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Netanyahu’s Gulf Breakthrough: It’s His Party and He’ll Cry if He Wants To

The prime minister’s toxic reputation is denying him the peacemaker glory he yearns for

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of a COVID-19 contact tracing center in Ramle, October 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of a COVID-19 contact tracing center in Ramle, October 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu was gushing about laundry machines this week as he watched the Liberian-registered cargo ship MSC Paris unloading a cargo shipment from Dubai to the Port of Haifa. “This is already bringing down the prices of washing machines, electronic instruments and food,” he marveled. “You, the citizens of Israel, are enjoying the fruits of peace now, not later, not in the future – now!”

Netanyahu’s hyperbole was bound to fall on mostly deaf ears, and he knew it. An Israeli public – besieged by COVID-19, terrified of its economic consequences and skeptical of Netanyahu’s ability to handle either because of his impending criminal trial – was unlikely to be cheered by his pep talk, even if it hadn’t been so silly.  So, Netanyahu doubled down.

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“You must understand,” he implored. “Israel was once a dead-end street. You could only enter and exit it from the West. You were shackled. Now it’s turning into a central technological, commercial and human hub, on water and in the air. You can fly in any direction, over Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It’s a really big thing! This is a historic day! Truly historic!”

A worker carries Israeli and Emirati flags, after containers carrying goods from the United Arab Emirates, which entered Israel on an MSC cargo ship, were unloaded in Haifa, October 12, 2020.
A worker carries Israeli and Emirati flags, after containers carrying goods from the United Arab Emirates, which entered Israel on an MSC cargo ship, were unloaded in Haifa, October 12, 2020. Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

You could hear the excitement and jubilation in Netanyahu’s voice but also see the frustration and desperation in his eyes. Netanyahu realized he was trying too hard and that everyone else knew it but he couldn’t desist. The more he hyped his rhetoric, the more pathetic he seemed.

Netanyahu’s “peace with no price tag” with Gulf states was supposed to be his moment of triumph and glory – especially in the eyes of his critics and enemies on the Arab-loving left. He dreamt of ticker-tape parades but woke up tarred and feathered, just like before.

By all objective measures, the normalization agreements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, along with the more modest thawing of ties with Saudi Arabia and the imminent U.S.-brokered deal with Sudan, should be viewed as major milestones in Israel’s regional standing and relations with the Arab world. If anyone of his predecessors had engineered such a breakthrough he or she would have been hailed as historic peacemakers, but Netanyahu is being denied. He points an accusing finger at the media and the elites, as he often does when he has mainly himself to blame.

Netanyahu’s expectation that anyone on the center-left would set differences aside and extol his normalization deals with far-flung and exotic Gulf princedoms is only slightly less ludicrous than Donald Trump’s assumption that the Abraham Accords would endear him to U.S. Democrats or liberal American Jews. After years of toxic incitement against political rivals, which turned public arenas into fierce and bloody battlegrounds, Netanyahu and Trump are still looking for love, like the obsessively self-absorbed narcissists they are.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, U.S. President Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, all maskless, at the Abraham Accords signing at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020
Prime Minister Netanyahu, U.S. President Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, all maskless, at the Abraham Accords signing at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP

Compounding Netanyahu’s lament, the celebrations in his own right-wing backyard fell far short of expectations as well. Exuberance about the emergence of a “new Middle East”, as Shimon Peres dubbed it, doesn’t come naturally to right-wing nationalists at the best of times. But when Netanyahu’s diplomatic coup is framed as a consolation prize for bowing to U.S. pressures to renege on annexation, most right-wingers can barely grin and bear it.

Netanyahu might have fared better if he’d indicated, before or after the fact, that his July 1 annexation promise was simply the bait that had gotten Gulf countries to bite. Instead of being perceived as Trump’s poodle, Netanyahu might have gone down in history as a cunning Kissinger or manipulating Metternich. He fears, however, that toying with the pro-settlement right wingers and leading them on with false promises of redeeming the Land of Israel might be seen by settlers and their supporters as a graver sin than simply caving in to Trump.

The reports of a secret side deal in which Netanyahu gave tacit agreement for the U.S. to sell advanced F-35 aircraft to the UAE also managed to rain on Netanyahu’s parade. Not only did subsequent public statements by Trump and other administration officials about the up-and-coming arms deal undercut Netanyahu’s denial, the immediate and inevitable association of most Israelis was to the so-called submarine affair, dubbed criminal case 3000. If Netanyahu ordered billion-dollar submarines from the German builder ThyssenKrupp for his own corrupt reasons, as alleged, who is to say that he didn’t have a personal stake in the sale of U.S. F-35’s to the UAE as well?

In fact, when Netanyahu visited the Haifa dockyards earlier this week, he was still elated by the attorney general’s decision not to launch an official criminal investigation of the submarine affair. But instead of being laid to final rest, the pandemonium that broke out in the Knesset on Wednesday after a majority vote for establishing a commission of inquiry was quashed by Speaker Yariv Levin brought it back to life, big time.

A protest outside Netanyahu's official residence calling to investigate the submarine affair, July 20, 2020
A protest outside Netanyahu's official residence calling to investigate the submarine affair, July 20, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu has been proclaiming his innocence, but his behavior and that of his underlings continues to broadcast that he’s got something major to hide.

Most Israelis, including his supporters, no longer believe Netanyahu anyway. One poll released this week showed that two thirds of the public believe the Netanyahu government’s decisions in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic were politically motivated. In an earlier poll, a similar majority said that Netanyahu’s decisions are guided, first and foremost, by his never-ending quest to avert criminal trial. As Trump has amply proven over the past four years, a leader can continue to command the loyalty of his political base even after most of its members realize that his word cannot be trusted.

Which is why Netanyahu’s breakthrough diplomatic deal with the Gulf countries, along with his promises of its untold financial rewards, are being taken with more than a grain of salt. Netanyahu may feel that he’s been vindicated; that his close alliance with Trump has paid off big time; that he’s succeeded in pushing the Palestinians to the sidelines even though, as Trump would put it “everyone said it couldn’t be done”; and that he therefore deserves recognition and accolades. But the more he yearns for glory and pursues, the more it eludes him and sets him on edge.

He had it coming, his detractors would say, and they’re probably right. The problem is that Netanyahu was already playing the martyr and seething with rage and self-pity before Dubai and Manama opened their arms. Now he’s even more exasperated, more incensed and potentially, more dangerous than ever.

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