Israel-UAE Flight Was Indeed Historic. But These Critical Questions Remain

How do you safeguard Israelis who want to visit sites located a stone’s throw from Iran? Can Israeli security personnel carry arms? And, of course, what about annexation?

Yossi Melman
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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
Yossi Melman

The visit will be short, only about 24 hours, and there is much work to be done. The delegation includes National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, senior officials from the Shin Bet, the Israel Airports Authority and the foreign, transportation, finance and interior ministries. An advance party of Shin Bet security personnel, logistics and administrative personnel from the Prime Minister’s Office and others were already on the ground preparing for the visit. But the small details require for more than 24 hours.

Time is critical. Trump and Netanyahu want to hold the signing ceremony for the Israeli-Emirati agreement on the White House lawn before the U.S. presidential election on November 3. Trump wants to be able to brandish this document before the vote. Ministers I’ve spoken with have conveyed the impression that the Prime Minister’s Office is gunning for a ceremony by Rosh Hashanah, just three weeks away.

Who will take part in the signing ceremony? Knowledgeable sources I’ve spoken with say Mohammed bin Zayed (popularly known as MBZ), the UAE Crown Prince and de facto ruler, isn’t keen to be there and would rather send his foreign minister. Of course, Netanyahu isn’t about to let Gabi Ashkenazi represent Israel at a peace ceremony. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who flew to Abu Dhabi with the Israeli delegation, are pressing the crown prince to appear, and it could well happen. Subsequent questions include: How many Arab countries will send representatives to the event, and at what level - foreign ministers or ambassadors to the United States? And, most importantly, will Saudi Arabia have a presence there?

Grandiose gestures and time pressure

The time pressure puts the delegation in a difficult bind. Ideally, representatives of Israel, the U.S. and the Emirates would have agreed privately on all the relevant issues, and only then attend the signing ceremony. This is how it happened with the 1994 peace accord with Jordan and the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO.

The situation this time recalls the 1977-78 peace process with Egypt. Like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin were, President Donald Trump is a man of grandiose gestures. Sadat traveled to Jerusalem practically overnight, and Begin was quick to welcome him at the Knesset. Only afterwards did they discover that, as with insurance policies or tempting advertisements, it’s always a good idea to read the fine print first.

The goal in Abu Dhabi is to divide into working groups by subject, hammer out basic understandings and draft agreements on aviation, visas, tourism, security arrangements, the opening of diplomatic missions, trade, economic cooperation – the list goes on and on, all in a single day of feverish discussions. The problems and hurdles are numerous.

An Emirati reporter on the tarmac as the Israeli and American delegations arrive, Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020.
An Emirati reporter on the tarmac as the Israeli and American delegations arrive, Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020.Credit: Noa Landau

Here are just a few of the issues on the agenda:

– Whether Saudi Arabia will permit Israeli airlines to fly regularly over its territory.

– Whether the Emirates will agree to sell oil to Israel.

– Solving the headaches for the Shin Bet’s security division, like protecting Israeli tourists who wish to visit UAE cities and beaches located practically a stone’s throw from Iran, whose agents are everywhere.

– Whether Israeli security guards will be permitted to carry weapons.

However, the biggest nut to crack somehow before the ceremony takes place is the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian Authority is now foolishly boycotting the Emirates (recalling yet again Abba Eban’s famous dictum that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity). But even so, it has played an important role here. The prime minister and the right are hoping that peace agreements between Israel and Arab states will make it unnecessary to deal directly with the Palestinians, but that is not so.

Crown Prince Mohammed's official justification for the agreement with Israel is that it prevented Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. The Emirati ruler said the agreement put an end to annexation, and Trump and Kushner also think annexation is not happening. But Netanyahu, who thinks only of how to please his right-wing settler base, still insisted it was a just a temporary suspension, and that annexation is still on the table. And in so doing, he angered the Emirati rulers, who punished him by postponing an official trip by Israeli functionaries.

