similar steps to normalize their ties with Israel and bring about a more peaceful region.”
Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed the sentiment, as did several lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, said the development “will strengthen both” Israel and the UAE, and he expressed hope that it will “motivate Palestinians to give peace a chance.”
“I look forward to the day when Israel is surrounded by peaceful neighbors, including a democratic, demilitarized Palestinian state that accepts that the Jewish state has a permanent place in the Middle East,” Mr. Engel said.
Mr. Biden also applauded the development, saying the countries took “a historic step.”
“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,” the presumptive Democratic nominee said. “There is always room for cooperation and collaboration on areas of mutual interest, and the Emirates and Israel both share a keen interest in preserving the prospects for peace in the region.”
But some pro-Israel organizations expressed frustration that Mr. Netanyahu had not moved more aggressively to annex territory from Palestinians.
“There is nothing to celebrate about Trump and Netanyahu’s latest sleight of hand,” said IfNotNow Movement Political Director Emily Mayer, who argued that the development “gives Netanyahu diplomatic cover to say that he stopped formal annexation of the West Bank.”
Mr. Biden said he opposes annexation and would continue to oppose it as president, but that “by forestalling that possibility and replacing it with the hope of greater connection and integration in the region, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have pointed a path toward a more peaceful, stable Middle East.”
• Tom Howell contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.