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New year, new era

Israel, UAE and Bahrain sign historic ‘Abraham Accords’ on White House lawn

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v There were four men standing on the balcony overlooking the White House lawn on Tuesday. Only one had been working most of his life to reach that moment.

Not the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; they are relative newcomers to diplomacy. Certainly not President Donald Trump, who had two long careers, in real estate and reality TV, before entering politics at seventy.

But for Benjamin Netanyahu, about to sign treaties with two Arab states establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, this was the culmination of 38 years in public life.

Everything he had been through since he first arrived in Washington in the summer of 1982 as a furniture salesman and novice diplomat, plucked out of anonymity at the young age of 32 to serve as deputy to his mentor, Ambassador Moshe Arens, had been leading up to this moment.

Of all the many policies Mr Netanyahu has championed throughout his career, first as a diplomat then as a politician, the belief that Israel could bypass the Palestinian issue and forge ties with the wider Arab world has been the most enduring.

And now he had doubled the number of Arab nations with open and official relations with Israel to four by making only the most minor of concessions on the Palestinian front. He agreed to forego the annexation of parts of the West Bank, which he hadn’t been especially anxious to carry out in the first place, and unofficially freeze new building in the settlement for an undisclosed period. That’s all it took. Along with many years of advance groundwork.

As he profusely thanked President Trump for bringing the three nations together, Mr Netanyahu would have done well to thank his predecessor as well. 

It was Barack Obama, by his focus on engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran at the expense of and to the consternation of America’s traditional allies, who did more than any other statesman to push Israel and the Arab Gulf into one joint front. Mr Trump then helped in a series of landmark decisions, starting with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to write the Palestinians out of the equation. 

Back in 1993, when Mr Netanyahu set out his vision for Israel’s future in his book A Place Among the Nations, he foresaw that a day would come when the Arab states would realise that it was in their interests to accept Israel’s presence in the region and give up on the wedge issue of the Palestinian cause. 

There is just one key difference between his prediction and what actually transpired on Tuesday at the White House. Mr Netanyahu believed then that only when the Arab states embraced democracy would they also agree to engage with Israel. Democracy, if anything, is further away than ever in the Arab world. 

But things have changed elsewhere. It is the advent of like-minded, populist and nationalist leaders across the world like President Trump, who instinctively see Mr Netanyahu as an ally and have little if any interest in the affairs of the Palestinians, that created the climate. 

Mr Netanyahu held out through long decades during which the international community stuck to the belief that a Palestinian state was the key to solving the region’s problems, to finally reach a period where the Palestinians are barely an afterthought. 

Mr Netanyahu has indulged in some overselling of his deals with the UAE and Bahrain. Israel has never been at war with either country, so this isn’t “peace”. And besides the micro-concessions on the Palestinian front, the Israeli leader also had to swallow an imminent massive sale of advanced American weapons systems to the UAE, which is causing Israel’s defence establishment much anxiety as it erodes the principle of Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region, to which the United States is committed. So this isn’t exactly “peace in exchange for peace,” as he keeps on saying. 

 Why isn’t Mr Netanyahu trying to sell these agreements to the Israeli people for what they really are? A significant, even historic, breakthrough for Israel - but not exactly peace in our time? Party because even all those years after he worked as a salesman of flimsy cupboards and beds, overselling is still in his nature. But it’s also in a large part down to his justified anxiety that Israelis are currently much too distracted to take in the importance of what has just happened. 

The urgency of holding a White House ceremony at this moment, instead of, for example, signing the agreements on Zoom, was due to President Trump’s desire to present himself as a master dealmaker and statesman as part of his re-election campaign. Mr Netanyahu also hoped to make political capital out of the event but, unlike his friend, he doesn’t have an election around the corner. In fact, though he would like to hold an early election and finally win a majority for passing laws that will shield him from the corruption case that will resume in January, he knows the last thing he can afford now is to go back to the country.

The prospect of direct flights to Dubai and lucrative business deals in the Gulf are all very well when Israelis can actually take off from Ben Gurion Airport, but less so when the country has been under indefinite international Covid-19 curfew for six months and the recession is deepening. 

The flight to Washington this week was bracketed by a cabinet decision to enter a second nationwide lockdown for three weeks, starting on Friday, in a drastic attempt to bring down infection rates and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, and by another phone vote, just before taking off from Edwards Air Force Base, on immediately closing down all schools.

A month after the agreement with the UAE was announced, Mr Netanyahu has not seen a bounce in the polls, not for his Likud party or in his personal ratings. Both are plummeting. 

Israelis are preoccupied with the pandemic and blame the government for mishandling the exit strategy from the previous lockdown and not having in place an effective contact-tracing system to prevent new waves of infection. 

The hastily abandoned “traffic-light” plan of localised lockdowns made the ultra-Orthodox and Arab-Israeli communities who live in the “red” towns feel they were being singled-out for punishment. Now, with the national lockdown, with its exemptions for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer in synagogues, but closure of restaurants and swimming pools, secular Israelis feel they are the ones losing out. No one is happy in the deeply divided society and everyone is blaming the prime minister.  

This week may have been the week in which Benjamin Netanyahu sealed his legacy but it couldn’t have come at a less convenient time. His lifetime achievement will not save him from the citizens’ ire over the response to coronavirus or his looming trial. 

As things seem now, it will be Mr Netanyahu’s successors who will reap the rewards of his diplomatic endeavours.

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