Israel, UAE to normalise relations in shift in Mideast politics; West Bank annexations on hold

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

Under the accord, which U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker, Israel agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank.

It 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 recognise Israel and had no formal diplomatic or economic relations with it until now. It becomes the first Gulf Arab country to reach such a deal with the Jewish state.

Officials from the three countries called the accord "historic" and a breakthrough toward peace. But Palestinian leaders, apparently taken by surprise, denounced it a "stab in the back" to their cause.

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 normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates".

The accord will allow the two countries "to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region," it said.

"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 as envisioned in a U.S. plan announced by Trump in January, it said.

The agreement, to be known as the Abraham Accords, also gives Trump a foreign policy accomplishment as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3. Speaking 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, who hope to create an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and that the agreement maintained the viability of a two-state solution to the longstanding Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The accord could 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.

In a televised address, Netanyahu said the deal would lead to "full and formal peace" with the UAE and voiced hope that other countries in the region would follow its example. It also entailed acceding to a request from Trump to "temporarily wait" on implementing his annexation pledge, he said.

"It's an incomparably exciting moment, a historic moment for peace in the Middle East," Netanyahu said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was holding meetings with aides.

Asked if the Palestinian leadership had been aware the deal was coming, Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, told Reuters: "No. ... We were blindsided. Their secret dealings are now completely out in the open. It is a complete sell-out."

In Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the armed Islamist group Hamas, told Reuters, "Normalisation is a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause and it serves only the Israeli occupation."

The UAE's Sheikh Mohammed said the agreement would stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, for which Israel had been awaiting a green light from Washington.

Senior UAE official Anwar Gargash said the deal had helped defuse what he called a ticking time-bomb. He urged the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

'NIGHTMARE' FOR IRAN

Trump's special envoy Brian Hook called the agreement a "nightmare" for Iran.

The agreement will not secure peace in the region, a special adviser on international affairs to the speaker of Iran's parliament wrote on Twitter. The Tasnim news agency, affiliated with Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, called it "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.

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 joint 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.

A signing ceremony is due to be held at the White House in the coming weeks.

"Everybody said this would be impossible," Trump said.

"Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates' lead," Trump added.

This was already being discussed with other states, he 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)

08/13/2020 19:27

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