UAE deal shakes up Israeli views – of Netanyahu and the region

Why We Wrote This

Much of the time, attitudes in the Middle East seem calcified. But the announcement of a path to normalized ties with the UAE has Israelis reassessing their politics and their place in the region.

Oded Balilty/AP
Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the flag of the United Arab Emirates after Israel and the UAE announced they would establish full diplomatic ties, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 13, 2020. The UAE would be the third Arab country to make peace with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.

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The Israel-UAE agreement to normalize ties has scrambled the usual chorus of detractors and advocates for Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Suddenly, Israel’s news media is flush with images of Dubai skyscrapers and breathless speculation about the Arab countries that might be next.

The deal taps Israelis’ longings for acceptance in the Middle East. “Israel is part of this region, and the fact that we have been isolated from them for 72 years on a formal basis is coming to an end. I think that we haven’t really begun to understand the huge impact,” says Jonathan Medved, founder of a venture capital company.

The deal follows Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy of normalizing ties with countries in the region first and then turning to the Palestinians, though the path forward is unclear.

“You can’t avoid that we haven’t solved the Palestinian situation. We may dream of one thousand days and nights in Dubai, but we live more with Gaza,” says Tom Misgav, a Tel Aviv lawyer who wondered whether the deal will whet Mr. Netanyahu’s appetite for more diplomacy. “Maybe it will change his perception. Does he want to go down in history as a prime minister who went to jail on three corruption indictments, or as a peacemaker?”

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set July 1 as a target to begin moves to annex portions of the occupied West Bank, securing a place in history was also in his sights.

Now, just weeks later, Mr. Netanyahu has traded one date with history for an entirely different one: an agreement to normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates in return for putting annexation on ice for the near future.

The move, announced last week with President Donald Trump, would make the UAE only the third Arab country to agree to full relations with Israel in its 72-year history. And it has won Mr. Netanyahu comparisons to iconic Israeli leaders who cut peace deals with Egypt and Jordan – Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, respectively.

It also showed signs of shifting how Israelis view themselves in the region.

Suddenly, Israel’s news media is flush with images of Dubai skyscrapers and breathless speculation about the Arab countries that might be next in line – Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, even Sudan. After years of talk about the quiet alliance with Gulf Arab nations, the deal taps Israelis’ longings for normalcy and acceptance in the Middle East, a thirst that cuts across the lines of Israel’s fractured politics.

“Israel is part of this region, and the fact that we have been isolated from them for 72 years on a formal basis is coming to an end. I think that we haven’t really begun to understand the huge impact. If this thing does what it’s supposed to do, the entire region can benefit,” says Jonathan Medved, the founder of OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based venture capital investment company.

Palestinians left out

Yet other Israelis put the diplomatic accomplishment in the context of other immediate and longer-term national priorities, including battling the coronavirus and securing peace with the Palestinians.

Tamar Sidi, a psychologist in Herzliya, says while normalized ties with the UAE would be wonderful, she thinks that Mr. Netanyahu is overblowing the dimensions of his achievement. Israel has had informal ties with the UAE that go back more than a decade, and Mr. Netanyahu’s annexation move was blocked, politically and diplomatically. She says she’s concerned that the Palestinians are being left out of the equation.  

“That’s the main problem we have, so I wonder where that is in the grand scheme,” she says.

Though the deal doesn’t include direct progress on a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Israeli peace advocates believe the mothballing of Mr. Netanyahu’s annexation push (the prime minister insisted he hasn’t given up on it yet) is nevertheless a historic blow to the Israeli right.

“This was the Netanyahu dream to make history: bring back the biblical land to the people of Israel. This was the dream of the settlers,” says Alon Liel, a peace activist and a former Israeli ambassador. “He worked hard to accumulate political support in Israel. He had a majority in the Knesset. And, boom, suddenly the world is stopping it. This is a knockout for the imperialist visions of Israel.”

Mr. Liel also sees a shift in Israelis’ thinking about their place in the region. “In the last 15 years, Israel ran away from the Middle East into the arms of the East European countries like Greece, Romania, Poland, Hungary,” he says. “The Middle East might be our physical neighborhood, but not our cultural and commercial neighborhood.

