World leaders praise Israel-UAE deal as Palestinians cry foul

AFP , Friday 14 Aug 2020

This combination of pictures created on August 13, 2020, shows a file photo taken on May 28, 2017 of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in Jerusalem and a file photo taken on June 12, 2019 of Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Berlin. (AFP)

World leaders voiced hope Friday that a historic deal between the UAE and Israel could kickstart moribund Middle East peace talks, even as the Palestinians and their supporters denounced the move to normalise ties as a betrayal of their cause.

The agreement, announced by US President Donald Trump on Thursday, is only the third such accord Israel has struck with an Arab country, and raised the prospect of similar deals with other Gulf states.

In it, Israel pledged to suspend its planned annexation of Palestinian lands, a concession welcomed by European and some pro-Western Arab governments as a boost for hopes of peace.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that the deal did not mean Israel was abandoning its plans to one day annex the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements across the occupied West Bank.

News of the agreement was broken by US President Donald Trump, in a tweet hailing a "HUGE breakthrough" and a "Historic Peace Agreement between our two GREAT friends".

He said leaders from the two countries would sign the deal at the White House in around three weeks, evoking memories of previous Middle East peace signings in Washington.

Establishing diplomatic ties between Israel and Washington's Middle East allies, including the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, has been central to Trump's regional strategy to contain Iran, also an arch-foe of Israel.


Palestinian anger

Netanyahu hailed a "historic day" he said would launch a "new era" for the Arab world and Israel.

The Palestinians strongly rejected the deal, calling it a "betrayal" of their cause, including their claim to Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

They also announced they were withdrawing their ambassador from the Emirates, and demanded an emergency Arab League meeting.

Announcing the deal in a joint statement, Trump, Netanyahu and UAE's leader Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said that they had "agreed to the full normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates".

They added that Israel would "suspend declaring sovereignty" over occupied Palestinian West Bank areas -- an idea proposed in Trump's controversial earlier plan to resolve the conflict.

Sheikh Mohamed quickly stressed in a tweet that "during a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories".

But Netanyahu said shortly afterwards in a television address that he had only agreed to delay, not cancel, the annexations, that the plans remained "on the table" and that he would "never give up our rights to our land".

Among other US allies in the Gulf, both Bahrain and Oman put out statements backing the normalisation deal.

But there was no immediate word from the region's heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which is likely to be cautious owing to the complex political calculations involved.


Annexation relief

The controversial Trump plan, unveiled in January, had offered a path for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements across the occupied West Bank, communities considered illegal under international law.

The Palestinians rejected the plan outright as biased and untenable, as did Israel's Arab neighbours, and it sparked fears of further escalation in a tense region.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said he hoped Israel's suspension of annexations under the plan could help realise a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Annexation would "effectively close the door" on negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and "destroy the prospect" of a viable Palestinian state, he said.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, which signed a treaty with Israel in 1979 to opposition from across the Arab world, praised the deal on "the halt of Israel's annexation of Palestinian land," and said he hoped it would bring "peace".

His stance was echoed by US allies in Europe.

"The decision taken within this framework by the Israeli authorities to suspend the annexation of Palestinian territories is a positive step, which must become a definitive measure," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Meanwhile non-Arab Iran and Turkey, both supporters of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group which controls the Gaza Strip, lashed out at the UAE's "betrayal".

"While betraying the Palestinian cause to serve its narrow interests, the UAE is trying to present this as a kind of act of self-sacrifice for Palestine," the Turkish foreign ministry said.

The Iranian foreign ministry said Palestinians would "never forgive the normalising of relations with the criminal Israeli occupation regime."

The deal marks a major foreign policy achievement for Trump as he heads into a difficult campaign for re-election in November.

His presumptive Democratic challenger for the presidency Joe Biden welcomed the "historic" agreement and called the UAE's move a "badly-needed act of statesmanship".

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