- A landmark deal normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a major achievement for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
- But in Israel’s fractious political landscape, and with rising backlash to Netanyahu’s governance, that achievement might not be enough to keep him in power.
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The landmark agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that was announced unexpectedly last week, a prelude to normalized diplomatic relations, is by any measure a triumph for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But in the tumultuous, fractious landscape of Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s celebrations have been tempered by bitter recriminations at home, a reminder that in Israel, no win comes without wounds.
In the deal, first made public by US President Donald Trump, the United Arab Emirates agreed to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for Israel’s suspension of plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The UAE’s move goes a long way in dismantling the fiction of a united Arab front against Israel, one that started crumbling years ago, despite vows by Arab leaders not to make peace with Israel until the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But the two-state solution has made no headway, while Arab countries, which have grown accustomed to the once-unacceptable existence of a Jewish state and Israel’s decades-long occupation of territories it captured during wars with its neighbors, have developed ever more elaborate, if secret, ties with Israel.
Now, the UAE-Israel relationship is out in the open. It’s a historic moment, and a huge stride in Israel’s longstanding aim to become a “normal” country in the Middle East, even as the conflict with Palestinians remains unresolved. It’s hard to view this as anything but a win for Israel—hard, but as it turns out, not impossible.
Not everyone is exultant in Israel, where the reactions followed the contours of its political divisions. In progressive Tel Aviv, the municipality lit up its building in the colors of the Emirati flag. In Jerusalem, right-wing politicians and settler leaders berated Netanyahu, calling the agreement a betrayal of the prime minister’s promise to formally bring the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria into Israel, a prospect decried by much of the international community as illegal annexation.
The stakes became starkly clear when Netanyahu’s main rival for leadership of Israel’s right wing, former ally Naftali Bennett, blasted the prime minister. “Netanyahu,” he said, “missed a one-in-a-century opportunity.” Bezalel Smotrich, a settler and legislator with Bennett’s Yamina bloc, an alliance of nationalist and ultranationalist parties, furiously declared that “Netanyahu has deceived right-wing voters for years with great success.” It’s time, he said, to “present an alternative leadership.”
But if settlers, a minority of the Israeli population, and their backers were unhappy about the fading chances for annexation, the vast majority of Israelis were rejoicing at the news of normalization with another Arab country. A survey taken three days after the announcement found that nearly 80 percent of Israelis prefer normalization with the UAE over annexation of the West Bank.
That’s an overwhelmingly positive verdict on Netanyahu’s deal. But it’s still not enough to solve his problems. Netanyahu scrambled to appease the right, motivated by news that the polls showed a sudden surge by Yamina.
In detailing the deal with the UAE, Netanyahu faced the conflicting demands of touting the achievement, showing himself as a man of peace, and assuaging the anxieties of the right, without whose support his career is finished. Netanyahu appeared on Sky News Arabia for the first time. His words dubbed into Arabic, he declared, “The people in the region are fed up with wars and conflicts.”
His language was carefully parsed by rightist Israelis trying to figure out what exactly Netanyahu offered in exchange for diplomatic relations with a powerful Gulf state. Trump said annexation was “off the table,” and the UAE appeared to have the same understanding. But Netanyahu also told Israel’s Army Radio that he didn’t have to decide between peace and annexation—that was not the choice. He insisted all he agreed to was a “suspension” of the annexation plan, not its end.
In the United States, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who has spearheaded the administration’s attempt to sell an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan heavily skewed in Israel’s favor, explained that Netanyahu agreed not to move forward with annexation without Washington’s go-ahead. “That’s good enough for us,” Kushner said.
Netanyahu is a master of distant promises. Some believe that he never really intended to annex the West Bank, and it was just a political tactic to shore up his base. For now, he has achieved two of his goals: one long-term, one short-term.
Looking at history, Netanyahu, who is already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, wants to secure his place alongside his predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, who sealed peace deals with Israel’s neighbors and former enemies in Egypt and Jordan, respectively. But he also needs to deal with more immediate crises mounting on every front.
The UAE deal, historic as it is, offers a welcome distraction, a widening of the lens beyond the problems of today. Not only is Netanyahu facing grave legal troubles—his criminal trial over corruption charges is expected to start next year—but Israelis appear to have grown tired of him. Protests in front of his official residence have gone on for weeks, bringing together angry Israelis of many stripes. The country has never seen anything like it.
Like so many world leaders, Netanyahu suddenly faces a bigger political problem with the coronavirus pandemic. Israel initially contained the virus with what was widely credited as a stellar response to COVID-19, but it has since seen an alarming spike in new cases. Now, less than a third of Israelis approve of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic, which has also left hundreds of thousands of Israelis unemployed.
Normalization with the UAE gives Netanyahu the opportunity to make his case that, whatever his failings, he is succeeding at the most difficult, most important challenge facing Israelis: the perennial quest for peace and security.
But even then, will the deal ultimately help or hurt Netanyahu at home? Israel’s parliamentary system requires Netanyahu to keep the support of a small minority of voters. If his Likud party is the largest in parliament, and other small parties join with him, he can keep his job, legal issues aside. That means he doesn’t need a very large share of the vote, but neither do his rivals. The polls now show Bennett rising, but Netanyahu and Likud still easily ahead.
Most Israelis are thrilled with the UAE deal, and they care much more about peace than about the West Bank. They are excited about the possibility of vacationing in Dubai, and the prospect of Emiratis vacationing in Israel. They care about the chances of having good relations in their region, just as other countries do.
If the UAE deal is followed by other normalization agreements with Arab countries, as many are predicting, Netanyahu will cement his achievement. But Israeli politics is not for the faint of heart. Netanyahu has earned a place in the history books. Whether or not that guarantees he will remain prime minister is another matter.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.