If Benjamin Netanyahu were leader of the opposition now, he would make mincemeat out of the prime minister. Opposition leader Netanyahu would eviscerate the prime minister for “sacrificing the Land of Israel” in exchange for “empty gestures, pompous ceremonies and the blood money of corrupt oil sheikhs”.
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He would inflame the right, organize protest marches and excoriate the left for “hobnobbing with Arabs in the Gulf while ignoring the suffering of Israelis at home.”
We are living, however, in what the famous Chinese curse dubs “interesting times”, in which reality has turned topsy-turvy and the inconceivable has become almost routine. In this upside-down Bizarro world, Netanyahu has switched roles, from right-wing firebrand who demolishes illusions of peace with his fierce rhetoric to enthusiastic peacenik who waxes lyrical about the great opportunities for collaboration and coexistence that lay ahead.
Netanyahu, in a word, has morphed into a living reincarnation of his old rival and favorite whipping boy, Shimon Peres.
In this strange new world, Netanyahu and his minions could well be mistaken for a new and improved version of Peres and his “blazers”, as his aides were known. Netanyahu’s spokespersons are hailing Israel’s new normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates as a “historic breakthrough”. They rail against small-minded critics on the left who don’t appreciate the “greatness of the hour”. They berate right-wing critics who bemoan the lost opportunity to exert Israeli control over its “biblical homelands.” Peres must be turning in his grave with delight – and schadenfreude.
As with Peres, it is the media that has accorded the most enthusiastic reception to Netanyahu’s peacemaking breakthrough. Seizing the opportunity to stray from the tedious daily fare of coronavirus, economic depression and Netanyahu’s criminal embroilment as well as seizing a rare chance to laud the prime minister without being accused of currying favor, the popular evening news on TV rushed to send reporters to Dubai to report on the garden of earthly delights awaiting Israel on the shores of the Arabian Peninsula. Broadcasters and analysts dangled the prospects of multi-billion dollar regional projects while enticing Israelis, claustrophobic after six months of the coronavirus travel ban, with visions of cavorting in exotic Dubai.
There’s no denying that Netanyahu has scored an impressive diplomatic coup, which, theoretically, could yield personal and political dividends as well. Saturation coverage of the UAE deal has relegated Israel’s myriad crises to the sidelines and may well have blunted the hitherto widening Saturday night protests outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. After months if not years of diplomatic stagnation and incessant bad news on other fronts, Netanyahu can finally lay claim to what many Israelis perceive as a genuinely positive development that could upend the Middle East as we’ve known it and jolt it out of paralysis.
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Unlike Peres’ escapades, which split Israel between left and right along traditional ideological lines, public reactions to the UAE normalization agreement are blurrier and more complex. The hard left, including the mainly Arab Joint List, view the UAE deal as a continuation of President Trump and Netanyahu’s efforts to sideline the Palestinians and to humiliate them into submission. The center-left generally supports the deal, but its enthusiasm is curbed by reluctance to credit Netanyahu with the achievement and lingering suspicions about his true motives. The right is split between Netanyahu fans who sing his praises and settler leaders who claim the prime minister led them on about annexation and then betrayed them.
The UAE deal took Israel by surprise, confounding the prime minister’s critics, lifting him out of the doldrums just as his poll numbers were plummeting and casting him as a world class, history-making statesman. In one fell swoop, Netanyahu undercut one of his critics’ favorite accusations that he would leave no legacy behind him besides internal divisions and corruption at the top.
Under these circumstances, you might think Netanyahu should be sitting pretty, celebrating his own tactical brilliance, exquisite sense of timing, total domination of Israeli policies and revamped place in history – but you’d be dead wrong. He’s worried sick.
The last thing Netanyahu wanted was to be cast as a latter day reincarnation of Peres, with his utopian visions of a “new Middle East” – especially on the eve of early elections he planned and may still be planning to call. Netanyahu will undoubtedly try to leverage his diplomatic coup to buttress his claim that he is being hounded for petty misdeeds that pale in comparison to his newfound stature as master statesman – but the imperative that moved him to contemplate early elections in the first place hasn’t changed. His trial is still scheduled to start in January and new elections in which his right-wing bloc may achieve an absolute majority of 61 in the Knesset is still his only conceivable and last remaining escape hatch.
The UAE deal contradicts core principles Netanyahu adopted over twenty years ago, in the wake of the 1998 Wye River Accords and his ensuing loss in the 1999 elections. Never antagonize your base, Netanyahu vowed to himself, especially on the eve of potential new elections. Just as Netanyahu changed his mind about the Wye agreement while flying home from his summit with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat because of vociferous right-wing opposition, his stomach is turning today because of the potential fallout from Jared Kushner’s “normalization for annexation” deal with the United Arab Emirates.
