Netanyahu Is Edging Closer to Arab Countries, Just Not the Way You Think

Slowly but surely, the long-standing prime minister and his bunch are shaping Israel into a reflection of neighboring regimes

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FILE PHOTO:  Netanyahu and his wife Sara during an event by his Likud Party, in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017
FILE PHOTO: Netanyahu and his wife Sara during an event by his Likud Party, in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Israel is galloping toward normalization with Arab countries. This, however, doesn’t mean warming ties with our neighbors, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised, and not even melting the ice encasing the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.

The question of control of the Temple Mount, in addition to the end of Israel’s lease of agricultural land in the Arava desert and the Jordan Valley, are deepening Israel’s rift with Jordan. With Egypt, military ties are excellent and President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is already a “brother,” but Israeli books will not be for sale any time soon at the Cairo International Book Fair.

Syria helped find the remains of the body of a missing soldier from the 1982 battle of Sultan Yaaqub, but got a resounding slap in the face when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia, another country that Netanyahu wants to portray as waiting in line to shake Israeli hands, condemned Trump’s declaration about the Golan and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

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As for the Palestinians, they have no intention to renew peace talks, certainly not when the Israeli prime minister speaks openly about annexing parts of the West Bank. When it comes to Gaza, Netanyahu is holding talks, albeit indirect ones, with Hamas. He’s allowing in Qatari money and granting Israeli concessions in return for temporary calm, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is branded by Israel as an anti-Semite, a supporter of terrorism who wants to destroy Israel.

Israel’s diplomatic success, “the best ever,” as the prime minister puts it, is apparently not directed at ties with Arab countries. So why argue that Israel is growing closer to other countries in the region? The answer is in the new way Netanyahu and his bunch are shaping Israel into a reflection of neighboring regimes.

The mere duration of the Netanyahu era is approaching Arab standards. Syrian President Bashar Assad has been in power for 19 years at this point, and so has King Abdullah of Jordan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled continuously for 15 years, while Sissi is closing in on six years — and constitutional amendments will allow him to stay in power almost indefinitely.

In each of these countries, the regime is fighting an all-out war against the media and the judicial system. In Israel, freedom of expression has been maintained but like the Arab countries and Turkey, most private media outlets supported by the government are in the hands of business people close to the political leadership.

In many parts of the Middle East, everyone else is under assault; journalists are being arrested and their editors put on trial when they dare speak out against the government. True, in Israel journalists and editors have not been arrested and criticism is freely aired, but the legitimacy of freedom of expression has reached an all-time low.

The judicial system in Israel faces daily attempts to crush it and to call its integrity into question. The High Court of Justice has long been see as a disaster in the view of right-wing leaders, who consider it a roadside bomb infringing on their freedom to tyrannize. That is precisely Erdogan’s position. He resolved a decade ago, even before the 2016 failed coup, to revise the Turkish justice system under the guise of “strengthening democracy.” He changed the way judges are appointed by appointing academics and intellectuals of his choosing to the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, which is responsible for naming new judges.

The attempted coup gave him the perfect pretext to remove the veteran judicial elite and purge the ranks of the prosecution, which intended to investigate corruption in which he was a suspect. It’s not hard to see that if Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked or someone like her at the helm of Israel’s Justice Ministry, the Turkish revolution, along with a fragrance of fascism, will also be completed in Israel.

In Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, elections hold no surprises. In Turkey, no alternative leader was able to emerge; in Egypt, the army was and will be in charge; and in Jordan, rule is hereditary.

Here too, in theory, Israel presents Turkish model, but with a twist. Like Erdogan, no alternative to Netanyahu has emerged so far, and it seems that Kahol Lavan co-leader Benny Gantz’s chances of replacing him are not great. Despite the large number of parties in Israel, as in Turkey, there is only one ruling coalition, led by a single ruler. And here comes the twist.

In Turkey, there is no illusion as to the essence and quality of its democracy. In Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, the lack of democracy seems to be part of a pact between the people and the government.

In Israel, there is still a complacent belief in the power and magnitude of Israeli democracy. Under such dreamlike circumstances, no spring revolution can be expected here. The inexplicable faith in the fairness of the government in Israel, in the cosmic skills of its leaders and the ability of the media to uncover corruption are like a thin veil over the truth, which is the exact opposite.

As the difference between the regime in Israel and those in the neighboring countries shrinks, the disparity grows between the public in Israel and that in the neighboring countries. Egyptians, Iranians, Algerians, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis thought they could continue to contain the evil until they realized there was no choice but to revolt.

In Israel, protest movements have arisen and with them even the first signs of awareness of the people’s power. But then the government announced the outbreak of “leftist rabies,” which can only be rooted out by a powerful right-wing vaccination. What is left now is only fatalism. Tomorrow will surely be a better day. After all, it’s not like we’re Turkey or Egypt. Here, we can always change the government.

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