The New Normalization: What's Behind Israelis' 'Indifferent Support' for Historic UAE Deal

Despite Netanyahu's efforts, ties with the UAE, kicking off with a direct Tel Aviv-Abu Dhabi commercial flight on Monday, have not been met with the enthusiasm you'd expect from Israelis

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israelis chat on Rabin Square, in front of Tel Aviv city hall lit up with the United Arab Emirates flag after the announcement of a historic normalization agreement, August 13, 2020.
Israelis chat on Rabin Square, in front of Tel Aviv city hall lit up with the United Arab Emirates flag after the announcement of a historic normalization agreement, August 13, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Children in the United Arab Emirates are photographed waving Israeli flags while “Hatikva” plays in the background; the El Al plane that will fly straight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Abu Dhabi for the first time Monday had the word “Peace” painted on it in Hebrew and Arabic, and senior officials of both countries are openly exchanging greetings and joint plans for a rosier future. No gesture is being spared, nor will be spared, in the efforts of both parties to make the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE as historic, festive and exciting as possible.

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But it seems as if all the backdrops and props have not succeeded in infusing the Israeli masses with the same amount of enthusiasm. They have not stirred any great collective national interest – including struggles for and against – that historic peace agreements have generated in the past. It’s not that anyone is particularly opposed to the deal; very few people in Israel have expressed any kind of opposition to the initiative, but at the same time, few have been moved to tears. And this isn’t only true of the left’s so-called sourpusses. The general Israeli attitude toward the agreement could be dubbed “indifferent support.”

The reasons for this are varied. There are those who stress how almost any move led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump will get an automatic reaction from either their supporters or detractors. Netanyahu and Trump have become such polarizing figures that it’s hard for those involved in campaigns for or against them to view reality through any other prism. Tell me how you feel about Netanyahu from one to 10, and I’ll tell you easily to what degree you oppose the agreement.

Moreover, in terms of the traditional divisions between right and left, the diplomatic circumstances are such that the non-Bibi-ist right wasn’t that excited about having to give up annexation for normalization. The left, which was actually pleased about that part, wasn’t thrilled with the ramifications of normalization for relations with those Israel really should be negotiating with – the Palestinians. And instead of formulating a message that could have perhaps united larger groups around the move, Netanyahu, as usual, exploited the opportunity to attack the left aggressively and claim that he had shattered the fundamental argument of the peace camp – that peace with the Arab world is linked to making concessions to the Palestinians. That’s a claim that the yielding on annexation somewhat contradicts, although there’s a further discussion to be had on this more complex issue.

In this context, of course, the fact that it is peace without there having been any war, with a country that has no borders with Israel, and with whom it is well known that the there have had extensive relations for many years in a variety of areas, even if secretly, are factors that reduce the aura surrounding the agreement. An infinite number of studies have been done on the psychological connection between pain and pleasure, but in the context of war and peace, no normalization can be compared to a long-awaited peace that comes after years of trauma. It’s a peace that most Israelis did not feel they were lacking, and then just suddenly arrived, free of charge. What’s more, despite all the attempts to give the UAE an image of an attractive tourist destination, the main benefactor is the business sector, not the commoner.

All these explanations are accompanied by the unique circumstances of the era, or “life itself” in Netanyahu’s words. During the coronavirus crisis Israelis are first and foremost concerned with their health and livelihoods. This pandemic has shaken up the lives of so many families that a treat in some other realm is nice, but not perceived as vital. For many people coping with unemployment and fear, the reports from the Burj Khalifa may offer a pleasant break from the difficulties of our coronavirus routine, but not much more than that.

And there is another possible explanation for Israelis’ indifferent support for the outbreak of peace. After more than 70 years of independence, Israel is no longer a country whose existence is at risk, and collective national fear of extermination has been replaced by completely normal, personal and family concerns. In the Israel of 2020, there is no longer a sense of regional ephemerality. On the other hand, there is also no great desire to change the existing situation. That’s true normalization.

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