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Did Israel Just Sign a Peace Agreement With the Right People?

Normalizing relations with the UAE and Bahrain is probably Netanyahu's greatest achievement, but it is no peace, as Gaza factions reminded the prime minister

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House, September 15, 2020.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House, September 15, 2020. Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Palestinians launched a couple of rockets from Gaza toward Israeli cities on Tuesday during the signing ceremony in Washington of the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. One rocket hit Ashdod and wounded a few civilians. But the Palestinian organization that fired the rockets was simply trying to set the record straight: They were the ones who had been at war with Israel all these years.

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To hear Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu talk at the White House, you could have imagined that the UAE and Bahrain, the two small Gulf states 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) away, had invaded Israel at its birth in 1948, cut off the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, launched a surprise assault on Yom Kippur and a couple of intifadas. Trump called the UAE “a great warring country,” and said that until he came along, “they just fought and did nothing else.” Netanyahu, taking his cue, rhapsodized on his own military days and how “those who bear the wounds of war cherish the blessings of peace.”

The deals he was signing, Netanyahu went even further, were a “pivot of history,” and would “ultimately end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all.”

Trump’s bizarre reinvention of Middle Eastern history is perhaps understandable. He has visions of “blood all over the sand for decades and decades.” Netanyahu, the son of a historian, who actually fought in some of those wars, has no excuse for this false narrative.

The problem with the agreements is not that they're not significant. They are. Historic even. The first open acknowledgement of Israel’s hitherto secret alliance with the Arab Gulf nations and the willingness of the Emiratis and Bahrainis to “normalize” relations is a major breakthrough for Israel in a strategic and lucrative part of the Middle East.

And yes, it is a personal success and vindication for Netanyahu, who has claimed for decades, in the face of diplomatic dogma, that Israel does not have to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to open up to the region. So why does he have to oversell and misrepresent his undisputed achievement?

A month ago, when the deal with the UAE was first announced, he tried to deny that as a result of their open engagement with Israel, the Emiratis would be allowed to buy F-35 stealth fighter jets, despite the American commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge. He could have acknowledged the truth, at least to his own ministers. Instead, he denied, lied and obfuscated, so he could repeat the myth of “peace for peace.” Even Trump himself has been more honest on that side of the deal, repeatedly expressing his support for selling F-35s to the UAE. On Tuesday, he actually called the agreement “a transaction.”

But that myth is essential for Netanyahu. Because he knows that he won’t solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. He won’t pay any price for that. Not even the truncated, moth-eaten statelet that the Trump plan offers the Palestinians. So he needs to trumpet the “peace” he is making, with countries Israel never fought with, and pretend that the conflict is the “Arab-Israeli” one. Even though Israel hasn’t fought a war with an Arab country in nearly 40 years (the last time was in 1982, when it fought the Syrian army on Lebanese soil).

Normalizing relations with Arab countries is the most positive aspect (some would argue the only one) of Netanyahu’s legacy. But it isn’t making peace, as the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza reminded us during the ceremony. Israel is still at war with them.

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