By Kristin Stewart, Karin Ehlert, and Latoya Belle
The Abraham Accords—the recent peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain—were formalized in a ceremony at the White House, Sept. 15. The declaration represents a desire for peace, stability, and cooperation between these nations. During the preparations for this event and all that followed, the Department of State staff from the U.S. Embassies in Jerusalem, Manama, and Abu Dhabi found themselves in the middle of history in the making. In normalizing diplomatic relations between these nations, the embassies embarked in cooperation with new counterparts and prepared for historic moments in tourism, education, healthcare, trade, and security. Through their recollections of the planning leading up to the announcement of the accords, representatives from each of the participating embassies clearly illustrate the critical role that collaboration between embassies and nations played in this historic moment.
From Israel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to Bahrain and now Sudan, the U.S.-brokered peace agreements known as the Abraham Accords are transforming diplomatic efforts in the region. Even for a post like Israel that has hosted several high-level leadership visits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—including three visits for the secretary of state—the events surrounding the Abraham Accords were and continue to be representative of a real paradigm shift for the region. For Embassy Jerusalem and its branch office in Tel Aviv, three commercial flights marked history, and resonated with the enthusiasm of veteran public diplomacy staffers.
“After 45 years of working at the U.S. embassy as the official photographer, I have seen and done it all—except for Aug. 31, 2020. That was novel, even for me, to fly on the first El Al commercial flight to the UAE,” said Israeli staffer Matty Stern.
All of Embassy Jerusalem was in full swing that day to arrange for Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner and National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien to give plane-side departure remarks to the media for the flight. Embassy staff wore special face masks with the American, Israeli, and UAE flags printed on them. They also tweeted and live-streamed the momentous occasion and accompanied a pool of 22 U.S. and Israeli journalists on El Al flight LY971 to Abu Dhabi and the return flight, LY972, to Tel Aviv the following day. The flight numbers were a nod to the international phone codes for each country. On board, embassy staff facilitated Kushner’s press gaggle while flying over Saudi airspace for the first time. They then accompanied the press to tour the Louvre Abu Dhabi, thanks to the support from the Embassy Abu Dhabi team. The next day, Information Officer Kristin Stewart split off with the U.S. and international press, at the Emirati government’s request, to accompany them to the Al Dhafra air base where the official U.S. delegation received a briefing and tour. Israeli public diplomacy staff accompanied the Israeli media to visit a mosque and cultural site. The trip was truly memorable, and the much-touted ‘warm peace’ between the Israeli and Emirati delegations was palpable throughout the technical working groups.
Veteran public diplomacy staff, led by Senior Media Advisor Dana Zimmerman, again joined history by accompanying Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin on the first El Al commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Manama—LY973 in honor of the international dialing code for Bahrain, Oct. 18. In Manama, Israeli and Bahraini local staff met and worked together in person for a signing ceremony of Abraham Accords agreements. Israelis had long been blocked from entering other countries in the region and were genuinely thrilled to have contact with embassy counterparts from Bahrain. Ziv Sokolov, the embassy’s videographer of 20 years, and other media team members provided an exclusive live-feed to embassy Facebook followers during the event. This trip marked yet another first since before the peace agreements, even the thought of travel to Bahrain was unrealistic for the Israeli team.
During a third flight, Oct. 20, a massive Etihad 787 Dreamliner arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, carrying the first official Emirati delegation to Israel, dwarfing all other aircraft on the tarmac. Against this dramatic backdrop for the outdoor signing ceremony, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Ambassador David Friedman witnessed the signing of four Abraham Accords annexes for cooperation in science and innovation, visa waivers, aviation, and investment. Adam Boehler, CEO of the Development Finance Corporation, announced the creation of the $3 billion Abraham Fund and named the embassy’s very own Aryeh Lightstone, senior advisor to Ambassador Friedman, as the director. The Abraham Fund is a platform to leverage private sector investment in the Middle East and beyond.
The horizon beyond didn’t take long to come into focus. On Oct. 23, the region’s public diplomacy teams pulled a late Friday-night shift to amplify the White House announcement that Sudan would join the Abraham Accords circle of peace. For the staff working behind the scenes, it was a privilege to be part of this historic moment.
Ever since Bahrain hosted the Peace to Prosperity Workshop in June 2019, momentum toward normalization with Israel has increased across the Gulf region. When King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa congratulated the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel on their signing of the Abraham Accords, Embassy Manama prepared for Bahrain to take the brave step in joining these two nations in their declaration of peace.
Embassy staff learned, Aug. 22, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, and Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus would make Bahrain their base during their trip just days later as they traveled back and forth between Bahrain, the UAE, and then on to Oman. There was no official mention of normalization, but embassy staff members could intuit the impending event. Adding to the intrigue, they learned that there was no time for the secretary to do a press event, so no announcement or update was made publicly available. However, between trips to the UAE, Hook and Ortagus conducted a press roundtable for the major Bahraini dailies. At this point, Hook replied to a Bahraini journalist’s question about normalization, “I don’t need to market the deal,” adding that the Gulf countries themselves were eager for the full range of relations. The reporters thanked the embassy staff profusely for the opportunity to query the leaders. The public affairs team was able to capture—through news reports, photos, and video—the true magnitude of the historic agreement going forward.
