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For Netanyahu, Normalization Deals Are a Long-Awaited Vindication

But the White House ceremony is marred by events back in Israel, including his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bahrain Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords at the White House on Sept. 15.
Bahrain Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords at the White House on Sept. 15. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Years before he became the leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his vision of the Middle East in an English-language book titled A Place Among the Nations.

Published in 1993, the same year that Israel signed the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s book rejected the idea that Israel should give up land in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors. He argued instead for a formula that seemed like a pipe dream at the time, and for decades since: peace for peace.

“One simply cannot talk about peace and security for Israel and in the same breath expect Israel to significantly alter its existing boundaries,” he wrote.

Twenty-seven years later, at a grandly choreographed White House ceremony yesterday where the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed normalization deals with Israel, Netanyahu got his vindication—even as his political troubles were mounting at home.

The two Gulf Arab states effectively declared that they would not wait until the Palestinians’ grievances are resolved before coming to terms with Israel. In Netanyahu’s view, it was a ratification of his long-standing doctrine that Israel’s military strength and economic vitality would eventually lead its Arab neighbors to put aside decades of hostility. 

“History has taught us that strength brings security, strength brings allies and…. ultimately strength brings peace,’’ Netanyahu said, speaking to about 700 guests on the White House lawn and gazing toward the Washington Monument. He then followed Trump down a flight of winding stairs to a mahogany desk with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and the four men signed the agreements.

The two Gulf diplomats, dressed in business suits rather than traditional Arab robes and headdress, gave their own speeches that were music to Netanyahu’s ears, asserting that they were interested in “warm relations” with Israel. If so, it would contrast with the cold version that characterizes Israel’s ties with Egypt, the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, and Jordan, which followed 15 years later.

Many in Israel who oppose Netanyahu have suggested that the Abraham Accords, as the deals have been dubbed, are not on the level of the earlier peace agreements because neither the UAE nor Bahrain ever fought an actual war with Israel. Israel and the UAE have maintained quiet intelligence and military cooperation for years.

But other critics said that this time the prime minister should receive his due.

“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,” wrote Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Haaretz newspaper, which is deeply critical of Netanyahu. “This is the democratization of peace.”

Still, there were dark clouds gathering at home, where Israelis are being sent back into lockdown this week, just before the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashanah because of a dramatic spike across the country in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Netanyahu is also in the midst of a trial on corruption charges that has led tens of thousands of demonstrators to fill the streets outside his official residence each week on Saturday nights. Protesters wearing face masks that say Crime Minister hounded Netanyahu on his departure from Tel Aviv, staging a traffic slowdown at Ben Gurion International Airport to disrupt the government motorcade. Members of the anti-Netanyahu movement also turned up outside the White House to remind him of the legal travails that await him at home.

In Washington, Netanyahu’s travel team struggled to square the demands for diplomatic razzle dazzle arranged by the White House with the need for the Israeli leader to project concern about the coronavirus misery building back home. The prime minister’s handlers confined the 100-member delegation, including journalists, to the palatial Willard InterContinental Hotel during the 44-hour stay in Washington when not attending the ceremony. The ultra-strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines clashed with looser interpretations observed at the White House, which said masks were only recommended.

Missing from the White House were the leaders of the two countries who made the groundbreaking decisions to sign the agreements with Israel, the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and Bahrain’s King Hamad al Isa bin Khalifa. Their absence indicated that there remain some details to be nailed down before the agreements are fully embraced.

The audience included delegations from Bahrain and the UAE, among them the leaders of the Jewish community in Dubai, which until recently conducted weekly Sabbath services at a secret location. The UAE has declared its dedication to religious tolerance and is building a monumental prayer compound in the capital city of Abu Dhabi that will contain a mosque, church and synagogue.

The accords themselves are described as vehicles of normalization with Israel, a fuzzy term that has been anathema to Palestinians and their supporters because it promises diplomatic benefits for Israel without requiring it to withdraw from occupied land in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia, required a complete pullout from Palestinian territory before normalization could take place. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the accords, saying “no peace, security, or stability will be achieved for anyone in the region without ending the occupation.”

Netanyahu, Trump, and the foreign ministers signed three documents at the ceremony. One was a general declaration by all four proclaiming their commitment to regional peace. The other two were separate bilateral accords between Israel and both of the Gulf states outlining efforts for cementing ties in areas ranging from finance, trade and medical research, to civil aviation, sports, education and Muslim-Jewish interfaith activities. In a gesture to COVID-19 concerns, the four men refrained from shaking hands after signing the agreements, instead patting their hearts to acknowledge each other. They did not wear masks.

Among the points left open was whether the UAE would get the advanced F-35 fighter jets it has sought from the United States. Asked about that in a meeting in the Oval Office before the ceremony, Trump told reporters he expected to “work that out” and “that’s going to be an easy thing.” Israel has objected to the sale out of fear it will upset the “qualitative military edge” it has historically been promised by the U.S. to keep the country safe from its hostile neighbors.

Trump, whose first foreign trip as president in 2017 was to Saudi Arabia, was also upbeat about prospects of getting the oil-rich kingdom and other Arab states to join the UAE and Bahrain in making peace with Israel, saying: “We’re very far down the road with about five countries.” Drawing a contrast with the history of war in the region, Trump termed the Abraham accords as “peace in the Middle East without blood all over the sand.”

Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @jhferziger

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