Analysis

Gaza Rockets Bring Palestinians to the White House Lawn

But Israel's normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain confirmed that Netanyahu was right in claiming that diplomatic breakthroughs in the Middle East are possible without a solution to the conflict

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Smoke and flames are seen following an Israeli air strike in the Khan Yunis town of the southern Gaza Strip, September 16, 2020.
Smoke and flames are seen following an Israeli air strike in the Khan Yunis town of the southern Gaza Strip, September 16, 2020.Credit: SAID KHATIB / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the middle of the Israel’s signing ceremony on Tuesday in Washington with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, there were those who were not invited to the White House who in their own unique way decided to take part in it. Two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at the southern Israeli coastal town of Ashdod, injuring five people. (And overnight, 13 more rockets were fired).

Even prior to that, the celebratory atmosphere seemed somewhat forced given the spike in coronavirus cases in Israel. Yet in the middle of the ceremony, in addition to the other worries facing the people of the Ashdod and vicinity, immediate and tangible concern over being hit by a rocket was added to the list.

The Hamas government in Gaza was probably not directly behind the rocket launches. It was just two weeks ago that a cease-fire was reached with Israel, mediated by Qatar and Egypt. The Hamas leadership now hopes for increased medical assistance from Israel, in light of the spread of COVID-19 in Gaza. From Hamas’ standpoint, this isn’t the time to play with fire.

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It is more likely that a small Palestinian faction was responsible. The immediate suspect is Islamic Jihad, which may have been influenced by its Iranian patrons.

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House.
President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP

Tehran is very worried about Israel’s rapprochement with the UAE and Bahrain, which could later expand to include closer ties with Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration is now strengthening its strategic presence in the region against the Iranians, and it appears that Iran will do as much as it can to interfere with these designs.

What we’ve seen so far may not necessarily be the last word. Tehran could try to initiate a major terrorist attack in one of the Gulf states in response to the agreement, or it could urge Hezbollah or one of the Shi’ite militias operating under its auspices in Syria to mount attacks from the Lebanese and Golan Heights borders. This week it was reported that an Iranian plan was thwarted to exact belated revenge for the American assassination in January in Iraq of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani – by assassinating the American ambassador to South Africa.

From sublime to strange and ridiculous

As seen through the live television coverage here in Israel, the White House ceremony itself appeared to be a combination of the sublime, the strange and even the slightly ridiculous. It was, first and foremost, Donald Trump’s show. The American president needed to chalk up a foreign policy achievement, and he is apparently still fantasizing about getting the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor that his predecessor Barack Obama, whom he detests, received (without real justification near the beginning of his presidency). All of Trump’s close partners in the Middle East, in the diplomatic sphere and perhaps in business as well, were enlisted for this latest foreign policy mission.

Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, who is not a Trump fan, was harsh in his description of the agreement in an interview with Israel’s Channel 13 News. The pact, Saban said, was peace with Israel in exchange for the sale of American F-35 stealth aircraft to the UAE; the Israeli decision to scrap plans to annex portions of the West Bank was designed to calm the Palestinians; and annexation had been a pipe dream in any event.

Trump’s speech, the text of which he read, was relatively cautious and quite boring compared to most of his public appearances. But at a short press conference with Israeli reporters, there was a bit more typical Trump-like rhetoric.

It is again apparent that the president views the Middle East as one huge desert of blood and sand; that he’s convinced that the Israelis and population of the Gulf states have fought one another in the past in terrible and disastrous wars; and that he intends to wrap up the aircraft sale despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s denials and evasions.

In contrast to Trump, Netanyahu gave an excellent speech. When he spoke of the price his family paid in combat with the death of his brother Yoni, the truth of his remarks was apparent.

Trump misspoke earlier when he said “even Bibi gets tired of war.” Netanyahu has never liked war. He has chalked up a major achievement indeed in bringing in two more Arab countries to sign peace agreements with Israel, decades after his predecessors Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin did so with Egypt and Jordan respectively.

As he has claimed, Netanyahu has in fact managed to dispel the paradigm that it was impossible to achieve a full, public breakthrough with additional Arab countries without a solution to the Palestinian conflict. But he is not correct in claiming that the agreement with the United Arab Emirates is based solely on the formula of “peace in exchange for peace.” Israel gave quite a bit to the other side in return.

A storefront damaged by a rocket in Ashdod.
A storefront in Ashdod damaged by a rocket from Gaza, Sept. 15, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

West Bank annexation is off the table now, as the UAE foreign minister said at the ceremony; agreements behind the scenes probably include at least a slowdown in construction in the settlements; and the F-35 sale by the Americans is expected to go through.

The Arab representatives were the only ones at the ceremony who mentioned the elephant in the room – the Palestinian problem. A lot of water has flowed through the Potomac since the ceremony in Washington in January where president’s Middle East peace plan was unveiled. Not much remains of the elation expressed at the time by the Israeli prime minister’s associates in the American capital who were talking about the application of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank the following Sunday. Now the question is whether Trump and his advisers will somehow be able to persuade the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

The prospects don’t appear high. It’s more likely that the Palestinian Authority will prefer to wait a bit, in the hope of victory by Joe Biden in November’s presidential election.

The masks were off

Throughout the entire ceremony, COVID-19 social distancing rules were completely abandoned. There was total contrast between the scene on the South Lawn and in the White House and the strict rules enforced at the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence these days, where masks, gloves and even shoe coverings are required before entering.

In light of this, the decision to exempt Netanyahu’s large delegation from two weeks of quarantine upon their return to Israel is strange. Granted that some effort was made to restrict those in attendance in Washington to smaller pods and that it was decided to require coronavirus tests prior to the trip and before entering the White House.

 Netanyahu and Trump and their wives at the White House
Netanyahu and Trump and their wives at the White House, Sept. 15, 2020.Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

And still, there is a sharp, disturbing contrast between the rules that Netanyahu sets for himself and those that he demands of Israel’s citizens, who on Friday will be subject to a painful second lockdown following the spike in the number of coronavirus cases that the country has been seeing.

Beyond that, the lockdown is deeply controversial among the public and among experts. With such conduct on the part of senior officials and in light of the all-time low in the public’s confidence in the steps the country is taking, it looks like the government will be approaching its next steps in dealing with the pandemic sorely bereft of credit on the part of the public.

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