By Quint Forgey
09/15/2020 10:42 AM EDT Updated: 09/15/2020 02:36 PM EDT
President Donald Trump on Tuesday hosted a historic signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords brokered by his administration, formally normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and a pair of Arab states.
“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump said in a speech delivered from a White House balcony, addressing a roughly 200-person crowd of domestic and foreign officials gathered on the South Lawn.
The president was joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the two Arab states entering into the normalization pact with Israel.
“Thanks to the great courage of the leaders of these three countries, we take a major stride toward a future in which people of all faiths and backgrounds live together in peace and prosperity,” Trump said, declaring that the accords “will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region.”
In his own remarks, Netanyahu argued the ceremony Tuesday represented a “pivot of history” and heralded a “new dawn of peace.” He praised Trump for helping mediate the agreements and encouraged more Arab states to sign the accords.
“To all of Israel’s friends in the Middle East, those who are with us today and those who will join us tomorrow, I say, ‘As-salamu alaykum.’ Peace unto thee. Shalom,” Netanyahu said.
“And you have heard from the president that he is already lining up more and more countries,” Netanyahu added, gesturing toward Trump. “This is unimaginable a few years ago. But with resolve, determination [and] a fresh look at the way peace is done, this is being achieved.”
In a meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office earlier Tuesday, Trump presented the Israeli prime minister with a golden “key to the White House” and said U.S. officials were in talks with “at least five or six countries” across the Middle East that also could normalize relations.
Trump claimed in a separate meeting Tuesday with the UAE’s foreign minister that the administration had “been given very strong signals” from the Palestinians “that they’d like to be a part of what’s happening.”
“This could lead to peace, real peace in the Middle East for the first time,” Trump said of the accords. “We’ ve taken a very different path. You could say it’s a backdoor, but I call it a smart door, not a backdoor. I call it a smart door.”
In an interview Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends,” Trump acknowledged that his administration’s brokering of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states was part of a broader diplomatic effort to pressure the Palestinians into negotiating a peace deal.
“Yes, you could say that’s certainly a piece of it,” Trump said. “The ultimate piece is it’s good for us to have, and it’s good for Israel. But certainly that’s a piece of it. The Palestinians are very difficult to deal with.”
Trump said his administration was negotiating with several other Arab states, and that “when we start getting the rest of the countries in,” the Palestinians “will come to the table, 100 percent.”
“They’re actually getting to a point where they’re going to want to make a deal. They won’t say that outwardly. They want to make a deal,” Trump said, adding that “otherwise, they will be left out in the cold.”
Most of the Middle East’s Arab nations have historically resisted normalizing ties with Israel, officially siding with the Palestinians seeking a deal that would secure for themselves an independent state.
But some Arab states have in recent years quietly cooperated with Israel to counter a common geopolitical foe, Iran. Those covert ties have come increasingly out into the open as Arab states work to curry favor with the decidedly pro-Israel and anti-Iran Trump administration.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has taken a leading role in crafting the administration’s Middle East foreign policy, also appeared on multiple morning news shows Tuesday to promote the signing of the accords, which he argued represent the “beginning of the end of the Israel-Arab conflict.”
“America has had a lot of expenditures in the Middle East. We’ve had a lot of troops, we’ve had a lot of our money and our attention focused there for the last 20 years. But this really signals the beginning of the president bringing people together,” Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, told NBC’s “Today” show in an interview .
But when pressed on the Palestinians’ role in the administration’s strategy and foreign policy flashpoints such as borders, settlements and the holy city of Jerusalem, Kushner was dismissive, saying: “Those issues aren’t as complicated as people have made them out to be.”
“With regard to the Palestinians, I think with time that will come,” Kushner said, while maintaining that the U.S. “can’t want peace more than other people want peace.”
The Trump administration has pursued a Middle East policy favoring Israel and aimed largely at coercing the Palestinians to participate in peace talks — including by cutting off their U.S. aid, among other measures.
But even if Trump hopes the accords become yet another pressure point for the Palestinians to agree to a peace deal with Israel, officials within the UAE and Bahrain do not necessarily share this view. For the Emiratis and the Bahrainis, the normalization agreements with Israel are more important for the united front they present against Iran, as well their potential economic and diplomatic benefits.
In an interview Tuesday with the Atlantic Council, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused former President Barack Obama’s administration of having adopted an “Iran-centric focus” in its Middle East policy. The Trump administration, however, “has taken a fundamentally different approach to creating an opportunity for increased stability in the Middle East and less risk to America,” he said.
“We laid out a vision for peace that had another element, which was the deep recognition that the primary destabilizing force in the Middle East was not the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” Pompeo said. “It was, rather, the threat of the extraterritorial ambitions of the clerical regime in Iran. So we have flipped what the previous administration was doing on its head.”
Nahal Toosi and Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.