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Netanyahu Set to Sign UAE, Bahrain Deals in Washington, but Details Still Kept Secret

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat boards the planes as he leaves Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates September 1, 2020.
Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat boards the planes as he leaves Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates September 1, 2020. Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to sign on Tuesday agreements with two Gulf states in an official ceremony at the White House led by U.S. President Donald Trump, culminating a process of establishing full diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

>> Follow Haaretz's live coverage of the White House signing ceremony

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A source in the Israeli delegation to Washington told correspondents, in response to public criticism over hiding the details of the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, that the two sides had agreed not to reveal all the details before the deal was signed – expected at midday Eastern time, or 7 P.M. Israel time – due to the “sensitivity of the wording.” However, the agreements will be brought to the cabinet and Knesset for ratification before they take effect, said this source.

At a later stage, more clauses will be added to the pact with the UAE concerning cooperation in various civic areas. The accord to be signed with Bahrain will be mostly declarative as it was announced only several days ago, which, according to Israeli senior officials, didn't leave enough time to formulate a peace treaty.

However, the officials say that such a treaty would be formulated later on. An American senior official said in a briefing to Israeli reporters overnight Monday that Israel will first sign similar agreement with the UAE and Bahrain, dubbed "the Abraham Accords," adding that separate bilateral agreements with the two Gulf states will be signed later.

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official as he makes his way to board the plane to leave Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. Credit: Nir Elias/Reuters

The concealment of the wording of these agreements was subjected to public criticism on both sides of the political divide in recent days. The right is worried about further Israeli concessions regarding the settlements, in addition to the freeze imposed on annexation, as well as about official Israeli recognition of the two-state solution, meaning a Palestinian state. Such a declaration was apparently requested by the two Gulf states who wish to broadcast to the Arab world that they have not abandoned the Palestinians and the Arab Peace Initiative.

Some on the right are worried about possible new arrangements on the Temple Mount, given that the U.S. administration has mentioned several times that the agreement will enable “all Muslims” to pray freely at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. On the left, beyond claims of a lack of proper procedural conduct, there are concerns that the undisclosed documents contain clauses involving arms deals which have not been approved by Israel’s defense establishment, such as the F-35 fighter jets the Americans are considering selling to the UAE, despite their agreement to maintain Israel’s military edge over Arab armies.

As of now, it is unclear whether these concerns, on all sides, have any basis, but one thing is clear: Repeatedly, even under seemingly favorable circumstances such as the signing of peace agreements with Arab states which up to now only had unofficial relations with Israel, Netanyahu insists on hamstringing his own efforts through a policy of concealment, which by now has become routine for him. Just like he chose to flatly deny the sale of F-35 warplanes to the UAE, instead of honestly telling the public what the Americans requested and what his position was. Or when he boasted about hiding these historic negotiations from his own cabinet partners, and just like he tried to hide until the last moment his attempt to slip out of the country with his family on a private jet, instead of traveling with the rest of the delegation. A day before the ceremonious signing of the agreements at the White House, the vagueness of their wording was causing additional public censure.

Israeli law does not necessarily require a prior approval of international agreements by the cabinet or Knesset. A retroactive ratification is sufficient, with that of the Knesset being of lesser importance. The Prime Minister’s Office responded to criticism by noting that both forums would be asked to ratify the agreements. The stingy release of details and lack of sharing with the public is evoking fury and conspiracy theories galore, which the prime minister will no doubt later term as “sour grapes,” even when some of this comes from his own right-wing camp.

This could easily have been avoided with somewhat more transparency and candor. But there is no one around the prime minister these days to encourage this, even at the cost of detracting from his own grand peace celebrations.

The UAE, Israeli and U.S. flags are picture attached to an air-plane of Israel's El Al, upon it's arrival at the Abu Dhabi airport, August 31, 2020.Credit: AFP

In the same spirit of maintaining distance, this time with concerns about contracting COVID-19 being given as the reason, the prime minister refrained from holding his traditional conversation with correspondents before boarding his flight to Washington. He and his wife waved silently, with his son Yair hastily came on board later. The premier’s other son, Avner, arrived earlier, openly, on the bus with the rest of the delegation. Undoubtedly, the coronavirus dictates more cautious behavior. But only two weeks earlier, senior American administration officials, including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and special adviser Jared Kushner not only flew to Abu Dhabi with the entire Israeli delegation on the same plane, but Kushner gave a long briefing to journalists on that flight. When there’s a will there’s a way.

In general, many times along this journey towards peace with the Arab world, it seems that the U.S. and Gulf states were more open regarding details than Israel’s government. The Emirates also invested much more than Israel did in public campaigns marketing these agreements as positive processes.

These states will be represented at the signing ceremony by their foreign ministers. However, their entourages include many other senior ministers. Israel is represented only by Netanyahu. Only one representative from the foreign ministry, which has been working on these agreements for over 20 years, was allowed to join the trip. That was legal adviser Tal Becker, who is formulating the agreements. Apparently, it was more difficult to exclude him.

The U.S. administration is hoping some other Arab ambassadors to Washington will attend the ceremony. Reuters has reported that only one European Union ambassador, from Hungary, will attend the event. Sources in the European Union told Haaretz that no other European ambassadors were invited. The administration hopes that Sudan, Oman and possibly Morocco will join the Abraham Accords at a later date.

Beside the ceremony, separate meetings with the U.S. president are also expected, as well as joint meetings and a state dinner. Upon his return to Israel from this festive event, Netanyahu will have to deal with the chaos of a second lockdown. He will probably complain, as is his wont, about the lack of praise for his historic diplomatic achievements. For this, he can point a blaming finger only at himself and his associates. Anyone who doesn’t share and explain the details of these diplomatic achievements to the public ensures one thing: that the reality that the public is familiar with – the failed handling of the coronavirus crisis – will take center stage.

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