Trump Extends Arab Push to Normalize Ties With Israel

With Bahrain also recognizing Israel, Washington hopes for a new era of Arab rapprochement with Israel—but that may prove more elusive.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) attend a news conference at the White House on Jan. 28. Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Sudan last month, the first top-level U.S. visit in 15 years, the main item on his agenda wasn’t Sudan, sanctions, or the country’s transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship. It was Israel, according to an account by three people briefed on the visit.

During a private meeting to hammer out details of a deal to remove Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, Pompeo abruptly prodded Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to place a call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and kickstart the normalization of relations between the two countries. The gesture, Pompeo said, would make it easier for him to convince Congress to remove Sudan from the terror list. “Everybody on the Sudanese side’s mouths just dropped to the floor,” said one person familiar with the meeting.

Hamdok, in a precarious position at the helm of a fragile transitional government, declined, explaining that he didn’t have the mandate for such a momentous move—and at any rate, already had a preliminary U.S. commitment to to lift the terror designation. Pompeo later tried again with Sudan’s top military officer, who also refused, according to people familiar with the matter.

Pompeo’s stop in Khartoum was one of several visits to Arab capitals last month meant to bolster support for what has become one of the few tangible foreign policy success stories for the Trump administration: the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. That diplomatic rapprochement will be finalized at a White House ceremony Tuesday—and won’t be the only one. 

On Friday, President Donald Trump tweeted that Bahrain has also agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, marking a one-two breakthrough a quarter-century after the last Arab country normalized its relations with Israel. The move marks a reversal for the tiny Gulf kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, when Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Salman al-Khalifa said after a meeting with Pompeo last month that the country was still calling for Israel to withdraw completely from the Palestinian terrorities in exchange for its recognition of Israel. 

For the Trump administration, these pacts have become inextricably linked to the president’s reelection campaign. They constitute a tangible foreign-policy success after the administration’s other big foreign-policy efforts—whether a doomed Middle East peace plan, curtailing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, changing China’s predatory behavior, or containing Iran’s nuclear program—have all foundered.  

“Trump can argue that his transactional, personalized diplomacy achieved what ‘you stupid professionals couldn’t do,’” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, a Washington-based think tank which receives some funding from the UAE. “And it’s true. It has worked in this case. It hasn’t worked anywhere else.”

Israel has become an adjunct to U.S. diplomacy—and not just in the region—part of the administration’s effort to reinforce its electoral appeal to U.S. evangelicals ahead of a tightly contested election. The Trump administration’s efforts to broker negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo included a provision where Belgrade would move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the United States did, though reports indicate Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic will not make the move if Israel recognizes Kosovo. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also become an unlikely ally behind the White House’s push for Israeli normalization, declaring his commitment for the “peaceful coexistence” of Israel and Palestine in a joint U.S.-Brazilian statement in March, with the president’s son committing to move the nation’s embassy to Jerusalem in 2020. 

“The driver is the base,” said Nimrod Novik, a foreign-policy advisor to former Israeli President Shimon Peres who currently serves as Israel Fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, a New York City-based non-profit that promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Whatever the motivation, I’m delighted he is doing it. It’s great for Israel. It just ratifies what has been going on under the table, but it’s a major psychological breakthrough.”

There are still several big outstanding questions about the UAE-Israeli deal. When the United States, Israel, and UAE first issued a joint statement on the deal in August, it included an an Israeli commitment to hold off annexing the West Bank in exchange for the normalization of diplomatic ties with Abu Dhabi, the first Arab government to formally open diplomatic relations with Israel since Jordan signed a peace past with Israel in 1994. Abu Dhabi was also seeking a firmer commitment from Israel that it wouldn’t simply resume its push for annexation during the next Israeli election cycle.

