F-35 Snafu Rains on Netanyahu’s UAE-deal Victory Parade

Trump’s elections-focused White House peace pageant is a political minefield for the prime minister

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes statements to the press about the Israel-UAE deal, in Jerusalem, August 30, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes statements to the press about the Israel-UAE deal, in Jerusalem, August 30, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu’s weekends have been marred for months by ever-growing Saturday night protest demonstrations outside his home in Jerusalem.

LISTEN: Trump is hot to trot on back of Israel's PR peace with UAE

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Frustration came early this time around, however, in the wake of a breaking Friday-morning New York Times expose of Netanyahu’s zig-zagging positions on the proposed sale of U.S. F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, which cast the prime minister as both weak and deceptive.

Based on rare and embarrassing leaks from Trump administration officials, the Times account asserted that Netanyahu’s had originally given his tacit agreement to the proposed sale of advanced F-35 aircraft to the UAE in order to facilitate the groundbreaking normalization agreement between Israel and the Gulf princedom.  

According to the Times, Netanyahu changed his mind when the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot exposed secret acquiescence, sparking public outrage, only to reverse course again in the face of intense U.S. pressure personally applied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his recent visit to Jerusalem.

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, Jared Kushner and UAE's National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020. Credit: Handout ./ REUTERS

The New York Times story scored a direct hit on Netanyahu’s most prominent weak spots. It revived Ariel Sharon’s depiction of Netanyahu as weak when pressured and highlighted his total dependence on Trump’s goodwill; and it cast him as deceiving the Israeli public with blanket and indignant denials of the Yediot story, cementing his notoriety for playing fast and loose with the facts.

The F-35 snafu is likely to overshadow Netanyahu’s victory march at the planned White House celebration of the UAE-Israel normalization agreement, currently scheduled for mid-September.

His inability to resist Trump’s entreaties could also embroil Netanyahu in the heated U.S. election campaign, turning his moment of triumph into yet another embarrassing fiasco.

The White House ceremony was meant from the outset to double as an election campaign extravaganza that would promote Trump’s unlikely image as statesman and peacemaker and divert attention away from his catastrophic failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic, economic meltdown and racial violence plaguing several U.S. cities.

Since the plan was first hatched, however, Trump has been frustrated by his ongoing lag in the polls, his desperation likely to spur him to press Netanyahu for help, thus incurring the wrath of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.  

Despite the Republican National Convention and its unabashed cult of Trump’s personality, and notwithstanding the President’s escalating and increasingly loony and provocative rhetoric, Biden’s lead in the polls has remained solid, keeping the Democratic candidate on course for potential victory in the November 3 elections.

US President Donald Trump speaking to the press in Kenosha, Wisconsin on September 1, 2020, as John Rode, the former owner of Rode's Camera Shop, looks on holding a sign.Credit: AFP

With less than 60 days remaining to regain his footing and to reverse the ominous trends, Trump is likely to squeeze his guests – Netanyahu, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan and any other Mideast notables who will attend – to provide him with as much political capital as they can.

Netanyahu, however, is the only foreign leader among the expected guests who is a celebrity in the U.S., wildly popular among Trump voters, especially evangelical Christians, and can deliver the goods that Trump will demand.

Netanyahu is naturally inclined to help a seemingly pro-Israel U.S. President who has showered him over the past four years with meaningful gestures, but he is also in his debt. A Trump demand that Netanyahu settle his bill, even if by doing so he infuriates Democrats, is an offer the prime minister simply cannot refuse. He not only owes Trump - he lives in constant fear of incurring his wrath, which also explains his acceptance of the F-35 deal opposed by most of Israel’s defense establishment.

Ostensibly, Netanyahu has some leeway. The Israel-UAE agreement, after all, is widely supported by Democrats as well as U.S. Jews. Like Israelis opposed to Trump who nonetheless welcome the UAE deal, Trump’s U.S. critics will try to grin and bear the White House spectacle as well as Netanyahu’s obligatory praise for the President.

The Democrats’ patience with Netanyahu, however, will necessarily be short. Rivers of bad blood have accumulated between them and Netanyahu over the past dozen years, from his harsh clashes with Barack Obama to his intimate BFF-alliance with his successor. It won’t take much for the Democrats’ pent-up rage to swell, burst forth and sweep away any and all self-imposed inhibitions or constraints.
Netanyahu, moreover, seeks to extract from the White House gathering the same kind of advantages that Trump covets. He too wants to leverage the UAE deal and proposed White House ceremony to draw attention away from his dismal failures in stopping coronavirus and avoiding its ensuing economic downturn.

And while Israel is ostensibly four years away from its next scheduled elections, Netanyahu is keeping his options open and may still be eyeing an early ballot in March 2021. Like Trump, an elections-focused Netanyahu is liable to throw caution to the wind and, in his exuberance, to extol the President’s unique virtues in a way that will make Democrat tempers boil.

Unlike the UAE or Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu does not have billions of dollars to throw Trump’s way through lucrative weapon deals or directly into Jared Kushner’s private companies.

After being squeezed by the administration to pave Trump’s way to a lucrative arms deal with the UAE that could produce thousands of new jobs, the only other currency with which Netanyahu can repay his substantial debt to the U.S. President is effusive praise that could be construed as an outright endorsement in the elections.

If Trump wins, Netanyahu’s efforts will be generously rewarded. If Biden wins, however, and no matter how hard he tries to avert a clash, Democrats will be hard-pressed to forget or forgive.

Voters in Israel might also be left duly unimpressed, angered by Netanyahu’s deception on the F-35 deal and disappointed that that he had bet the house on the wrong horse.

Of course, if Biden wins but Trump refuses to accept the results or to leave the White House, as many suspect, the U.S. will be thrown into an unprecedented constitutional crisis that will spark anxiety if not panic around the world.

The peace deal with the UAE, along with the dramatic upgrade in the Gulf princedom’s offensive military capabilities, will be relegated to the sidelines, along with Netanyahu’s endorsements.

If and when Biden ultimately takes control of the White House under such volatile circumstances, rest assured the Israeli prime minister will be the least of his worries.

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