With Signing, White House Touts Efforts To Reshape Middle East

Sep 15, 2020
Originally published on September 15, 2020 6:36 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today at the White House, Israel will sign agreements with two Arab nations - the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel says this is a big step towards being accepted by the Arab world. But the Arabs living alongside Israelis, the Palestinians, won't be there. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Jerusalem to preview today's ceremony. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: Let's start by talking about how these deals came about.

ESTRIN: Well, you probably remember that President Trump came to office - he was talking about wanting to be the one to make Israeli-Palestinian peace. So he put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on the task working on that for years. And Kushner presented a plan in January, and that peace plan went nowhere. It favored Israeli positions. Palestinians lost Trump in - lost trust in Trump a long time ago. So that peace plan went nowhere. And then Israel said it was going to go ahead and annex land that Palestinians claim in the occupied West Bank. Then comes the United Arab Emirates and says, Israel, don't do that. And in return, we will offer diplomatic ties. Now, Israel had already, you know, basically given up annexation plans because they were so widely opposed. But that was basically an opening for the Trump administration to say, you know what? This is our peace plan now - Israeli peace with Gulf Arab states. And so the administration lobbied other countries to join, and Bahrain did so. And now the administration is hoping more Arab countries will join and hoping that Palestinians feel the heat and come to the peace table.

MARTIN: So how are the Palestinians viewing this?

ESTRIN: Palestinians feel betrayed by this. Until now, most Arab countries in the world followed a rule that you don't make peace with Israel until the Palestinians get their own state and they resolve their own conflict with Israel. But now everything has changed. I mean, even the Arab League has refused to condemn these new deals with Israel. So Palestinians see that things are changing in the Middle East. It's even brought rival Palestinian political parties together, Hamas and Fatah. They are holding a joint protest today for the first time in ages. And Palestinian officials I've been speaking with say, you know what? We do still have some cards to play. We're not totally cornered. We have our own supporters in the world. They talk about liberal Americans, Arab societies which are still heavily support the Palestinians even though their governments are changing.

MARTIN: So this could have all gone down without a big signing ceremony at the White House. But nevertheless, that is what is happening. And intentionally so because there are political benefits for the parties involved, right?

ESTRIN: Oh, yeah. I mean, everyone gets to play a role in this big spectacle that's very important to President Trump. He really needs this boost right now. He's fighting an uphill reelection campaign. So he gets to show he's a peacemaker. These Arab countries want to please the U.S. They have their own interests from the U.S. And the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing a major COVID crisis back home. Israelis are honestly focused more on getting ready for this three week lockdown that's coming up on Friday. So there are some unspoken disagreements happening today. The White House is not requiring face masks at the ceremony, even though the Israeli delegates have been adhering to these very strict COVID protocols.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem on this new diplomatic agreement being signed at the White House today. Daniel, thank you. We appreciate it.

ESTRIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.