Opinion

The Israel-UAE Love-in Was a Nauseating Publicity Stunt, Not a Peace Deal

The media obediently promoted and amplified an illusory ‘breakthrough’ stage-managed by the Trump administration - while this week’s real peacemaker, Qatar, was sidelined

Marc Owen Jones
Marc Owen Jones
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An Emirati official prepares to open the door of the El Al airliner carrying a U.S.-Israeli delegation to the UAE, August 31, 2020.
An Emirati official prepares to open the door of the El Al airliner carrying a U.S.-Israeli delegation to the UAE, August 31, 2020.Credit: NIR ELIAS / AFP
Marc Owen Jones
Marc Owen Jones

There is perhaps no better metaphor for the so-called Israel-UAE "peace" deal than the first El Al flight, LY971, that flew from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi yesterday. Emblazoned above the cockpit windows was the word the UAE and Israeli governments wanted to the world to see, "Peace," which was also translated into Arabic and Hebrew.

Yet ironically, barely a meter below, but still visible, was the plane’s name: Kiryat Gat, an Israeli town formerly known as Al Faluja. As historian Benny Morris and others have pointed out, in 1949 the local Arab population was beaten, harassed and robbed by Israeli soldiers until they left. 

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

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This reminder of historic violence, juxtaposed with a disingenuous assertion of peace, is not a paradox those supportive of the deal want you to see. But it is an inevitable outcome of a poorly scripted media stunt, one that is actually about propping up embattled leaders as peacemakers, while masking the complex reality of an occupation that shows no signs of ending. 

Indeed, the nauseating media coverage of the Israeli plane landing is akin to what the historian Daniel Boorstin called a pseudo-event.

A pseudo-event is something staged for the purpose of positive publicity, but one that holds little real value in and of itself. Thanks to the amplification offered by social media, pseudo-events can increasingly be staged to detract from some form of political failure, or at least a failure to meet political expectation.

An Israeli delegation led by National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, and U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien and U.S. President Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner boarding an El Al airliner to fly to Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020.
National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien and President Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner boarding an El Al jet to fly to Abu Dhabi, Aug. 31, 2020.Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

In the case of the Israel-UAE deal, the purpose was to provide the illusion that Kushner’s Mideast "deal of the century" had somehow already materialized, lending political capital to an increasingly unpopular Donald Trump ahead of the U.S. election, while also shoring up Netanyahu’s political fortunes. 

For Trump and Netanyahu, it was a chance to present themselves as Middle East peace makers. For Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, it was another attempt to boost the prospects of two allies who had supported his own hawkish regional ambitions. Self-interest was also at play, as the deal meant the possibility for the UAE, an ambitious regional power, to be the first Middle Eastern state apart from Israeli to acquire the F-35, the world’s most advanced warplane and hardly a symbol of peace.

Those suggesting the "peace trio" (Trump, Netanyahu, MBZ) be awarded the Nobel Prize have clearly been taken in by the gloss and bluster. But just as George Bush stood on an aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of a banner emblazoned with the premature message, "Mission Accomplished," peace was not accomplished in Abu Dhabi this week.

Not least because this is not a peace deal between two sides in conflict with each other, and because while Israel and UAE officials were exchanging pleasantries, Israeli warplanes and Hamas were exchanging bombs over the border.

Of course, for a pseudo-event to be successful, counter narratives that contradict their central message must be minimized.  

Critics of the deal have been silenced or steered by Twitter mobs. Prince Ali bin Hussein, the third son of the late King Hussein of Jordan, tweeted an article by Oxford-based international relations professor, Avi Shlaim, which denounced the deal as "rank" hypocrisy. His tweet of the article included a photo of MBZ with the word "traitor" written across it.

He was soon harangued on Twitter, and it was reported that Jordan even reached out to the UAE to remedy any unpleasantness the tweet may have caused.

Meanwhile on Arabic Twitter the dueling hashtags "treachery of normalization" and "Mohammed bin Zayed, man of peace" have been co-trending. For those in the Emirates, the trends lionizing MBZ and the tirade launched against the Jordanian prince are as much an editorial steer with a side-dish of intimidation as anything else.

In other words, if you’re in the Emirates: It is definitely a peace deal, and MBZ is its chief architect. Also, do not criticize it. 

This climate of fear, abetted by the UAE’s very real treatment of its political dissidents (fittingly with the assistance of Israeli spyware), was underpinned when Hasan Sajwani, an Emirate Twitter user and notably prolificpro-Israel troll, who boasts 78,000 followers and a verified account, instructed his fans to report to the Attorney-General all those who "disrespected" the decisions of the UAE’s leadership (the tweet has since been deleted.)  

The now-deleted tweet by Jordan's Prince Ali - a retweet of an article critical of the UAE-Israel normalisation deal - that caused friction with the UAE
The now-deleted tweet by Jordan's Prince Ali - a retweet of an article critical of the UAE-Israel normalization deal - that caused friction with the UAECredit: Twitter

Perhaps paradoxically, all the fanfare of a pseudo-peace between UAE and Israel has distracted from the real-world peacemaking in which the UAE’s regional rival Qatar, was simultaneously engaged, seeking to dampen an escalating situation in Gaza. 

Monday, Hamas and Israel agreed to stop cross-border bombing. Since August 6th, Israeli war planes have been bombing Hamas positions in Gaza, after Hamas sent balloon bombs and several rockets over the border fence. 

This paradox has been rendered more acute by the fact that while the media lauded El Al’s flight over Saudi airspace on its way to Abu Dhabi, Qatar’s national airline has been prohibited from entering both Emirate and Saudi airspace by a blockade they imposed in 2017. 

Qatari financial aid has been an important component of a functioning truce between Hamas and Israel since November 2018. Yet for its talk of peace, the UAE is widely considered the chief architect of the strategy to isolate Qatar – precisely for its role facilitating truces between Hamas and Israel.

Gazans supporting Qatar near a mosque funded by Doha, Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 12, 2017
Gazans supporting Qatar near a mosque funded by Doha, Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 12, 2017Credit: Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency

Meanwhile, the media in the region breathlessly promotes proclamations of a pseudo-peace. This is indeed partly because it’s seen as newsworthy, but also because it is a slick publicity stunt resourced by the combined interests of three powerful leaders, at least one of whom governs a nation where criticism of the deal could land you in jail.  

The UAE-Israel "peace deal" whitewashes the grievances of millions of Palestinians, who have been usurped by the UAE as legitimate interlocutors in their own future by the creation of a faux ‘peace’ between two countries that were never even at war. 

By reporting it as a historic peace deal, the media are simplifying and marginalizing ongoing real and rhetorical violence against Palestinians, and indulging the personal ambitions of men who have long sought to aggravate, rather than minimize, conflict in the region.

Marc Owen Jones is an Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University where he specialises in disinformation, propaganda and informational controls in the Middle East. Twitter: @marcowenjones

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