On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will join the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House to mark historic normalization agreements between Israel and the two Arab countries.
The last time such a ceremony took place in Washington was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton looked on as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein signed a declaration that paved the way for a peace deal months later.
For Trump, the timing is crucial. Less than two months before an election in which he trails in the polls, normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain are major foreign policy achievements, even if the region was gradually moving towards these relationships regardless of who occupied the White House.
How did we get here?
For years, Israel has had covert relations with many of the Sunni Gulf states, driven in recent years by a mutual de facto alliance against Iran. Even so, the relations pre-date the Iran nuclear deal by more than a decade in some cases, as Gulf states looked to take advantage of Israel’s high-tech scene and Israel looked to secure its place in a turbulent Middle East.
Chief among these behind-the-scenes relations was the United Arab Emirates, with numerous public examples of the growing ties between the two states becoming more common. In late-2015, Israel opened a diplomatic-level mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. In 2018, then-culture minister Miri Regev made a state visit to the Grand Mosque on the heels of an Israeli gold medal at a judo tournament in the Emirates. Israel was also invited to Expo 2020 Dubai, a world expo that has since been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Like the UAE, Bahrain also had covert ties with Israel stretching back years. In addition, Bahrain has a small but sustained Jewish community, with one of its members serving as the country’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-2013. The small Gulf kingdom also hosted the unveiling of the economic portion of the White House’s plan for Middle East peace, signaling a willingness to engage with the US — and subsequently Israel — on the issue, even at a time when no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears possible.
Crucially the UAE and Bahrain are also close allies of the US, with each country hosting a significant US military presence. The US Air Force has deployed F-35 fighter jets to an air base in Abu Dhabi, while the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Central Command are based in Bahrain.