Trump's White House Peace Pageant Bound to Deny Netanyahu the Glory He Yearns For

Impending coronavirus lockdown, critics' sour grapes and the Israeli prime minister's own missteps mar ceremony marking historic Gulf normalization accords

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Ramle, September 7, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Ramle, September 7, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The agreements about to be signed between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at the White House on Tuesday aren’t about “peace” but merely “normalization.” Israel and its two Gulf partners are simply coming out of the closet with the clandestine strategic ties they’ve maintained for years. Nothing to write home about.

In any case, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are artificially inflating the significance of the accords and elevating them to historic breakthrough status in order to aggrandize themselves, improve their polls and draw attention away from their monumental failures in the battle against the coronavirus, war against the rule of law and efforts to erode their countries’ democracy. It’s a shameless propaganda ploy, is all.

The agreements themselves are a symptom of Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Although he insists on dubbing the accords “peace agreements,” Netanyahu has strayed from tradition by refraining from submitting them for approval by the Knesset, unlike previous peace deals. The prime minister may also be deviating from the letter of the law by signing an agreement that hasn’t been seen, discussed or approved by his own cabinet. In signing international agreements without proper authorization, Netanyahu is brazenly ignoring accepted norms and grabbing personal power to signal his disdain for proper governance and democracy itself.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House as he announced the normalization deal between Israel and Bahrain, September 11, 2020.Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP

These are just some of the objections being raised by left-leaning pundits and politicians in advance of Netanyahu’s departure to Washington for the Tuesday signing ceremony. Their critique is valid, at least in part, but more than anything else, it is a symptom of widespread sour grapes among Netanyahu’s opponents. As Netanyahu rightly complains, his critics are incapable of giving him credit, even when such credit is due.

Most Americans can easily empathize with the unyielding ill will shown by Netanyahu’s critics. The majority that currently disapproves of Trump and plans to vote for his opponent on November 3 need only gauge their reactions to the monthly employment data published by the U.S. Department of Labor. Dramatic gains in employment may be good for the U.S. economy, but fill them with anguish; significant losses are bad for the country, but fill their hearts with joy.

Anti-Trump Americans should ask themselves what their reaction will be in the admittedly unlikely event that the U.S. president will be pronounced Nobel Peace Prize winner on October 9, less than a month before the election, in recognition of his Middle East peace-making achievements. Rather than being moved by the great honor being accorded their leader, it’s a safe bet Trump’s opponents would be appalled, viewing the coveted award in much the same way Republicans saw it when Barack Obama was honored with it in 2009: As an ostentatious sham.

With a different Israeli prime minister and under different circumstances, it’s safe to assume Netanyahu’s critics would be celebrating what is, objectively, a major diplomatic breakthrough, which, like it or not, is eminently worthy of the label “historic.” The agreement breaks the so-called circle of enmity which, with the notable exception of its immediate neighbors Egypt and Jordan, has governed Israel’s relations with the Arab world since the country’s inception. The deal brokered by Jared Kushner sidelines the Palestinians, as Netanyahu rightly claims, proving that their cause is no longer the “crux” of the Middle East problem. It expands and solidifies Israel’s regional alliance against common enemy Iran.

Peace, normalization or a shady backroom deal: If Israel’s newfound friends go all in, as the UAE seems to be, the potential wedding of Gulf petrodollars with Israel’s technological prowess could herald an economic bonanza, especially if and when the coronavirus pandemic is contained. While his opponents grumble about Netanyahu’s failures in tackling the disease and its economic fallout and rail against his destructive campaign against the rule of law, the eyes of many Israeli entrepreneurs and business leaders are lighting up with dollar signs that will surely ease their pain.

A sign at an anti-Netanyahu protest with an image of Netanyahu and his wife Sara that reads 'with the help of the guilty, we will do it and we will succeed,' Jerusalem, September 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Nonetheless, it is not only the 50 percent or so of Israelis who voted against Netanyahu in the last elections who are wishing him mal voyage on his way to Trump’s White House extravaganza. He is having a hard time enthusing his own right-wing camp as well. To maul the famous quote by Netanyahu’s hero Winston Churchill, never has such a historic breakthrough for so many been celebrated by so very few.

Netanyahu, after all, is flying to pomp and ceremony in Washington while his citizens are facing a second extended lockdown and dreading its consequent economic damage, which could surpass the already crippling crisis caused by the first. Unlike most other issues involving the prime minister, in which the Israeli public opinion is split down the middle between admirers and belittlers, a solid majority of the public holds Netanyahu personally responsible for the coronavirus mess. The pandemic is a clear and present danger while the future benefits of open ties with Gulf countries are, at best, pies in the skies.

And although he swiftly retreated in the face of furious backlash, Netanyahu’s initial decision to fly to D.C. on a private jet belonging to Israeli tycoon Udi Angel has left a bitter taste in the public’s collective mouth. In what must be considered one of the stupidest moves of his entire career, Netanyahu not only displayed haughty imperviousness to the plight of hundreds of thousands of anxious, unemployed Israelis, he also cast himself as a corrupt, recidivist offender who hasn’t learned a thing from his criminal indictment for soliciting and accepting similar favors from chummy billionaires. Fresh off cabinet decisions that ruined the High Holy Days for everyone else, Netanyahu was gallivanting off to his BFF Trump in a private jet, a universally accepted symbol of decadent opulence in the eyes of the masses.

Meir Ben-Shabbat, Robert O'Brien and Jared Kushner board an El Al flight to Abu Dhabi for talks meant to put final touches on the Israel-UAE peace deal, Tel Aviv, August 31, 2020Credit: NIR ELIAS/Reuters

And even though Netanyahu and his family will now be travelling with the rest of the delegation in the official El Al Boeing 777 leased for the occasion, the private jet incident will continue to dog him all the way to the Blair House. While he waxes lyrical at the White House about historic and tectonic change, his denigrators will mock him for overhyping a ceremony downgraded in advance by leaders of both the UAE and Bahrain, who dispatched “lowly” foreign ministers to represent them. By the time Netanyahu returns, the fanfare and pageantry of the White House fete will have dissipated, landing him in the thick of an impending, two-week long coronavirus lockdown and a public too depressed for words.

Thus, rather than coming back triumphant to bask in his glory, Netanyahu will find himself attacked on all sides, as if the Gulf accords were but a fleeting mirage. He will turn ever more bitter, resentful and enraged. Rather than recognize his own essential contribution to the public’s petulance, he will view it as part and parcel of the same sinister elitist-leftist conspiracy that has “framed” him, as he claims, in order to get rid of him by criminal trial. On the eve of his final push to avert trial, which threatens to develop into an unprecedented constitutional crisis, Netanyahu’s authoritarian impulses and lust to exact revenge will be stronger than ever.

Thus, while the agreements with Bahrain and the UAE could deliver bountiful fruits in the future, their signing could actually make things worse for Israel in the here and now. As Netanyahu is being lauded not only by Trump and his administration but by many Democrats and most of the Jewish establishment, it may be worthwhile for the latter to remember that on his way to securing Israel’s place in the Middle East, Netanyahu is undermining its democracy and destroying the very foundations that have sustained it thus far.

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