Analysis |

Netanyahu at the White House: Big Triumph Abroad, Big Failures at Home

The prime minister's resounding failure in handling the coronavirus crisis, his corruption trial and constant incitement and lying shouldn't take away from the significance of Israel's agreements with the UAE and Bahrain

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Netanyahu attends a briefing on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) development in Israel at his office in Jerusalem September 13, 2020.
Netanyahu attends a briefing on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) development in Israel at his office in Jerusalem September 13, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

For the second time in his long career, 22 years after he signed the Wye River Memorandum with Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to Washington to achieve a peace agreement with Arab rulers – and this time to establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Netanyahu always excelled as a diplomat, and the ceremony on Tuesday in the White House will be one of his greatest achievements. His resounding failure in managing the coronavirus crisis, his criminal trial in three corruption cases and the domestic incitement and lying he has led should not lessen the importance and symbolism of the Israeli flags that will fly over the Israeli embassies in Abu Dhabi and Manama – and the flags of the Gulf states that will fly over Tel Aviv, along with the Saudi Arabian landscape that will be seen by those Israelis flying to the Far East and back.

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the ceremony on Tuesday
One can guess that this is the core of the negotiations over the wording of the mutual statements, because this is the only section that includes the political price for both sides. For Netanyahu, too, who is trying to present the event as “peace in return for peace,” like the free meals he likes so much; as well as for the Gulf state rulers, who need to preserve for the sake of appearance their faithfulness to the Arab peace proposal, which promised normalization with Israel only in return for its withdrawal from the territories and the end of the occupation.

Netanyahu has already given up (OK, just “postponed” for an unlimited time) the plan for annexation of the Jordan Valley and settlements to Israel, as a down payment that brought the UAE to the signing ceremony. Will he have to speak positively at the event itself about the two-state solution – the part that the Israeli right detests in Trump’s “Deal of the Century”? Or will his new partners and hosts let him be for now, with all his troubles raging at home, and make do with a general and vague comment about how “our hand is stretched out in peace” and praise for Trump about his peace plan, without going into the details? And what will they give him, if he offers a tastier carrot to the Palestinians?

Since he established his national disunity government with Kahol Lavan, and left Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and the Yesha Council of Settlements on the outside, Netanyahu has turned sharply to the left. He threw in the trash the annexation that he was so proud of before the election, and was captivated by the dusty charm of the “new Middle East.” His speeches about the billions that would flow from Dubai to Israel remind one of the forgotten initiatives of his former rival, Shimon Peres, who was called at the time a “delusional fantasist” by Netanyahu and his partners on the right because of his ideas such as the “regional bank.”

The left’s miserable criticism of the agreement with the Gulf states is demoralizing, and looks like a faded copy of the right-wing opposition to the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and the failed negotiations with the Syrians. For example, the claim the principalities in the Gulf are not democracies, and their regimes could very well change to Israel’s detriment – this is exactly what Netanyahu said at the time about the Syrians and the Palestinians.

The devout leftists justifiably claim that the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain do not solve the Palestinian problem and will not bring about an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict. But the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan did not end the conflict and did not end the occupation, but nonetheless they provided enormous strategic value for Israel, the strengthening of its security and normalization of its regional and international standing. This is the standard according to which the relations with the Gulf states should be measured too.

In the “center left” that as usual fears showing support for the Palestinians, the criticism as usual focuses on the procedure: The agreement was not brought for cabinet or Knesset approval before its signing, the foreign minister was not invited to the ceremony, they didn’t tell the IDF chief of staff – and maybe they will even sign it with a red pen instead of a blue one. Significant mistakes, that’s all that can be said. And if all this wasn’t enough, the veterans of the Rabin government brought up memories from their secret trips to the Gulf, in order to claim that Netanyahu did not invent anything and did not achieve anything.

So decide: If it is not a “historic peace agreement” as Netanyahu claims, but a standard rental contract for a few offices for embassies – then what are you getting so worked up about? If it is nothing more than an agreement to establish relations with East Timor and South Sudan, why didn’t you demand to bring it to a public referendum, if not more than that – and why are you angry only about the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain? All the difference in the world lies in the move from secret ties, from which only a handful of those close to power and arms dealers benefitted from, and open relations in which any Israeli can get on a plane to Dubai, without a costume and foreign passport. This is the democratization of peace.

Netanyahu may be exaggerating the enormity of the historic achievement, even if his motives are understandable, but not (only) because he is a fabulist and a PR hack, but mostly because this strategic move exposed Israel’s complete dependency on the United States. It was not born because of far-reaching strategic vision in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, but because of the desire of the present administration in Washington to sell warplanes to the UAE, and enjoy a bit of diplomatic prestige before the presidential election.

The event on Tuesday will be Trump’s celebration, who will orchestrate the agreement between Israel and Arab countries that his predecessor Barack Obama never managed to achieve. Nonetheless, this does not lessen the achievement, and if one day they release us from the lockdown that Netanyahu’s failed domestic policies have caused, we will be able to dangle our feet in the waters of the Gulf and enjoy the fruits of his foreign policy.

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