When he wants to do something, he can. On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored a meaningful diplomatic achievement in the form of a normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The mutual uncloseting, after several years in which political and security relationships between the countries developed in secret, cannot compare to the peace treaties that his predecessors signed with Egypt and Jordan, whose armies fought in Israel and shed Israeli blood. But the deal does open a breach in the Arab ring of isolation around Israel. It also decides, in Netanyahu’s favor, a stubborn disagreement between him and his opponents on the left (and previous U.S. administrations). It turns out that relations with the Sunni Muslim states can be upgraded significantly without first solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Along the way, as a bonus, Netanyahu took off the table the dangerous political stunt he had played with for the past year, the annexation of some of the West Bank settlements, under the cover of the Trump administration’s peace plan. Among the various and contradictory versions that have been put out since the agreement was announced, the remarks of the presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner – and even, in a rare turn of events, those of Donald Trump himself – merit attention. Netanyahu abandoned annexation. He didn’t postpone it until some indefinite future date. He would not have been able to close the deal with the UAE had he not retreated completely from his plan.
This is the second time that Kushner has saved Netanyahu from himself. The first time was in January, when Netanyahu and Trump met in Washington for the presentation of Trump’s peace plan. The prime minister’s advisers – heady from the promises of the ambassador of the United States and of the settlements to Israel, David Friedman – vowed to have “sovereignty on Sunday.”
Many more Sundays will pass before that is expected to happen. Netanyahu was forced to give in to Trump, after everything the president gave him (abandoning the nuclear agreement with Iran, relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights).
It also seems that the prime minister, in his heart of hearts, understands the genuine strategic order of priorities. The alliance with the Sunni states, against Iran and under the aegis of the Americans, is infinitely more important than the application of Israeli law in the settlements, which could get him in trouble with the international community and perhaps reanimate Palestinian resistance.
The disappointment of the ideological right is understandable. Netanyahu promised annexation and backed down, as he has with many of his promises. And now, as in the past, he is trying to cover it up with empty promises he has no intention of meeting. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s critics on the right have mainly themselves to blame. First, they had no reason to believe him, based on years of past performance. Second, up until a few days ago most of the settler leaders argued that the annexation plan was a recipe for disaster, not because it could lead to an official apartheid regime but rather because it does not include the entire West Bank.
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The infuriated Palestinian response, briefly setting aside the surprise in Ramallah over the publication of the covert development, is overdone. Clearly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot rejoice over what he sees as another betrayal of the Palestinians by the Gulf states.
But Abbas is ignoring the opportunity the Israel-UAE deal gives him. He has been wrapped in his sense of affront for more than two years, since it was made clear to him that Trump and his peace team have adopted most of Israel’s positions in the conflict with the Palestinians. First Abbas severed nearly all communication with the Americans. When Netanyahu entered the picture with annexation, Abbas cut the Palestinian Authority’s civil and security coordination with Israel.
Israel’s National Security Council concluded recently that in order to resume that cooperation, the PA needs public proof that Netanyahu is no longer pursuing annexation. That proof was given Thursday, by Trump and by Kushner, but the octogenarian Palestinian leader would rather continue to sulk. Since then, the Palestinians have only ratcheted up their rhetoric.
There’s no doubt that the involvement of Abbas nemesis Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah official with close ties to the UAE rulers, has something to do with this. Abbas still blames him for the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip and suspects him – with justification – of various attempts to undermine his government.
Additional states may soon join the normalization agreements with Israel. In recent days there has been talk of Bahrain, Oman and even Sudan. Kushner has also hinted of a possible public warming of Israeli-Saudi ties. What can Israel give in return? Despite the reversal of the order (normalization, at least with the UAE, preceding the end of the conflict), it’s doubtful that the Gulf states have given up on the core of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative: Recognition of Israel and full diplomatic relations in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The UAE is not just another rich country. It is an ambitious regional power that wants to make its mark on the Middle East.
The likelihood of that happening is not high. The U.S. election is just 11 weeks away, and Trump is trailing in the polls. His administration’s spectacular mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis has eroded his support by double digits. It’s hard to imagine him, in the time that remains, bringing a win in the Middle East, in an effort led by Kushner (who, after failing to coordinate the U.S. response to the pandemic, simply walked away).
But Netanyahu bears watching. His tendency to zig left and then zag right, more in accordance with political needs than any ideological belief, began in his first term as prime minister, during which he initially accepted the Oslo Accords and held jovial meetings with Yasser Arafat. But now an even more demanding consideration has entered the picture. Netanyahu’s main – if not only – objective at this time is to avoid being convicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Last week, at almost the same time as the announcement of the UAE deal, another opinion poll was published showing Likud’s continued steep decline in support. Concurrently, members of Netanyahu’s inner circle leaked to the media talk of a possible agreement with Kahol Lavan that might forestall an early election in November. At Thursday’s news conference, the prime minister’s tone was relatively conciliatory, without the usual accusations against his rivals in the coalition and in the opposition. A sensitive listener might even have discerned a near-compliment to Yitzhak Rabin.
All of this is likely to pass, of course, after a weekend of quality family time on Balfour Street. But if Netanyahu discerns that Trump is expecting him to make additional diplomatic gestures, and takes into consideration the possibility that in January it may be Joe Biden who’ll be waiting for him in the White House, then Jerusalem might soon change its tune. In that case, the settlers can already air out their old accusations about the depth of the uprooting being the depth of the legal troubles.
On the sidelines, it’s worth pointing out that this time, too, Netanyahu pulled the diplomatic surprise out of the hat on his own. On Thursday afternoon, he even left the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet while spreading hints about an event of national importance that the other attendees would soon learn about.
The prime minister didn’t bother to keep his partners in Kahol Lavan in the loop about the negotiations or their results. The defense and foreign minister learned about the strategic breakthrough just moments before the rest of Israel. The Likud cabinet members don’t even merit a mention. They’re a flock of obedient sheep whose sole role is to amplify the ruler’s messages against the legal establishment, the left and the media.
The announcement was followed by leaks and statements from the Prime Minister’s Office and political and defense establishment sources about the scope of involvement of a few senior officials in the steps leading up to the agreement. No preliminary administrative work was done. It was only this weekend that Netanyahu announced that he had instructed National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to “prepare for the talks with the UAE in the wake of the peace agreement, in coordination with the relevant parties.” The message was clear: It’s Netanyahu’s show. Everyone else is a bit player who is informed of developments only when the prime minister sees fit to tell them.