Bibi breaks the Middle East: What the press is saying on August 14
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Bibi breaks the Middle East: What the press is saying on August 14

The prime minister’s parlaying of a dying annexation bid into a historic agreement earns him praise from critics and talk of both a new Mideast and a new Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the agreement for Israel and the UAE to establish diplomatic relations, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the agreement for Israel and the UAE to establish diplomatic relations, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

1. The only one for me is UAE and UAE for me: Any other time, the historic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to forge ties would likely have been the biggest story of the year. Alas, while it is still unclear where it will settle in the annals of our times, the keyboard clackers and pen jockeys behind the first draft of history leave little doubt as to the humongousness of the news, albeit with more than a few question marks and reasons for circumspection.

  • News of the deal came as much major news does these days, via a tweet by US President Donald Trump out of the clear blue sky, essentially stopping all other news. (Well almost, Channel 12 news, caught off guard like many others, mentioned Trump’s tweet and then went back to an interview with two Knesset members over a day-old tiff.)
  • On Friday morning it leads off every major daily, though it does not take up as much room as one might think. Israel Hayom, for instance, likely smarting over the apparent pullback from annexation, devotes only half its front page and four inside pages to the news. In Haaretz, it takes up half the front page of the broadsheet, and another two page spread, but no more.
  • Ultra-Orthodox daily Hamevaser, meanwhile, shunts the news into a tiny box on its front page, which is otherwise dominated by the news of the death of an important rabbi in Bnei Brak (and an ad for IKEA, which also gets more real estate).
  • By Friday afternoon, the news is no longer the talk of the town, judging from the homepages of several leading Hebrew-language news sites, which lead off with stories about possible elections and coronavirus restrictions.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth, which does actually devote almost its whole A section to the news, runs the front page headline, “Peace in exchange for annexation,” representing some skepticism over claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the deal is peace in exchange for peace.
  • The paper is also sure to pat itself on the back high up on its front page over the fact that it was the outlet that ran a groundbreaking op-ed by UAE envoy Yussef al-Otaiba, which it claims led to the breakthrough. To celebrate, it runs the op-ed in full once again on its page 3.
  • The biggest headline might actually come courtesy of The National, an English-language paper based in the UAE, though its headline downplays the forging of ties and highlights Israel halting West Bank annexation plans. The front page features quotes from Trump and Crown Prince Mohhamed Bin Zayed, but not from Netanyahu, possibly reflecting continued skittishness over the decision (and the fact that Netanyahu has consistently insisted that annexation will go ahead as planned after a “temporary hold.” (More on that lower down.)

2. The upside down: Israeli news outlets are filled with enough punditry, commentary and analysis over the deal to cover over the 1,600 kilometers between the countries with ink, with the dominant idea being that the agreement is a major deal, and worth getting excited about, not only because it means Israelis can fly to Dubai, but because it could herald a sea change in thinking on how the Middle East views normalization with Israel. And much of the analysis focus on crediting Netanyahu for the deal.

  • ToI’s Raphael Ahren writes that the “bombshell announcement … is more than just a watershed moment for Israel-Arab relations. It upends everything politicians and pundits thought they knew about the dynamics of the Middle East.”
  • “Netanyahu pulled off an unparalleled diplomatic sensation. Securing a full-fledged peace agreement with an Arab state that had hitherto been, and insists it remains, a steadfast supporter of the Palestinian cause, all the while unapologetically expanding settlements and reducing the prospects for a future two-state solution, will likely go down as the greatest foreign policy accomplishment of his long career,” he writes.
  • “This takes the dominant approach over the last years, which held that only after a deal with the Palestinians could we speak about regional peace, and turns it on its head,” writes Channel 12’s Dana Weiss.
  • In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer calls the agreement a “significant diplomatic coup,” especially given that all Israel had to do was give up on annexation that may not have happened anyway.
  • “The joint declaration with the United Arab Emirates is not yet a full peace plan. There is no clear commitment from the Emiratis on doing anything yet, certainly not opening embassies in either country any time soon. But this remains the most visible and concrete recognition by an Arab Gulf region state of the hitherto secret alliance with Israel. It is an achievement for Netanyahu that his predecessors, who were prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinians, only dreamed of – and he paid nothing for it beyond what he called the ‘temporary suspension’ of the annexation he was never going to carry out anyway,” he writes.
  • In Israel Hayom, which alludes to more deals rumored to be in the offing with its front page headline “First the Emirates,” editor Boaz Bismuth heralds the dawning of a “new Middle East indeed; not the one they tried selling us, but one where Israel is strong, where other countries want it as an ally, where Israel is a leader in almost every possible field from technology, agriculture, water, energy, commerce, banking and yes – security, too. Contrary to the peace treaties signed by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, this time peace is peace, without the inferiority complex.”

3. Credit where credit is due: Interestingly, Bizmuth, who is normally the first to hail Netanyahu, does not here, even though everyone else is doing so. Instead, he writes that Trump “deserves a big, warm embrace from each and every one of us.” (At the same time, his words sound like they could have been a draft of the speech Netanyahu gave crowing about the deal, and slighting his predecessors for giving up concessions for peace.)

  • Others, though, shower Netanyahu with praise. Walla diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid, not seen as a big Netanyahu booster, tweets that “Netanyahu deserves much, much credit for what happened today. It is not trivial. This is an amazing achievement that will do much good for the country. Without regard for what may come next, he’s now on the same level as Begin and Rabin.”
  • Yedioth’s Nahum Barnea, an outspoken Netanyahu critic, calls the agreement important for both forging peace with a regional player, and for seemingly taking annexation off the table.
  • “Netanyahu is deserving of much appreciation for these two things. For the first time since being elected prime minister, he has pulled off a positive diplomatic achievement, and did not seek his glory by putting others down. This peace is his. If it flourishes, it’s his. If it gets bogged down and canceled, it’s his.”
  • Channel 12’s Ehud Yaari writes that the so-called Netanyahu doctrine, which he says calls for engaging with regional partners rather than getting stuck in talks with Palestinians that go nowhere, is now “bearing fruit.”
  • “In the last decade, Israel has built, under Netanyahu’s leadership, despite all the bitter criticism of his behavior and methods, ties with important states that avoided us for years, from India and Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia to Brazil and Colombia.”

