Despite pressure from Trump, Arab nations resist normalizing ties with Israel

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, left, U.S. President Donald Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner, center, and U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, right, board the Israeli flag carrier El Al's airliner as they fly to Abu Dhabi for talks meant to put final touches on the normalization deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Nir Elias/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli official Meir Ben-Shabbat, left, President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and U.S. national security advisor Robert O'Brien board a flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Aug. 31, 2020. (Nir Elias / Pool Photo)

When he announced a potentially historic deal last month in which Persian Gulf nation United Arab Emirates said it was preparing to recognize Israel, President Trump predicted other Arab states would quickly follow suit.

But after two trips through the region by senior Trump advisors to build on what they hoped would be momentum from the Emirates deal, no other Arab nation has said it is willing to take the long-shunned leap to accept and recognize Israel as a legitimate Mideast neighbor, at least not until Israel resolves its conflict with Palestinians.

They may be waiting to see what happens with the U.S. election in November, as well as the final details of an Israeli-Emirati deal, expected to be signed later this month or next.

But their hesitance also reflects decades of political and religious tension, in which most of the Arab world steadfastly pretends Israel does not exist.

The Emirates would become only the third Arab country in history to recognize Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Trump's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner traveled Monday on the first publicly acknowledged direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, the Emirates' main city, aboard the Israeli airliner, El Al.

Kushner used his four-day trip to the Middle East to try to entice additional Arab countries to join the Emirates in moving to normalize relations with Israel. That follows a similar sojourn last month by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who traveled to five countries in the region. Both officials came up empty-handed.

One obstacle is the two-decade-old Arab-sponsored peace plan in which countries of the region vowed to not recognize Israel until it resolved its conflict with Palestinians over land claimed by both sides, including some of the world's holiest sites in Jerusalem.

Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians broke down years ago, and relations only worsened under Trump. Earlier this year, Trump unveiled a plan that would clear the way for Israel to permanently annex part of the West Bank land it seized during the 1967 Middle East War, while providing only a sketchy pathway for a viable, independent Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders rejected the plan, as did much of the international community, which views any annexation of occupied West Bank land as illegal.

The Emirates deal, urged by Trump, violates the promise in the so-called Arab Peace Initiative to link diplomatic normalization with Israel to the resolution of the Palestinian conflict. It does, however, include a commitment by Israel to at least temporarily suspend any annexation of land in the West Bank.

The question now is whether the Emirates' breaking of that 2002 covenant with the Palestinians will lead other nations to follow. Decades ago, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominated the region, but more recently it has been overshadowed by turmoil in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Iran.

"It is not just the Israeli-Palestinian issue" anymore, said Eliav Benjamin, a senior official with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "It's far greater than that. It’s the Middle East at large."

The Emirates has been partly motivated by its desire to buy some of the most sophisticated fighter jets in the U.S. arsenal. An undisclosed number of F-35 fighter jets will reportedly be sold to the Emirates, despite Israeli objections.

Palestinians voiced outrage over the Emirati move, calling it a betrayal of their fight for statehood.

"It must be quite demeaning for Arab leaders to be asked to join a meaningless WH spectacle to serve as a backdrop/prop to help a white supremacist Islamophobe win elections," Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian politician, said on Twitter.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Emirates' move as "nonsense."

The Emiratis "have turned their backs on everything: the rights of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian state, the two-state solution, and the holy city of Jerusalem," Abbas said at a rare meeting of feuding factions in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, despite its close relationship with the Trump administration, reiterated that it would not recognize Israel without an agreement with the Palestinians. The Saudis see themselves as leaders of the Sunni Arab world, with custody of Islam's most important religious shrines, and have to tread carefully.

Morocco and Bahrain echoed Saudi Arabia. Morocco is a unique case because it quietly enjoys tolerant relations with Israel. Moroccan Jews make up the second-largest immigrant population in Israel, after Russians, and there are cultural, travel and other connections between the two countries, albeit conducted discreetly.

The official Bahrain New Agency reported that King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa told Pompeo that he would countenance only the two-state solution.

Sudan, receiving Pompeo on Aug. 25, hinted it might come on board but only if it was removed from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Qatar rebuffed Kushner, telling him upon his arrival there Wednesday that only a two-state solution — recognition of an independent Palestinian country alongside Israel — was acceptable.

In U.S.-friendly Kuwait, legislators are pushing through a law that would prohibit normalization and impose a boycott on Israeli goods.

“Kuwait has not changed its position, and it will be the last country to normalize with Israel,” an unnamed government official was quoted as saying in the daily newspaper Al Qabas.

These realities on the ground did not seem to deter Kushner or Pompeo, although their timeline for additional Arab countries joining seemed to be shifting.

Trump, in announcing the Emirates-Israel agreement on Aug. 13, said, "Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates."

Trump's close ally Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed those remarks that day: "There is a good chance we will soon see more Arab countries joining this expanding circle of peace,” he said.

But Kushner this week referred to countries joining "in months," and State Department officials spoke of news by the end of the year. Kushner told reporters he was "100%" certain that additional nations would relent.

Aboard El Al's flight, Kushner told reporters he hoped "this would start a more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond. The future should not be determined by the past."

Pompeo predicted that the administration's opposition to Iran would attract Sunni Arab states that are in conflict with Tehran to join the coalition recognizing Israel. But there is no evidence of that yet.

"This may be it for now," said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel advocacy organization that also supports the two-state solution. He said the sale of the fighter jets to the Emirates — which Netanyahu opposes — was key to its agreement to recognize Israel. But he questioned whether Washington would have any additional weapons packages to offer other countries in the region, just two months before the presidential election.

Benjamin, the Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said Israel and the Emirates had set up seven working groups to tackle various issues, including trade, visas, diplomatic relations and cooperation in space exploration. He predicted a full range of ties would be formalized swiftly.

In many ways, it was a natural and unfettered transition for the Emirates and its de facto leader, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, to recognize Israel. The two countries already had extensive, albeit secret, security and business relationships, and the sheik is so powerful that he can squelch any domestic opposition.

Mohammed emphasizes that his agreement with Israel includes shelving Netanyahu's plan to annex large parts of the West Bank land claimed by Palestinians.

Times staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.