Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is credited with the famous quote “If you like laws and sausages you never should watch either one being made,” which in all probability is applicable to the agreements about to be signed at the White House between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. For all those seeking to regale in the historic Middle East breakthrough, the less they know about the backroom deals that facilitated the accords, the better.
On the face of it, Tuesday’s signing ceremony marks a remarkable diplomatic feat that could potentially change the Middle East forever and – if one ignores the intentional sidelining of the Palestinians – for the better. A determined United States President, a visionary Israeli prime minister and two courageous Arabian sheikhs are breaking the mold of Middle East diplomacy and offering their nations and the region tantalizing prospects of future collaboration and prosperity that will benefit one and all.
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Trump and Netanyahu’s Gulf partners have been depicted in Israel in recent weeks as forward-looking and fabulously wealthy versions of exotic sheikhs from “One Thousand and One Nights.” But both Bahrain and the UAE harbor repressive regimes controlled by despotic leaders and ranked among the most reactionary and repressive human rights abusers in the world.
The London-based Freedom House gives UAE a grade of 17 out of 100 for political rights and civil liberties; Bahrain is even worse, with 11 out of 100; and worst of all is their protector and guardian Saudi Arabia, without which the White House peace extravaganza would have never been born. Freedom House gives Saudi Arabia a grade of 7 out of 100, marking it as the seventh most repressive regime on earth, along with Somalia.
And while we are implored to never look a gift horse in the mouth, the ancient proverb may not be applicable to a surprise diplomatic bonanza concocted by a veritable rogues’ gallery of political leaders, which could ultimately turn out to be a Trojan horse harboring their sinister designs. After all, the leaders purporting to change history have amply proven their penchant for concealing their true motives and for playing fast and loose with the truth — Trump and Netanyahu by virtue of personality and choice and Gulf leaders as their princely prerogative.
There can hardly be any doubt that what we know is more than meets the eye, especially when the little that meets the eye is also unprecedented in its meager scope and therefore suspicious in and of itself. Netanyahu, for one, will affix his signature on Tuesday to binding international accords that no one but he and his closest advisers have seen in advance. The Israeli cabinet, parliament and national security establishment will get their first chance to examine the deals only after they turn into a fait accompli that cannot be changed, which was probably Netanyahu’s intention in the first place.
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But while the contents of the agreements will be made public once they are signed, if it’s up to Trump, Netanyahu and their princely partners, the backroom wheeling and dealing that enabled the breakthrough will remain concealed, hopefully forever. Leaked reports of Netanyahu’s nod and wink approval of the proposed sale of U.S.-made F-35 advanced fighters, which he has vehemently denied, provided the first clear indication of the multi-billion-dollar impetus that may have paved the way to the peace deals.
President Trump has made no secret of his wish to announce the lucrative arms sale, which would create thousands of new American jobs, before the upcoming November 3 election. Netanyahu, despite his denials, is indebted to Trump up to his eyeballs and is in no position to stand in his way. But while the Israeli prime minister continues to tout the normalization agreements as a trade involving “peace for peace,” his UAE partners have reiterated their view that a more precise description of the tit for tat involved is peace for the most advanced aircraft in the world.
Citing its need to defend itself against Iran, the UAE seeks the F-35’s in order to establish itself as a regional superpower. Robert Mueller’s final report about the Russiagate scandal provided more than a veiled hint that, like other real and self-styled superpowers, the Gulf country is not averse to intervening in democratic processes in order to advance their aims. Its leaders clearly preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton in 2016, are likely rooting for him to beat Joe Biden in 2020, and, given their compelling if unproven record in meddling, may once again be doing their best to help Trump remain in office.
By the same token, the UAE now has a vested interest in Netanyahu’s continued rule. Before flying off to Washington, Netanyahu promised in a press conference that “billions of dollars will flow to the Israeli economy,” a pledge that if and when fulfilled could bolster his own position, help keep him in power and make some Israelis, especially business leaders, turn a blind eye to his increasingly authoritarian rule and escalating campaign to undermine democracy and the rule of law.
Based on the uninvestigated and thus unproven allegations about Netanyahu’s corrupt involvement in the Israeli purchase of German submarines, many of Netanyahu’s die-hard detractors also assume that he may be angling for a personal cut as well, given his reported role in facilitating the sale of the F-35’s. Right now, however, that’s nothing more than malicious hearsay.
And while they wax lyrical about history and peace, both Trump and Netanyahu hope the White House ceremony and the agreements with Bahrain and the UAE will divert attention away from their monumental failures in battling the coronavirus epidemic and in containing its ensuing economic fallout. Netanyahu’s hopes are better grounded in reality, given the Israeli public’s overwhelming support for the deal, although his departure on the eve of a second national lockdown is leaving a bitter taste even in the mouths of his most ardent supporters.
Trump’s aspirations, on the other hand, seem ludicrous and fantastical in comparison: It’s hard to imagine even a single U.S. voter, including American Jews, changing their intended vote because of agreements concluded between Israel and Gulf countries, which most of them have never heard of anyway. The benign explanation is that the accolades accorded Trump by himself and his acolytes are meant to bolster his ravenous ego; the more sinister rationale harks back to the Mueller report as well as Trump’s penchant for using the presidency to line his own pockets.
The motives and hidden agendas of Trump, Netanyahu and their princely partners don’t necessarily detract from the potential benefits of the normalization deals for Israel, the Middle East or the U.S. standing in the region. History, after all, is hardly ever made by saints. Given the personalities and proven record of the men who made the deals, however, it’s more than likely that future revelations about sordid deals that made the agreements possible will retroactively taint the records of the leaders who signed them, not that there’s that much of their reputations left to taint.