U.S. President Donald Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner, center, speaking with passengers during a flight on an Israeli El Al plane bound for Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner, center, speaking with passengers during a flight on an Israeli El Al plane bound for Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020.Credit: Nir Elias,AP

How can these contradictory declarations be reconciled?

One source predicted that the crown prince will demand that annexation be taken off the table for at least 10 years, but would ultimately agree to a five-year delay. President Trump and Kushner will call for at least four years – the time frame designated by the Trump plan for negotiations with the Palestinians (eight months of which have already passed). And Netanyahu? Naturally, he will seek to commit to as little time as possible. For him, even two or three months is too long.

On one subject at least, there is already a tacit understanding – the sale of F-35 aircraft to the UAE is a done deal. With each passing day it becomes that much clearer that this was the Emirates’ condition for the so-called Abraham Agreement, and if there’s one thing Trump is known for, it’s his fondness for making deals, and a particular enthusiasm for arms deals.

This will be the first time in Israel’s history that the relationship between peace and weaponry is reversed. This is the first time that Israel is signing a peace deal and not receiving an American reward. In the peace agreements with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, Israel demanded and received from the United States a “security package” that included military upgrades and financial compensation.

The biggest reward followed the agreement with Egypt. The U.S. funded and built airports, provided guarantees of the oil supply, increased its military aid, signed defense pacts, opened American tenders to Israeli arms companies and supplied vast amounts of advanced weaponry and technology. Israel’s reasoning, which America agreed with, was that Israel should be compensated for taking territorial and security risks. Uncle Sam also showered Israel’s peace partners with plenty of military gadgetry, but to a much smaller degree.

Moreover, even without peace agreements, Israel has always been opposed to the U.S. selling arms not just to its enemies but also to moderate, pro-Western Arab states. Israel opposed the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia and F-16s to Egypt. Israeli governments did their utmost to sway the American decisions on these deals, enlisting the aid of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, among other efforts. The deals ultimately went through, but with less advanced versions of the aircraft. President Ronald Reagan also taught Israel and AIPAC a memorable lesson. Despite their furious protests, Reagan pushed ahead with the sale of AWACS spy planes to Saudi Arabia.

Since then, and especially in the past decade, AIPAC has been quite mindful of the rules of the game and who is boss. And AIPAC has also been weakened in recent years for various reasons – one of them being the sharp right turn it took in the Netanyahu era, especially since Trump took office, even though most of its leaders and members, like the majority of the American Jewish community, are traditionally Democratic voters. The decision to equate support for Israel with support for Netanyahu and Likud went against AIPAC’s traditional stance as a “neutral” organization in American politics and placed it on Trump and the Republicans’ side of the field.

By choosing sides, it made room for new forces within U.S. Jewry and ceased to be the sole Jewish player on the American scene. The JStreet lobby arose to its left, and a new organization whose influence is growing has joined the mainstream: the Israel Policy Forum chaired by Levi Strauss heiress Susie Gelman. The forum has close ties with the Israeli organization Commanders for Israel’s Security.

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

That said, AIPAC’s status and influence is still considerable. But from my long acquaintance with the organization, I would bet it also understands that the F-35 deal will go ahead. And let’s be honest: While not a desirable deal from Israel’s perspective, it won’t genuinely endanger Israel’s security. Having dozens of stealth aircraft located so close to the Iranian border should worry Iran’s leaders more than Israel’s.

Israel is also shielded by a law passed twice by Congress mandating that the United States preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge. Also, as it has in the past, Israel this time too will presumably find creative ways to ensure that the U.S. downgrades the advanced technology it supplies to an Arab state. For example, Israel could ask that the stealth aircraft be a little less stealthy. Another option well worth considering is to request bunker-busting bombs that penetrate to a depth of 40 meters (the depth of Iran's Fordo uranium enrichment site), although the air force currently lacks aircraft that can carry them.

The only problem with the F-35 deal is the way the extremely talented Netanyahu once again fell prey to his worst self-destructive instincts. Unable to overcome his paranoia, narcissism and megalomania, he went behind the cabinet’s back, particularly that of his putative partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

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