Netanyahu’s Humiliation Campaign Against Arab Allies Takes Off

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a Channel 20 conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a Channel 20 conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The Kafkaesque events surrounding the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Abu Dhabi, and even earlier the nixing of the walkabout on the Temple Mount by Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein, are further proof that the prime minister is neither Mr. Security nor a security asset. Not only is he repeatedly damaging relations with Jordan, which are cool already, he’s insulting the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Four times now Netanyahu has canceled his meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE; the fourth time came last Thursday. Netanyahu and his confidant, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, pressed for a hasty two-hour meeting at the airport, whose only purpose was a photo-op for the final days of Israel’s election campaign. Prince Mohammed realized he’d be an extra on the set of the campaign, was unenthusiastic, but he agreed. But then things started to go wrong.

Netanyahu has always flown to his official visits abroad on Israeli airlines, or on private planes leased from businesspeople; the Prime Minister’s Office pays. As a symbol of the government, a prime minister is expected to fly on such visits on Israeli planes. Israel has a special plane for prime ministers, but it’s going begging at Nevatim air force base. To date it has cost over 700 million shekels ($212 million) and there’s more to come, but Netanyahu has never stepped on board.

For some reason, the Prime Minister’s Office decided this time that the flight to Abu Dhabi would take place on one of the luxurious planes of Falcon Aviation, a company belonging to the Emirati royal family. On Wednesday, one such plane took off for Amman, where it waited at the airport.

One of the luxurious planes of Falcon Aviation landing in Israel on Tuesday.

It’s unclear whether it was supposed to continue on early the next day to Ben-Gurion Airport to pick up Netanyahu and his entourage, or as could be understood from Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Netanyahu intended to arrive in Amman on a different plane or helicopter and from there continue on to Abu Dhabi.

But on Wednesday night two incidents took place; in the first, Sara Netanyahu felt unwell, and it soon turned out she needed an appendectomy. In the second incident, an advance Jordanian party arrived in Israel to complete preparations for Prince Hussein’s visit, including a prayer on the Temple Mount. But the delegates got into an argument with the Shin Bet security service over security issues including the number of armed bodyguards who could guard the crown prince. The Shin Bet declined to comment.

According to the 1994 peace agreement, Jordan has special status as the custodian of Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount. Such matters are usually decided in quiet discussions between the Shin Bet and the Jordanian security service. But for some reason things heated up this time.

Just change the flight path

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the Saudi Cup horse race in Riyadh last month.Credit: Ahmed Yosri / Reuters

Whatever the case, the prince felt insulted, and after consultation with his father, King Abdullah, he canceled the visit – and each side is holding the other responsible. In response to the fiasco, Abdullah decided to “take revenge” on Netanyahu and not let him pass through Jordan on his way to Abu Dhabi.

Whether that’s the real reason for the scuttling of the visit to the Gulf, whether Netanyahu’s exit was prevented or he decided at the last moment to take care of his wife, the prime minister’s behavior in this saga is surprising. If he really wanted a flight to Abu Dhabi, he could have leased another plane and gone around Jordanian airspace. He didn’t do that.

In addition, according to journalist Ben Caspit, Netanyahu ordered that Jordan be punished; planes leaving Amman would not be allowed to pass through Israeli airspace. Such an order breaches the peace treaty between the two countries. It wasn’t carried out, which prevented a further deterioration of the fragile relations with the Hashemite Kingdom.

For dessert, it was reported that Netanyahu canceled the planned visit to Abu Dhabi by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Here the message was actually clear: If I’m not flying to Abu Dhabi, nobody will.

Regarding the use of a plane belonging to the Emirati royal family, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “This is not a precedent. The prime minister often flies on various aircraft. In visits to India and Switzerland he flies on local planes, and the same is true of other places. The flight path was approved by the relevant authorities.”

Jordan's King Abdullah giving a speech in parliament in Amman last December.Credit: Yousef Allan / Royal Hashemite Court via AP

Bibi has always done it

Whatever Netanyahu’s calculations, in the flight saga he’s also being revealed as someone who subordinates Israel’s most important strategic ties to his personal, political, family or legal interests.

His manipulative use of national security to promote his own needs didn’t originate with the formation of the unity government with Benny Gantz or his return to power in 2009. This characteristic has existed from nearly his first day in politics; only the dosage and chutzpah have increased.

Already in 1995, when he headed he opposition, Netanyahu didn’t hesitate to reveal a secret document (the “Stauber document”) on preparations for a meeting between then-army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and his Syrian counterpart, Hikmat al-Shihabi. In 2007, again as opposition leader, he hinted that he was in on the secret of the operation to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor, revealing what was then considered a state secret.

Last week Netanyahu’s blabbing of secrets also crossed the southern border. On Facebook, the prime minister claimed that in 2011 he faked out Egypt when he threatened to send helicopters after the mob attack at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, when the fate of dozens of diplomats and their families was in question. Incidentally, the people who handled this crisis and achieved a peaceful conclusion were the heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad at the time, Yoram Cohen and Tamir Pardo, their Egyptian counterparts and then-U.S. President Barack Obama. At Egypt’s expense, Netanyahu bragged without thinking about the possible diplomatic consequences.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at conference in Jeruslaem, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In an interview with Channel 13 News on Saturday night, he exhibited the same behavior toward Saudi Arabia. When referring to the saga of the flight to Abu Dhabi, Netanyahu said that “there were also problems with missiles flying over Saudi Arabia last week. I don’t want to get into it.” I wonder if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman enjoyed hearing this revelation.

In any case, this hurling of insults doesn’t prevent Netanyahu from being pleasant in other places that could help him in the run-up to Election Day on March 23. This week a delegation of senior officials returned from Mali in West Africa; the results of the visit are unclear and the Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to Haaretz’s inquiries on the subject.

The Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain and the agreements with Morocco and Sudan also originated during an election period, with the exclusion of the defense and foreign ministers and the army chief, and in an attempt to mislead the air force commander. These accords couldn’t have been concluded without Mossad head Cohen and the national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, loyally carrying out the prime minister’s instructions.

The fact that in 2009 and 2010 then army-chief Ashkenazi, Mossad head Meir Dagan and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin demanded that Netanyahu base his most sensitive decisions on the law are a distant memory a decade later.

Whatever the case, it seems Netanyahu’s untrammeled leveraging of security issues into Knesset seats in the election campaign, while undermining the value of statesmanship and symbols like the Mossad, went too far even for Cohen’s taste. On Saturday night Netanyahu said he was proud of Cohen and was designating him for a position in the future.

This was interpreted that Netanyahu intends to appoint the Mossad chief, when he retires in about two months, to a position in his government. In a manner unusual for him, Cohen released a clarification: “There is no political connection between me and the prime minister and Likud. All activities are carried out for the sake of the State of Israel, regardless of the identity of its head.” Not everybody was impressed by this clarification.

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