When future historians seek to sum up the final chapter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's era, they will surely be struck by the dissonance between the prime minister’s impressive recent foreign policy achievements and his terrible domestic policy failures. His clinging to power, his war on the justice system and his efforts to sow conflict among different parts of Israeli society at the height of the pandemic are muddying the credit he ought to be savoring for his moves regarding the Persian Gulf.
There is even a measure of historic injustice here. Last month, in part thanks to his closeness to U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu attained normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But in the public’s mind, what remains of that major accomplishment is mainly the potential super-spreader event staged by the American host (from which Netanyahu and his family were fortunate to return unscathed) and the prime minister’s obfuscation campaign regarding the unwritten clause in the deal, the sale of American F-35 aircraft to the UAE.
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Conversations with Israeli intelligence and security officials indicate that Israel’s accord with the Gulf states was devastating for the Palestinians and its reverberations will be felt for a long time. Some of these officials liken the accord to a tsunami that puts the entire Palestinian strategy to the test. The bypass route that Netanyahu and Trump found to the UAE has brought down the Palestinian wall that sought to ensure that Israel could not enjoy the fruits of normalization with other Arab countries before it agreed to significant concessions in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, a process that was frozen a decade ago.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington and a key Saudi figure, made this plain in a scathing interview this week with the Al Arabiya network. Criticizing the Palestinians, Bandar said they ask for and get aid from Saudi Arabia, but don’t heed its advice. He said the Palestinians always bet on the losing side and are doing so again now by nurturing ties with Turkey and Iran. The prince cited the alliances between the mufti and Adolf Hitler, and between Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, and warned: The time of the Palestinians not paying for their mistakes is over.
None of bin Sultan’s remarks are likely to prompt 84-year-old PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to reconsider his approach. Elderly leaders don’t change course. Meanwhile, certain figures in the next generation of Fatah leadership, like Jibril Rajoub, are renewing relations with Hamas and threatening Israel with a violent uprising. But if the new trends continue, the post-Abbas generation in the PA will probably have to reassess the Palestinian strategy.
Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza remains sensitive, but here too, incremental change is occurring. Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, is currently directing most of his efforts to improving the economic situation there. The more money comes in, from Qatar and possibly from competing Gulf countries, the less likely is the chance of another outbreak of fighting.
At the same time, the accords with the Gulf countries are opening up all sorts of possibilities for the Israeli defense establishment and defense industries, many of which had worked there already while keeping a low profile. Beyond weaponry, Israeli industries will now be able to market breakthrough technologies in fields that have civilian applications such as cyber defense and artificial intelligence. Initial estimates say these markets could be worth billions of dollars a year, and part of the profit could aid Israel in financing its own advanced projects.
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There is one matter about which the defense establishment does not have great hopes. The sale of F-35s to the UAE is basically a done deal, despite Netanyahu’s denials. Worse, the Americans are not going to go out of their way to compensate Israel for the damage to its qualitative military edge over its neighbors. Gantz, who addressed this issue during his visit to Washington last month, did not return with any great news. For Trump, business is business and Israel has already received plenty from his administration.