Netanyahu’s distress is apparent, and the statements emanating from the White House since Thursday are only exacerbating his angst. Trump and Kushner have both flatly contradicted Netanyahu’s claim in his Thursday address to the nation that annexation is still in the cards, asserting that is no longer on the table, period. Kushner poured even more salt on Netanyahu’s wounds by claiming in an interview with CNN that Netanyahu had, in fact, agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state and its presumed borders. If Kushner’s account were corroborated, Netanyahu would sink even deeper into the right’s hot waters.
Netanyahu’s jitters are compounded by the fact that right-wing displeasure with the UAE deal could compel Likud voters who still place ideology above Netanyahu’s cult of personality to defect to Yemina’s Naftali Bennett on his right. The former education and defense minister’s poll numbers were climbing even before news of the UAE deal broke, mainly by virtue of what many perceive as Bennett’s superior grasp of the coronavirus crisis and how to contain it. Netanyahu now dreads the possibility that his diplomatic breakthrough could actually help Bennett more than it does him.
Netanyahu's efforts to counter criticism included the ludicrous assertion that he had demolished the “peace for territories” formula and supplanted it for the first time with a “peace for peace” equation. His defenders skimmed over inconvenient facts, including that Israel was not at war with the UAE or with other Gulf states said to be on route to following in the Emirates’ path, that there is no territorial dispute to be resolved or that Yitzhak Rabin first established the peace for peace principle in his 1994 agreement with Jordan. The settlers, in any case, were not impressed.
In their eyes, by conceding annexation, Netanyahu had indeed forfeited historically sacred lands in exchange for the same kind of visions of paradise that Peres used to peddle. Netanyahu’s valid claim that the UAE deal and impending others is a historic milestone that changes Israel’s strategic and regional situation for the better fell on deaf ears, just as it did when Peres would make the same argument.
All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion Netanyahu did not mastermind the opportunity to trade a problematic and divisive annexation for what he now describes as a once-in-a-lifetime, history-changing achievement, but was forced into it. He would not have climbed such a high tree, would not have made annexation the centerpiece of successive election campaigns and certainly would not have a set July 1 as a date certain for implementing annexation had he not assumed that annexation is in the cards. Netanyahu’s role as peacemaker rather than champion of the Land of Israel was not a matter of choice; it was foisted upon him.
Netanyahu was outplayed and outmaneuvered by Kushner, a dubious distinction in and of itself. The support Netanyahu had expected from evangelicals dissipated in the wake of mixed messages from their allies in Israel and preoccupation with their own internal divisions. The UAE normalization agreement wasn’t Netanyahu’s strategic goal from the outset, as his fans now claim, but rather a consolation prize designed to allow the prime minister to save face in the wake of his annexation debacle. He may try to convince himself and others that it’s all for the best, but it’s a risk he would never have taken of his own free will.
Once Trump decided that he’d had enough of on-again, off-again annexation and that a pompous ceremony on the White House lawn would serve him better in his current political predicament than sponsoring Netanyahu’s potentially disruptive annexation agenda, the die was cast. Trump was sold on the idea that he too could boost his image by casting himself as a historic peacemaker, especially when told he would be seen as succeeding where his hated predecessor Barack Obama had failed.
The president made Netanyahu an offer he can’t refuse: Forget about annexation and start negotiating terms that would make it as palatable as possible for your constituency. All good things will come to he who waits, Trump told Netanyahu, at least until elections are held and I return, hopefully, to the White House.
After inextricably tying his fate with Trump’s for the past four years, Netanyahu was in no position to protest. He wouldn’t dream of confronting the president in any way resembling his head-on clashes with Obama; he shudders at the thought of being caught criticizing Trump even mildly.
Netanyahu can thank his lucky stars Trump shares his disdain for Palestinians; a more ambitious president with such leverage could have imposed greater concessions on his erstwhile ally, including those that could resuscitate a two-state solution. Nonetheless, only Trump could have forced Netanyahu into the corner he dreads most and in which he finds himself now.
Only Trump could have created a surrealistic scene in which Netanyahu looks at himself in the mirror and sees the image of the late Israeli politician he once lambasted, mocked and defeated for preferring pie-in-the-sky peace dreams to the harsh Middle East realities on the ground. The festivities, after all, are bound to eventually end, and Netanyahu will be stuck in the same rut he found himself in before the UAE deal with the added burden of pacifying his own base.
Netanyahu finds no consolation in the fact that his fiercest critics are now singing his praise. The biblical Job best summed up the prime minister’s plight and current state of mind: “For the thing I greatly feared has come upon me, And what I dreaded has happened to me.”