“Here, suddenly, Israel discovered that there are Arabs that are worth being friendly with and associating with,” he adds, tongue-in-cheek. “Not only selling arms, but tourism and commerce.”

Emil Salman/Reuters
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standing next to Transportation Minister Miri Regev, addresses the media at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport, in Lod near Tel Aviv, on Aug. 17, 2020.

Until now, Israelis traveling to the UAE have been required to enter with passports of a third-party country. Religiously observant Israelis like Mr. Medved would replace their skullcaps with baseball caps to lower their profile – even if their Emirati counterparts knew exactly where they came from. Conversations between the two countries needed to be held over the internet – though the phone links were opened on Sunday.

“This is one of the things that’s not right or left, Trump or Biden, Bibi or Gantz,” Mr. Medved says, referring to the prime minister by his nickname and his recent election rival, Benny Gantz. “Everyone should say, hooray. This is really good news. What’s the downside?”

A consensus play

Indeed, a poll by Israel’s Channel 12 television news found that 76.7% of Israelis prefer normalization with the UAE to annexation; 16.5% preferred the opposite. In a June poll, Mr. Netanyahu’s annexation push had garnered tepid support – 4% – as a government priority.

The surprise deal with the UAE, on the other hand, spoke much more to the Israel consensus. That gives the prime minister a chance to change the subject at a time when he faces regular demonstrations outside his residence over the pandemic-induced economic crisis and his corruption trials. The deal also comes at a time when coalition bickering is driving speculation that Israel is headed toward elections yet again.    

“This is Netanyahu pulling a diplomatic rabbit out of the hat that says ‘only Bibi’ can lead,” says Jason Pearlman, a communications consultant who recently advised a rival to Mr. Netanyahu in his Likud party.

“This is something that’s mainstream. There are even a bunch of left-wingers that will appreciate this. He’s desperately trying to retain his political qualitative edge: He’s lost on corona, he lost on annexation, he can’t claim he’s strong against Hamas; what else can he claim? He’s bringing regional peace.”

The deal with the UAE would strengthen the geopolitical alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East against Iran, Syria, and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah.

It could open the way for a blossoming of bilateral trade – something that never materialized in Israel’s peace with Jordan or Egypt. Business analysts note the UAE has built a diversified economy that is likely to embrace Israel’s innovative technology startups in sectors from finance to green energy to water. Israeli tourists are likely to be attracted to Dubai’s hotels and shopping.

“Everybody’s talking about it. Apparently the prices are not expensive. It’s less than a three-hour flight and luxurious,” says Tom Misgav, a Tel Aviv lawyer who has already perused a travel website for Dubai resorts. “From what I’m hearing, they’re just waiting for the Israelis to come.”

New thinking about Netanyahu

The UAE agreement scrambled the usual chorus of detractors and advocates of the prime minister. 

Nahum Barnea, a left-leaning political columnist for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, wrote that the deal is “historically significant in regional and domestic Israeli terms. ... Netanyahu deserves high regard.”

Yet leaders of Jewish settlers in the West Bank – some of Mr. Netanyahu’s most loyal backers – alleged betrayal and warned the prime minister was headed toward a break with his ideological base. In three consecutive election campaigns since 2019, Mr. Netanyahu made annexation a central promise.

“If the state of Israel sells sovereignty [in the West Bank] for a piece of paper from a country that has never threatened Israel and is far away from Israel, that’s a scam,” shouted Yossi Dagan, the head of the Shomron regional council of settlements.

For now, the deal plays to the prime minister’s strategy of normalizing ties with countries in the region first and then turning to the Palestinians – known as the “outside-in” approach. But it’s unclear whether it will all add up to a boost in Mr. Netanyahu’s political standing. Though some believe that the move will attract Israelis in the political center, he has alienated many through years of divisive rule.

“You can’t avoid that we haven’t solved the Palestinian situation. We may dream of one thousand days and nights in Dubai, but we live more with Gaza,” says Mr. Misgav, who wondered aloud whether the history-making move will whet Mr. Netanyahu’s appetite for new diplomatic moves.

“Maybe it will change his perception. Does he want to go down in history as a prime minister who went to jail on three corruption indictments, or as a peacemaker?”

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