It was supposed to be a celebratory moment: the first ever public visit by an Israeli prime minister to the United Arab Emirates. But thanks to mismanagement, incompetence and an unhealthy dose of panic, Benjamin Netanyahu’s aborted visit to Dubai has turned, instead, into a national embarrassment.
Netanyahu has been trying to arrange himself an official visit to the Gulf ever since the signing of the Abraham Accords last summer. There were several opportunities in recent months for such a trip, but for various reasons, from COVID-19 to political crises at home, they never materialized.
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The previous cancellation was in February, when businesses all across Israel were shut down as a result of a country-wide lockdown, and Netanyahu decided that it wasn’t the right time for him to fly abroad for a photo opportunity in one of the world’s richest countries.
Netanyahu hoped that a visit to the UAE, a month before Election Day, would improve his Likud party’s numbers in the polls and distract the Israeli public from the growing anger over his endless capitulations to the ultra-Orthodox parties throughout the COVID-19 crisis. But once February ended without a visit, the common assumption in Israeli political and diplomatic circles was that if Netanyahu were to go to the UAE at all, it would be only after the March 23 election. The Emiratis, after all, have no interest in being seen as interfering in internal Israeli politics. They signed a normalization agreement with the state of Israel, not with the Likud party.
Netanyahu also accepted this reality and tried to replace the flight to the Gulf with a different diplomatic "production"– a visit to Israel by the CEO of Pfizer, which was supposed to take place this week and turn the pharmaceutical giant into an active participant in his re-election campaign. Pfizer, however, realized at the very last minute that it was being used by the prime minister for political purposes, and announced that there would be no visit to Israel before the election.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls have shown Likud losing ground and Netanyahu’s potential coalition falling short of a 61-seat majority. In the three previous election cycles, this would have been the moment in which Netanyahu’s pal Donald Trump would have come to his rescue. But unfortunately for Netanyahu, the 45th president no longer resides in the White House.
Netanyahu, in an act of desperation, sent his close confidant, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, to convince the Emiratis to host him – despite the fact that the election is now less than two weeks away. Cohen, who is supposed to be a public servant and stay as far away as he can from party politics, did the exact opposite: he used his ties in the Gulf to engender a last-minute visit by Netanyahu to the UAE, with a clear political motive behind it.
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The visit was announced to the Israeli public on Wednesday and was hailed by Netanyahu’s supporters in the media as his “March surprise.” There were even anonymous leaks asserting that he would meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the trip. Everything was falling into place: just like in 2015, when Republicans in Congress invited him to give a speech behind President Obama’s back exactly two weeks before that year’s Israeli election, Netanyahu was once again going to completely change the public agenda by hopping on a plane.
But for reasons that are still not completely known, the euphoria in the prime minister’s close orbit gave way on Thursday morning to confusion, anxiety and eventually, hysteria. From the early morning hours, reports and rumors were circulating on social media that the visit would once again be cancelled, for the fourth time. Then, Israeli officials began providing contradicting explanations as to why that cancellation was happening.
One official said it was because Sara Netanyahu had undergone a medical procedure overnight. Another said it was because Jordan refused to allow Netanyahu to fly over its territory, a weird explanation, since there are other ways to fly from Israel to the Gulf. Other unnamed officials blamed Cohen for the fiasco, and some analysts suggested that the Emiratis themselves, in fact, had changed their minds, and decided not to turn their country into a set for Netanyahu’s next batch of campaign ads. The bottom line as of Thursday evening was that the visit had been called off, and the public had no way to know why exactly that had happened.
Netanyahu, in his quest to secure a majority that will allow him to cancel the criminal indictment against him, has lost his capacity for feeling shame. But for Israel as a country, the entire ordeal – the unprofessional use of the Mossad for political purposes, the pressure applied on the Emiratis to host the visit, the abrupt cancellation, the attempts to lie to the public about the real reasons behind it, and the final, pathetic act of trying to place the blame on Netanyahu’s political rivals – all of it will go down in the history of the Netanyahu era as one, big national humiliation.