Meetings with Bahrain’s king and crown prince were confirmed for the Sept. 1 visit of Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner. Again, the embassy sprang into action for the three-hour stopover.
“We are getting strong indications that Bahrain will announce imminently its normalization with Israel,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary Timothy A. Lenderking on Sept. 11.
No sooner did the embassy receive a message than President Donald J. Trump, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all confirmed the news. Embassy Manama’s consular section rushed to provide visas for the Bahraini delegation to sign the deal in Washington, Sept. 15. Meanwhile, Embassy Manama’s political section consulted local contacts to report the broad-based reaction to Washington just minutes after the signing took place at the White House.
A little over a year after the Peace to Prosperity Workshop in Bahrain, the first commercial flight on Israeli airline El Al made its maiden voyage from Tel Aviv to Bahrain, Oct. 18. The landing of the plane with messages of peace in Hebrew, Arabic, and English embossed on the aircraft represented the culmination of months of Embassy Manama’s intensive efforts to support this seismic moment in the trajectory of the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. This historic flight brought Israeli officials and journalists and Israeli embassy colleagues to the Kingdom for robust discussions that resulted in the signing of a Joint Communique to establish Bahrain-Israel ties and multiple memoranda of understanding to chart broad cooperation across sectors. In advance of this historic flight, the embassy teams worked diligently with a complex group of visitors to make Oct. 18 a huge success—marking the official beginning of Bahrain’s formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
Throughout these fast-paced efforts, Embassy Manama supported the multiple visits and events full force with coordinated support from their entire team, with all sections of management providing seamless support. The Regional Security Office ensured that safety was a top priority. The political and economic sections and public affairs section worked tirelessly to ensure that the Abraham Accords were advanced and celebrated. The trilateral cooperation, business opportunities, and education and cultural programming that will evolve from the Abraham Accords is a true testament to Embassy Manama’s team and their commitment to service.
United Arab Emirates
After the White House’s announcement, Aug. 13, that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel agreed to normalize relations, supporting the implementation of the Abraham Accords quickly became job number one at Embassy Abu Dhabi. The complexity of preparing to welcome a U.S.-Israeli delegation led by Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner was compounded by a variety of factors, including public health regulations resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, bureaucratic issues related to the inaugural flight between Israel and the UAE, and the need to organize and participate in a slew of trilateral and bilateral meetings.
This was Mission UAE’s first high-level leadership visit since the start of the pandemic. The historic visit required days of intense planning, sleepless nights, and support from more than 50 embassy personnel from multiple sections and agencies. This all happened when post had just recently moved to Phase 2 of the Diplomacy Strong framework, with most embassy staffers still working remotely. Ingenuity, dedication, and rigid adherence to safety protocols were required for Team UAE to safely execute their duties.
As hosts, the Emiratis deployed their own fleet of protocol officials, staffers, and resources to ensure all aspects of the visit were seamlessly executed. The Emirati counterparts were particularly keen on ensuring the Israeli delegates felt welcomed and celebrated in the UAE. Embassy staff worked closely as a team with them in the days leading up to and throughout the visit. The rapport embassy staff had developed with working-level Emirati interlocutors over the years and paid dividends during the visit. They could not have asked for a better team to work with.
The inaugural El Al flight was scheduled to land at Abu Dhabi International Airport, Aug. 31. The embassy team arrived at the airport two hours ahead of time to finalize logistical and ceremonial details with Emirati counterparts. The Israeli, American, and Emirati flags stood tall on towering poles lining the terminal entrance. Inside, the terminal buzzed with American, Emirati, and Israeli staffers’ activity, many wearing custom masks featuring the flags of the three Abraham Accords partners.
At 3:38 pm, the embassy team received word that the flight had landed. Everyone quickly made their way outside into the sweltering heat to meet the plane, which was imprinted with “Peace” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic and adorned with the Israeli, American, and Emirati flags. The excitement was palpable as Kushner, National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, and Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat disembarked the plane. They were welcomed by senior Emirati officials and Ambassador John Rakolta Jr., who then gave brief remarks on a red carpet with the Israeli airliner prominently in the background.
Embassy Abu Dhabi welcomed another Abraham Accord visit when a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin joined an Israeli delegation for the Abraham Accords Business Summit, Oct. 19. Mnuchin and his delegation departed the UAE the next day on the inaugural Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv. While there was a bit less pomp and circumstance surrounding the departure of the return flight to Israel than there had been for the inaugural flight to the UAE, there was still a great sense of enthusiasm among the American, Israeli, and Emirati delegations on board. One Emirati official who had studied and spoken Hebrew proudly shared his excitement about participating in the historic flight with embassy staff. The delegations departed the UAE on an Etihad Boeing Dreamliner en route to Tel Aviv, as Rakolta and embassy staff bid them Godspeed.
Kristin Stewart is a press officer at Embassy Branch Office Tel Aviv; Karin Ehlert is the public affairs officer at Embassy Manama; Latoya Belle is a professional associate at Embassy Abu Dhabi.