WASHINGTON -- Israel signed historic diplomatic pacts with two Gulf Arab states on Tuesday at a White House ceremony that President Donald Trump declared will mark the "dawn of a new Middle East."
It culminated a remarkable diplomatic triumph for Trump at the height of his reelection campaign.
"Today, the world sees that they are choosing cooperation over conflict, friendship over enmity, prosperity over poverty and hope over despair," Trump said. "They are choosing a future in which Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Jews and Christians can live together, pray together and dream together, side by side, in harmony, community and peace."
The ceremony followed months of intricate diplomacy headed by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and the president's envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz. On Aug. 13, the Israel-UAE deal was announced. That was followed by the first direct commercial flight between the countries, and then the Sept. 11 announcement of the Bahrain-Israel agreement.
The bilateral agreements formalize the normalization of Israel's relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in line with their common opposition to Iran.
The agreements did not address the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who viewed the pacts as a stab in the back from their fellow Arabs and a betrayal of their cause for a Palestinian state.
Hundreds of people massed on the sun-washed South Lawn to witness the signing of agreements in a festive atmosphere.
"We're here this afternoon to change the course of history," Trump said from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn. "After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East."
Under the agreements, the countries have committed to exchange embassies and ambassadors and to cooperate on a broad array of issues, including education, healthcare, trade and security.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the day "is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace."
Neither Netanyahu nor Trump mentioned the Palestinians in their remarks; however, the UAE and Bahraini foreign ministers spoke of the importance of creating a Palestinian state.
Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, thanked Netanyahu for "halting the annexation" of West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians in exchange for Emirati recognition. Netanyahu, however, has insisted that Israel has only temporarily suspended its plans to annex West Bank settlements.
"Today, we are already witnessing a change in the heart of the Middle East - a change that will send hope around the world," al-Nahyan said.
Bahrani Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani said Bahrain still stood with the Palestinians but said, "today is a truly historic occasion," he said. "A moment for hope and opportunity."
PALESTINIAN PROTESTS; MORE PEACE DEALS IN WORKS?
But in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants fired two rockets into Israel, apparently meant to coincide with the ceremony. The Israeli military said the rockets were fired from Gaza and one was intercepted by air defenses. Earlier in the day, Palestinian activists held small demonstrations in the West Bank and in Gaza, where they trampled and set fire to pictures of Trump, Netanyahu and the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain.
There are no active wars to be ended by the agreements, but Israel and the U.S. hope they can usher in a major shift in the region should other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, follow suit. That could have implications for Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Until now, Israel has had peace deals only with Egypt and Jordan.
Other Arab countries believed to be close to recognizing Israel include Oman, Sudan and Morocco.
"We are very down the road with about five different countries," Trump told reporters before the ceremony.
In addition to the bilateral agreements signed by Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, all three signed a document dubbed the "Abraham Accords" after the patriarch of the world's three major monotheistic religions.
During the signing ceremony, the leaders were seated at a long table where President Harry S. Truman once held weekly luncheon meetings with his Cabinet. Discussions about the Truman Doctrine to restrain Soviet expansion during the Cold War and the Marshall Plan to send billions in economic aid to Western Europe after World War II were held at the table.
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR HISTORIC ACCORDS
Besides Republicans, a few House Democrats attended the event, a notable development at a time when their leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is barely on speaking terms with the president. Many Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, widely support the deal.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said she accepted the invitation immediately on receiving it during the weekend.
"It definitely was a monumental event, and the ceremony was very fitting for that," Luria, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a telephone interview afterward.
Like Luria, some other Democrats in attendance, such as Rep. Anthony Brindisi of New York, are freshmen in tough reelection races. Still others, such as Florida Reps. Ted Deutch and Stephanie Murphy hail from districts with large numbers of Jewish constituents.
Questions remain, however, about the significance of the agreements. Even in Israel, where the accords have received widespread acclaim, there is concern they might result in U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry to the UAE and Bahrain, thus potentially upsetting Israel's qualitative military edge in the region.
Trump said he is OK with selling military aircraft to the UAE. Pelosi also welcomed the agreements but said she wants to learn details, specifically what the Trump administration has told the UAE about buying American-made F-35 aircraft and about Israel agreeing to freeze efforts to annex portions of the West Bank.