And there are other issues. Under the terms of the deal, the United States pledged to reward the UAE with the sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets, raising the question for Israel of how it will maintain its traditional military edge over Arab neighbors. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has been pressing to include a provision in the final statement endorsing the U.S. president’s Middle East plan, a detail that may prove hard to swallow for Israel, which publicly praised the plan but which privately expressed reservations over certain provisions.

And while Bahrain has jumped onboard—almost certainly with Saudi acquiescence—that doesn’t necessarily mean that the biggest prize of all, Saudi Arabia, will be next to recognize Israel. Trump, in announcing Bahrain’s move on Friday, suggested Riyadh would not be far behind. Saudi Arabia, increasingly threatened by Iran, has made under-the-radar overtures to Israel in recent years.

“We think ultimately we will have most countries join and you’re going to have the Palestianians in a very good position,” Trump said in brief Oval Office remarks on Friday after tweeting out the joint statement. “They’re going to want to come in because all of their friends are in,” he added, referring to other Arab nations and the Palestinians recognizing Israel.

But the chances of the Saudis following the UAE’s lead and recognizing Israel in the near-term are “slim to none,” said Barbara Leaf, a diplomat who served as ambassador to the UAE from 2014 to 2018. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman presided over the Arab Peace Initiative, which pledged “full diplomatic and normal relations” between Arab governments and Israel only in exchange for a “comprehensive peace agreement” with the Palestinians, which has yet to materialize.

“As long as King Salman is calling the shots, it’s not going to happen,” said Novik, who said the UAE decision to normalize relations with Israel “has deviated from the purity of the Arab Peace Initiative. Normalization is no longer the trophy at the end of a peace process. The UAE has jumped the gun.”

Other Middle East experts suggest otherwise.

“Saudi greenlit this,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former State Department analyst on the Middle East peace process. “Arab consensus on Palestine—if there ever was one—is breaking apart. Arab states will nominally stick to the 2002 peace initiative while some will make their own arrangements with Israel.”

But the successive decisions to recognize Israel sparked immediate anger from the Palestinian side that already felt left out of U.S.-led Middle East peace talks. On Friday, the Palestinian Authority called Bahrain’s normalization of relations with Israel a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Palestinian issue,” and withdrew their ambassador from Manama, after previously announcing that they would remove their envoy from the UAE.

Diplomatic observers say the latest move by the two Gulf States reflects a cold, hard reality of Middle East diplomacy: The Arab commitment to the Palestinian cause was always secondary to their own national interests. 

“The Arab States have always used the Palestinian issue as an instrument for their own national objectives,” Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to Washington and Israel tweeted. “Obviously, they have reached the conclusion that it is not useful anymore. They have dumped it.”

While Trump and his administration are keen to tout the deal between Israel and the UAE as a breakthrough for peace, the two countries have never fought a war—in contrast to Israel’s two prior peace agreements, with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. 

“To state the obvious, the ‘peace in the Middle East’ theme touted by Trump and Kushner re. UAE-Israel agreement is disconnected from reality given that the 2 countries never fought a war and the agreement does nothing to end the Middle East wars,” Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington think tank, tweeted.

The deal even raises questions about the centrality of Egypt’s place in Middle East diplomacy. Since the 1979 political agreements known as the Camp David Accords, Egypt has been able to parlay its pioneering diplomatic stance into outsized regional influence—until perhaps now.

“What does it mean for Egypt’s standing in the region?” Novik asked. “One component of Egypt’s being the center of gravity was its being the liaison between Israel and the Arab world. The center of gravity is moving from Egypt to the Gulf. Egypt is losing another asset in its exceptionalism.”

Many Muslim countries are still treading carefully. The leaders of Bahrain and the UAE will not attend the Washington signing ceremony. Sudan is still demurring. Oman is still holding off normalizing relations with Israel. Historic as it may be, the deal between the UAE and Israel is just the start of what could be a long diplomatic dance.

“I think a lot of Arab countries are hesitant because they want to see what happens with the UAE,” said Ibish. “Everyone has good reasons to see how it goes for the UAE.” 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch