President Donald Trump announced on Friday that the Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain has agreed to recognize Israel, following a similar deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates last month. The agreement is another sign of the shifting dynamic in the Middle East, one that brings Arab nations closer to Israel and is seen as isolating Palestinians.
From the Oval Office, Trump said he had hosted a “historic call” between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and King Ahmad Al Khalifa of Bahrain where the leaders agreed that Bahrain will “fully normalize its diplomatic relations with Israel.” Trump called the move “a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East.”
“There's no more powerful response to the hatred that spawned 9/11 than the agreement that we're about to tell you,” Trump said to reporters. Friday morning the U.S. president traveled to Shanksville, Pennsylvania to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Bahrain deal follows the August 13 “Abraham Accord” — an agreement by Israel and the U.A.E. to normalize relations. As part of the accord, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to halt plans to annex portions of the West Bank. The White House is scheduled to host a signing ceremony of the Abraham Accord early next week.
Trump predicted the agreement would encourage other Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel.
“We think ultimately you'll have most countries join and you're going to have the Palestinians in a very good position,” Trump said. “They want to come in, they're going to want to come in, because all of their friends are in.”
The Palestinian Authority leadership swiftly condemned Bahrain’s decision, calling it a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian issue.”
The normalization deal between Israel and Bahrain is further evidence that Arab governments are abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and the Palestinian issue, in return for essentially nothing, according to Dana El Kurd of the Palestinian Policy Network think tank Al-Shabaka.
“The Bahrain deal does not even pretend to be in exchange for anything tangible related to the Palestinian cause or statehood project,” she added.
The U.A.E. and Bahrain agreements to recognize Israel are important pieces in the administration’s larger strategy in the Middle East, which some analysts have described as essentially circumventing the Palestinians in negotiations over their own fate.
While historically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Trump administration is trying to reverse that by promoting the “outside-in approach,” said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow and director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.
“If everybody recognizes Israel, in its current borders, its de facto control over all of Jerusalem, over the West Bank, and even the Gaza Strip, that would eventually force Palestinians essentially to acquiesce and leave them no choice really, but to surrender to this reality on the ground,” said Elgindy.
“That seems to be the Trump approach and I think it has had some successes,” he added.
Foreign policy win
Two months before the U.S. election, the administration touts the Bahrain-Israel deal as the second foreign policy victory in the Middle East achieved within the span of one month.
While foreign policy has not been at the forefront of political debate ahead of the November U.S. elections, the future of Israel matters to a key group of Trump supporters — Evangelical Christians, who made up about a third of his supporters in 2016.
“They care that Israel is strong, that Israel is victorious and triumphant, and that Israel not retreat from any territory for their own theological reasons,” said Elgindy. “And getting Arab state recognition of Israel in its current form, is an important victory and something that Evangelicals will clearly welcome.”
Earlier this week, Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a far-right Norwegian lawmaker nominated Trump for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the Middle East. On Friday, a member of the Swedish Christian Democrat party, Magnus Jacobsson, nominated Trump and the governments of Kosovo and Serbia for the Nobel.
Kosovo and Serbia announced an “economic normalization” deal last week at the White House, an agreement brokered by the Trump administration. As part of that deal, Kosovo and Israel normalized diplomatic relations.
Last week, responding to a VOA question, Democratic nominee Joe Biden said that he supports more countries normalizing relations with Israel.
“Recognizing Israel as an independent Jewish state, I think that's important. But also, I believe that Israel has to be prepared to work toward a genuine two-state solution,” Biden said.
Earlier this week in a private virtual fundraiser event organized by the pro-Israel lobby J Street, Biden acknowledged that normalization between Israel and the U.A.E. was a positive development.
“I think Trump is going to accidentally do something positive here, in terms of this issue of other Arab states,” Biden said.
Changing regional dynamic
Observers say the recognition of Israel by two Gulf countries reflects a changing dynamic in the Middle East in which traditional Arab support for the Palestinians’ fight towards statehood has largely been surpassed by regional concerns about Iran. In a blow to Palestinians, the Arab League earlier this week refused to condemn the Abraham Accord.
In reaction to the normalization deal between Israel and Bahrain, a special adviser on international affairs to the speaker of Iran’s parliament via twitter called it “a great betrayal to the Islamic cause and Palestinians.”
Will Todman, associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that, unlike the U.A.E. deal where Israel conceded to stop annexation of Palestinian land, Bahrain did not announce any concession from Israel as a precondition for normalizing ties. In doing so, Todman said, the Bahraini government appears confident that it will not face any serious domestic opposition to the move.
The Bahrain deal also sheds light on the evolving position of Saudi Arabia, a key regional player, on the Israel-Palestine issue. “Bahrain is likely to have secured Saudi Arabia's approval before making the announcement, given the close ties between the two kingdoms,” said Todman. “That indicates that Saudi Arabia has moved one step closer to normalizing ties with Israel itself.”
Todman added that Bahrain appears to view the benefits of normalizing ties with Israel — strengthening the anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East and pleasing both Democrats and Republicans before a potentially consequential election — as outweighing its desire to support Palestinian aspiration for self-determination.
The “outside-in” approach has been championed by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is charged with leading the administration’s effort to strike a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. In January the administration released a peace plan that Palestinians immediately rejected, saying that the offer was biased towards Israel. Since then, Kushner and other officials have lobbied Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, to show Palestinians that their demands would no longer dictate Israel’s relations with other Arab countries.
In a background call with reporters, Kushner said that the administration’s goal is to ultimately “save the two-state solution” by acknowledging the current reality on the ground where Israeli settlers are occupying much of Palestinian land. “If we kept going with the status quo of what was happening, ultimately Israel would have eaten up all the land in the West Bank,” said Kushner.
Other countries that may normalize relations with Israel include Oman, Sudan and Morocco, although the timing remains unclear. Currently more than two dozen countries do not recognize Israel, including most of the members of the Arab League, and non-Arab Muslim majority countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.