Netanyahu’s Split Screen: Triumphant Peace, Hamas Rockets, Coronavirus Carnage and Trump’s Meshugas

Celebration of Gulf agreements marred by wholesale White House snub of elementary safety precautions against raging pandemic

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan speaks at the White House as rocket alarms in Israel flash across the screen
United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan speaks at the White House as rocket alarms in Israel flash across the screen Credit: Channel 13 News
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The full texts of Israel’s “Treaty of Peace” with the United Arab Emirates, the “Declaration of Peace” with Bahrain and the joint, cheesy sounding “Abraham Accords Declaration” endorsed by the U.S. are bound to be welcomed and embraced by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. If one ignores reports and rumors of alleged backroom deals and supposedly concealed concessions that allegedly facilitated the agreements, Benjamin Netanyahu has delivered sweet-dream diplomatic deals that promise dramatic benefits at minimal cost. What’s not to like? 

The agreements give Israelis genuine, complete and immediate “normalization”, unlike anything they’ve experienced or even dreamed of. The accords dangle the prospect of tapping into billions of Gulf petrodollars, just waiting to be invested in Israeli industry and technology.

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And after weeks of intense secrecy by Netanyahu and suspicious scrutiny by the media, the mountain, as Aesop wrote, gave birth to a mouse. The obligatory mentions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which might have upset Netanyahu’s right-wing flank in theory, turned out to be bland and benign. Laced with platitudes and generalities equivalent to motherhood and apple pie, the Palestinian chapter in the accord should be easily digestible for all but the most fringe and radical.

The marginalization of the Palestinians was highlighted in their complete absence from the festive speeches delivered at Tuesday’s signing ceremony at the White House by both Netanyahu and Donald Trump. Which is probably why Hamas decided to mar the occasion with a pointed volley of Qassam rockets fired at Ashkelon and Ashdod right after Netanyahu finished his speech, reminding Israelis that while they make “peace” with exotic Arab princedoms thousands of miles away, Palestinians remain disenfranchised and disgruntled enemies just beyond their front doors.

The juxtaposition of new Gulf opportunities with old Palestinian threats created what many Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu, have come to dread most during their trips abroad: the split TV screen. The contrast between hobnobbing, well-groomed elites celebrating peace on the South Lawn and shell-shocked Israelis surrounded by the rubble left by a rocket that exploded in Ashdod after evading Iron Dome was but one of several grim realities that rained on Netanyahu’s parade and tarnished his otherwise stellar diplomatic feat.

By the same token, the screen should have actually split into three: Israel’s losing battle against the coronavirus pandemic, which marked 5,000 new cases on Tuesday alone and witnessed the complete collapse of its testing apparatus, deserved equal billing alongside the White House extravaganza and the carnage in the South. Especially after Netanyahu deferred to Trump’s coronavirus meshugas, abandoning the masks and social distancing mandated by his own cabinet in order to avoid causing even the slightest offense or embarrassment to his U.S. benefactor and host.

The specter of America’s top leadership openly flouting vital safety measures and thus endangering themselves and others mortified international viewers, tempering their already lukewarm appreciation for the Palestinian-less peace agreements being signed. It was a stark reminder that even when his administration can justifiably boast of an objectively impressive achievement, it invariably comes with Trump’s destructive derangement in tow.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP

By suborning their well-known personal fear of infection and discarding the safety measures deemed vital by the Israeli cabinet, Netanyahu, his wife Sara and the entire Israeli delegation to the talks implicitly endorsed Trump’s ignorant and arrogant approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Their behavior, which seemed reckless to viewers back home, undercut Netanyahu’s earlier claim that “professional recommendations” mandated that he travel to Washington on a private jet in order to ensure his health and safety, a decision ultimately reversed in the face of outraged protests in the media and public opinion.

Symbolically, Netanyahu’s surrender to Trump’s lethal whims came on the very day that the number of U.S. deaths by disease passed the grim benchmark of 200,000 and Bob Woodward’s book “Rage”, including Trump’s recorded confession that he deliberately downplayed the pandemic’s deadly dangers, was being published and delivered to hundreds of thousands of avid readers. Small wonder that unlike Israeli news networks that devoted hours of gushing coverage to the White House fete, their U.S. counterparts quickly cut away from the presidential extravaganza, viewing it as a fanciful distraction from the grim realities of nationwide pestilence, West Coast fires and an increasingly contentious election campaign.

Even the most ardent Israeli supporters of Netanyahu and his peace offerings had to turn a blind eye to Trump’s myriad quirks and anomalies in order to appreciate the history-making moment. They had to gloss over Trump’s ludicrous assertion that Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates decided to make peace after growing weary of war with Israel, even though they’d never actually clashed in the past. They had to cast aside puzzlement and concern about Trump’s odd and frequent references to a nuclear deal with Iran that could be achieved within a month after his reelection, a theme he insisted on emphasizing, with a tinge of sadistic torment, while an obviously displeased Netanyahu sat helplessly by his side in the Oval Office.

Nonetheless, many Israelis were moved by the ceremony, in part at least because Netanyahu himself, for once, seemed to be genuinely thrilled. The ceremony marked his crowning diplomatic achievement, even when one accounts for the fact that Netanyahu was outmaneuvered by a determined Jared Kushner and compelled to renege on his pledge to annex West Bank territories. Talk of annexation, which dominated Israeli discourse in the first half of the year, has all but disappeared from the public’s agenda other than Jewish settlers who feel deceived and betrayed.

Netanyahu, after all, was realizing his dream of forging a U.S.-led anti-Iranian alliance with Sunni oil sheikhs: proving his long held thesis that peace can be had without the Palestinians; and showing his critics, at least in his own mind, that despite his supposedly hard-right positions, he too was a historic peacemaker who deserved the same kind of reverence accorded Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the White House on September 15, 2020Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP

Netanyahu’s gushing enthusiasm spawned lavish praise for Trump, which came close to an open endorsement that could have been validly seen as improper intervention in the U.S. election campaign. He sat silently in the Oval Office as Trump breached protocol by using the opportunity to attack “Sleepy Joe” and pointedly refrained from reaching out to arrange a meeting with the Democratic candidate, after Trump, according to unconfirmed reports, threatened to punish Israel if he did.

Fortunately for Netanyahu, Biden is unlikely to protest Netanyahu’s snub, assuming correctly that meeting might have been awkward for both of them, that a public clash with the Israeli leader would do him no good and that he’ll have enough time to deal with Netanyahu if and when he takes over the White House.

The possibility if not probability of Biden’s triumph could not have been far from Netanyahu’s mind.  The emotion in his voice as he addressed his White House audience was unusual and palpable. Netanyahu must have realized that his moment of glory could be construed in retrospect as a sad farewell from his good old days with Trump, before he embarks on uncharted and potentially treacherous waters with Biden.

Netanyahu, however, could not dwell too much on what may be his doomed romance with the U.S. President. He returns home to a disgruntled public clearly frustrated with his failure to stem the coronavirus pandemic and increasingly incensed with the government’s flawed and muddled countermeasures, while concurrently gearing up for his final attempt to avert his criminal trial, which opens in January.

Netanyahu is still more likely than not to call early elections, hoping to garner the absolute Knesset majority that would allow him to legislate his way out of his legal quagmire. The prime minister will brandish his credentials as the master statesman who delivered long-desired “peace for peace” without paying the requisite price but will be dogged by the split screen that reminds Israelis of his abject failures at home. With all due respect to their unprecedented alliance, the U.S. President would be the first to understand that his soulmate Netanyahu is looking out, first and foremost, for number one.