Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has placed himself at the center of every major diplomatic achievement, including campaign billboards of him alongside U.S. President Donald Trump proclaiming that he was in a “different league” than any other leader. The unsubtle subtext: on the international stage, he was irreplaceable.
On Tuesday he will arrive, with fanfare, in the United Arab Emirates, becoming the first Israeli minister to be officially welcomed in a Gulf state. Lapid’s trip follows a landmark meeting in Rome on Sunday with Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al-Zayani of Bahrain.
The enthusiastic embrace of the accords by Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett places former Trump officials and their evangelical Christian allies – the U.S. architects and cheerleaders of the Gulf normalization deals – at a turning point. And at the outset of the new era, it seems clear that buffing the legacy of the accords is outweighing any residual loyalty to the former Israeli prime minister, now the leader of Israel’s opposition.
Avi Berkowitz, who served as Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, a key player in the initiative, tweeted last week that it was “great news” when Lapid posted a photos clasping hands with the UAE ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Al-Khajah, and announcing his upcoming trip to the Emirates “in order to strengthen the relationship between our countries and peoples.”
Berkowitz said in his tweet that it was “exciting to see the Abraham Accords continue to thrive.”
One former Trump administration official, speaking on background, complimented and credited Netanyahu for his role in the accords, but at the same time stressed that the achievement must “transcend personalities and politics.”
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“I don’t know anyone involved in the accords who isn’t rooting strongly for their continued success and wants them to flourish,” the official said. “I think everyone sees this is an unprecedented window of opportunity. It is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.”
Evangelical Christian leaders, who cultivated close relationships with Netanyahu, expressed similar sentiments.
“Whether it is Netanyahu or Bennett and Lapid leading the government, we feel the Abraham Accords will be good for Israel and we support any progress possible,” said David Parsons, vice president of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian author and activist who lives in Jerusalem, observed that Netanyahu’s political demise has triggered shock and anxiety among many evangelicals, but nonetheless waxed enthusiastic about Lapid’s maiden trip to the Gulf. It emphasized, Rosenberg said, the “historic and dramatic” legacy of the Abraham Accords, which “go far deeper” than Netanyahu.
“I think evangelicals are excited about any move the Arabs and Israelis make to build on the Abraham Accords. And I think it is a great thing that the accords haven’t been a partisan dividing point issue in Israel. It is something that generates excitement from right, center, and left in Israel,” he said.
This makes the multi-faceted Bennett-Lapid government, he said, “natural heirs of this accord and very well-suited to build on them.” He noted that the upcoming meetings send an important message that “the Gaza war tested the Abraham Accords – and the accords survived, and are still thriving.”
If Netanyahu is bitter as he watches the photo ops of Lapid’s historic visit, Rosenberg added, he has no one to blame but himself: “While Netanyahu deserves a Nobel Prize along with the other parties for his role in the accords, he made a very serious error by canceling his trips to the UAE to take credit for the accords. He canceled four trips... To cancel four times on a peace partner was not the Bibi we knew and loved. That was an unforced error which has become a huge opportunity for the Bennett-Lapid team. They will help consolidate the gains that Netanyahu won in the Gulf. And it will begin to show to the rest of the world that Bennett and Lapid can play on an international stage.”
Rosenberg, who has traveled to the Emirates twice since the accords were signed, said he observed that the Emirati leaders were eager for high-profile Israeli visits, and expected Lapid’s visit to soon be followed by a trip to the Gulf by Bennett himself.
In the meantime, both the UAE and Bahrain have become favorite destination for former Trump officials and evangelical leaders, who are dropping by to take victory laps and bask in their memories as high-level negotiators.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman made his way to the Gulf in service of his role hosting of an upcoming documentary series by the Christian Trinity Broadcasting network, which promises “sit-down interviews with former President Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, senior presidential advisor Jared Kushner, and Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The production of a series glorifying the accords on Christian television reflects the investment the leaders of the powerful evangelical voting bloc feel toward them (the deal’s biblical name is widely viewed to be an acknowledgement of the Christians’ role in pushing them forward).
Acknowledging that the Trump-Netanyahu era gave them an unprecedented position of power and prestige, evangelicals engaged in Middle East politics are now uncertain whether – and to what extent – they will have a seat at the table in the future.
“Trump opened the door wider to evangelicals than anyone had before and Netanyahu has always been open to engagement with evangelical leaders,” Parsons said. “We’ve had meetings with Lapid in the past, and more limited contact with Bennett. I do believe that Bennett and Lapid will be interested in reaching out to evangelists and building a relationship.”
Rosenberg said there is a “mistaken belief in the Israeli political sphere that the evangelicals are somehow wedded to Bibi. We do love former Prime Minister Netanyahu because of his policies as well as his outreach to Christians. But we all knew a day would come when the mantle would pass to someone else.”
Both men had far lower expectations when it came to U.S. President Joe Biden, although Rosenberg said he doesn’t share the views of Republicans who charge that Biden is not on board with expanding the accords because they represent a Trump achievement. He believes that Biden’s involvement will come in time, particularly as ties strengthen between the countries themselves.
While noting that pro-Israel Christian evangelicals are worried about the current president’s engagement toward Iran, he said they are pleased at the extent to which the U.S. president “stood with Israel” during the Gaza conflict and appears to be “keeping the anti-Israel lunatics in his party at bay.”
“There are so many issues in which our community will oppose Biden: on abortion, on excess spending, on Iran,” Rosenberg added. “But if he does things that are right, like building on the Abraham Accords, I, for one, will say so.”