In UAE Deal, Netanyahu Trades Imaginary Annexation for Real Life Diplomacy Win

PM shows peace with Arab states can be achieved at no real cost for Israel

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu checks the area map during visit to Ariel settlement in the West Bank, February 24, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu checks the area map during visit to Ariel settlement in the West Bank, February 24, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Benjamin Netanyahu never had a real plan for annexing parts of the West Bank. There was no timetable, no map, no draft resolution to be brought to the government or the Knesset. Just a pile of broken election promises and a lot of empty talk. On Thursday, that plan he never planned to carry out has bought him a significant diplomatic coup.

The joint declaration with the United Arab Emirates is not yet a full peace plan. There is no clear commitment from the Emiratis on doing anything yet, certainly not opening embassies in either country any time soon. But this remains the most visible and concrete recognition by an Arab Gulf region state of the hitherto secret alliance with Israel. It is an achievement for Netanyahu that his predecessors, who were prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinians, only dreamed of – and he paid nothing for it beyond what he called the “temporary suspension” of the annexation he was never going to carry out anyway.

Those prime ministerial predecessors, the late Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, the two Ehuds, Barak and Olmert, backed up by the “international community” and the peace process industry all warned that Israel was facing global isolation, diplomatic tsunamis and an avalanche of boycotts if it didn’t accept Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu called their bluff and at least last night he was vindicated. The Arab states are barely paying lip service to the Palestinians cause, if that.

A generation of Western diplomats who thought that Israel needs to pay in hard currency for any such breakthrough with the Arab world were tearing their hair out last night. During the Oslo years, they tried so hard to get such a statement from one of the major Arab nations in return for Israel’s compromises with the Palestinians. Now Netanyahu has got it for nothing. In 2018 the Saudis for the first time allowed overflights of its territory to Israel, and now the Emiratis are talking about direct flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai.

It’s too early to say whether this will help Netanyahu on the domestic front. This won’t erase his abject failure in dealing with the coronavirus epidemic, or save him from his day in court when the evidentiary stage of his corruption case begins in January, but it will bolster his image of indispensability as Israel’s master statesman. If yet another election is held in the coming months, he will have at least something to use to try distract voters’ attention away from the COVID-19 recession and his corruption.

Netanyahu announces full diplomatic ties will be established with the United Arab Emirates, during a news conference in Jerusalem on Thursday, August 13, 2020.Credit: ABIR SULTAN,AP

The big losers of this development are yet again the Palestinians. Yet another Arab regime is inching towards peace with Israel while they are no closer to statehood. They have been abandoned once again. And to make things worse, even the next U.S. administration, assuming Joe Biden wins in November, endorsed the agreement brokered by the Trump administration. The Biden-Harris campaign welcomed the development as a “brave, and badly-needed act of statesmanship” and promised to “build on this progress.”

For the last three decades, the “peace camp” has warned that Israel will become an “international pariah” if it doesn’t solve the Palestinian issue. That isn’t going to happen any time soon, even after Donald Trump leaves the White House. Neither the Arab world nor the international community has much time or appetite right now and for the foreseeable future for exerting any serious pressure on Israel.

The Palestinian issue hasn’t gone away. There are still millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza without rights. But the entire case that was used to argue for a solution has collapsed. It’s hard to claim right now that the 53-year-old occupation is “unsustainable” when Netanyahu has just proved that not only is it sustainable, but Israel can improve its ties with the Arab world, openly, with the occupation still going.

This needs to be a moment of reckoning for those who still believe the Palestinian predicament is an injustice that must be solved by two states, one state or any state. The threats against Israeli intransigence have proven as empty as Netanyahu’s promise of annexation. An entire new case for peace with the Palestinians must now be assembled.

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