4. Spy bids: Yaari also predicts that more breakthroughs are in the offing, specifically with Bahrain, and possibly Sudan and Morocco.

  • Regarding Bahrain, “talks have been at an advanced stage for years, The question of open contacts is only a matter of timing.”
  • While he says it’s unclear if Oman, which recently saw a change in leadership, will also advance ties, both Bahrain and Oman have praised the deal.
  • Haaretz reports that “White House officials said that Oman and Bahrain would be the next countries to normalize relations with Israel.”
  • According to the New York Times, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, seen as a driving force in making the deal happen, has been involved in talks for years with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt to build relations with the Gulf State.
  • Channel 12 news reports that a joint deal to collaborate on fighting the coronavirus helped push the relationship along.
  • According to Walla news, the clincher was White House envoy Avi Berkowitz, derided in the past as Jared Kushner’s coffee boy, who came up with the idea to take annexation off the table in exchange for UAE normalization, citing a senior White House official. Netanyahu responded that he was open to considering the idea if it would prove to be serious, the report says.
  • According to several reports, Netanyahu was looking for a way to get out of the annexation gambit anyway, after it became clear his domestic partners and the White House were no longer behind it.

 

5. Bibi set me up: So is annexation off the table? Shelved? Frozen? Taking a vacation? Depends who you ask, and when.

  • In the meantime, while Netanyahu has insisted it is just a temporary thing, settler boosters appear unconvinced and circumspect about the prospects of giving up on the West Bank for a deal with a country that was never really a huge enemy anyway.
  • In Israel Hayom, Nadav Shragai calls it the “waste of the century, a golden opportunity squandered,” while calling for Netanyahu to make up for it by approving massive amounts of new construction in the settlements.
  • “The tidings of normalization with the UAE and maybe other Gulf states will make us feel good in the short term. Postponing and perhaps squandering sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, on the other hand, could be lamented by generations to come.”
  • In Yedioth, Yifat Ehrlich writes that “The idea that fully normalized ties with some other state require Israel nixing extending sovereignty to Judea and Samaria is reprehensible and against the idea of the Deal of the Century.”
  • “True peace will only break out here after the Arabs in the Middle East understand that Jaffa and Haifa, Maaleh Adumim and Shilo, are an inseparable part of the State of Israel,” she adds.
  • Scholar Sara Hirschhorn, who wrote a book about Americans in the settler movement, says on Twitter that Israelis should be circumspect of why they needed to give up on a different kind of sovereignty — decision making power — for the “unimpressive” deal.

 

  • Kan’s Gili Cohen writes that “questions are piling up,” about the deal, and notes that both Kushner and al-Otaiba said that Netanyahu agreed to a two-state solution, even if the premier refused to admit it: “With one hand, Netanyahu is signing a peace deal — seemingly in the next few weeks on the White House lawn, and with his other hand creating a Palestinian state.”
  • Yesha settler concil head Yigal Dilmoni tells Army Radio that “The deal is very good, but it needs to be disconnected from the extension of sovereignty. We are waiting for it. Two or three weeks ago, they told us it would happen at the end of August. Now this blows up in our faces. We are considering our next steps if there will be elections.”

6. Bennett’s chance? According to Kan, the deal has helped push election a bit further away, bringing Likud and Blue and White closer together.

  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter says that the potential loss of support for Netanyahu on the right thanks to the annexation issue could also make him think twice about trying his luck again at the polls.
  • “The settlers’ hue and cry about the death of sovereignty in the West Bank included a clear threat that they won’t vote for Likud,” he writes. “For them, this broken promise is one too many. Even they see there’s no more air left in this balloon,” he writes. “If, in another election, the disappointed right wing votes for Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party or stays home, the outcome would be critical for Netanyahu. His haters on the center-left won’t vote for him in any case. At best, his political situation won’t change. At worst, for him, the next poll will indicate another rise in Yamina’s power at the diminishing Likud’s expense.”
  • Israel Hayom’s Ariel Kahana, a big annexation fan, also writes (seemingly before the UAE news broke) that Bennett is on the rise and could emerge as Netanyahu’s biggest rival: “ In contrast to the traditional political rivalry in Israel, it’s possible that this time, the electoral battle will be between two right-wing candidates. We know that the public veered to the right some time ago, and is in a different place from the TV studios. … So most of the public will wind up having to decide between right-wing leaders. And if that comes to pass, Bennett will go into the fight in a stronger position, since Netanyahu never followed through on the application of sovereignty he promised.”
  • But ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur surmises that the deal could give Netanyahu an opening to pivot to the center, noting that when he came into power in 2009, that’s pretty much where he was anyway. “The UAE deal offers Netanyahu much more than a ladder to climb down from his annexation promise. It offers him a convincing campaign for the center, for a political space in which he once flourished, but which he hasn’t inhabited at least since 2015.”
  • He adds, though, that “Netanyahu is a toxic figure among large swaths of the electorate, who might not be swayed to his banner even by a peace deal with Iran. But if the poll numbers bear out, if they show that the immediate responses of the chattering classes — the right’s frustration and the center-left’s glee — are shared by enough swayable voters, Israel may soon find itself with a different Netanyahu.
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