Could the UAE deal save Netanyahu from a disillusioned Israeli right?

If it polls well, normalization agreement may push polarizing prime minister onto a new political trajectory: pivoting to the center to make up for lost votes from his base

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, walks through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019, a day ahead of Israel's parliamentary elections. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, walks through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019, a day ahead of Israel's parliamentary elections. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The announcement was dramatic. US President Donald Trump was given the honor of making it first — on Twitter, of course.

“HUGE breakthrough today! Historic Peace Agreement between our two GREAT friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates!” the president enthused.

It was a moment that caught everyone by surprise, including the Palestinians and even Israel’s own foreign and defense ministers.

It was also a moment heralded by Israel’s friends and allies worldwide, from Jewish communities, to friendly governments, to US senators.

But the lovefest wasn’t to last.

A joint statement issued by the Israeli, Emirati and American governments spoke clearly of an agreement “to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.” It also stated clearly that “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over West Bank lands.

But careful readers started to notice important differences in the messaging coming from the three governments that were party to the deal.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017. (AP/Andrew Harnik, File)

While Likud was raving in Hebrew about “a historic peace agreement,” the UAE talked more tepidly about “setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”

Likud vowed that Netanyahu’s promised West Bank annexation wasn’t off the table. “Netanyahu is still committed to sovereignty and to the land of Israel,” it assured the prime minister’s right-wing base.

The UAE explained that the agreement was, in its essence, an end to that annexation — and only by extension would constitute some sort of “bilateral relationship” with Israel.

Here’s how Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the Emirati leader who brokered the deal, described it in a tweet announcing the move: “During a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap toward establishing a bilateral relationship.”

Was it a “historic peace agreement” or just a “roadmap?” Was annexation still on the table, or, as the crown prince suggested, “an agreement was reached to stop” it?

Those aren’t technicalities. They go to the heart of what just happened.

Within Israel, too, confusion reigned.

Netanyahu and his representatives praised the agreement as a historic achievement, explaining that it proved at long last that the “land for peace” formula was a failure, and showed the potential of Netanyahu’s more assertive “peace for peace” doctrine.

But Israel’s left also praised the agreement, perhaps even more effusively than Netanyahu himself, explaining that it proves the very opposite.

As Meretz party leader Nitzan Horovitz put it, the agreement “proved that canceling the annexation and [advancing] the two-state solution was the only path to regional normalization.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issues a press statement at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Unhelpfully for Netanyahu, that was more or less the White House’s take. As Jared Kushner explained, it was all based on the Trump peace plan, in which “President Trump was able to get Israel to agree to have a two-state solution with the Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump contradicted Netanyahu Thursday night, saying that annexation was “more than just off the table” and that Israel had agreed to not carry it out. Trump then confusingly added that while that was the situation “right now,” he couldn’t talk about annexation “some time in the future.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said annexation was “off the table now, but it’s not off the table permanently,” adding that the US decided to “prioritize peace” by backing the accord.

Bin Zayed holds Netanyahu’s feet to the fire

Who’s right? What should we make of the enormous gap between the sides on what the agreement actually contains and what it ultimately means?

The gap could signal problems down the road. If Netanyahu believes he can still annex — or even merely continues to promise annexation — the Emiratis may grow frustrated and embarrassed by the whole thing.

But it could also signal success. Both sides left themselves and each other enough wiggle room to justify the deal to displeased domestic constituencies.

In the end, the agreement’s essence can’t really be discerned from the competing rhetoric coming from Washington, Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem. It lies in the interests the deal satisfies for each side.

In this May 15, 2017, file photo, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, smiles during a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington. (AP/Andrew Harnik, File)

The UAE first proposed an agreement in June in order to stave off an Israeli annexation in the West Bank, a move the Emiratis believed would hurt them deeply in a region that already knew they were cooperating heavily with the Israelis against Iran.

Freezing annexation is Netanyahu’s most visible and diplomatically significant contribution to the deal, a fact that suggests he’s likely to keep it.

Indeed, Bin Zayed seems to have structured his own handling of the agreement around ensuring Netanyahu does so. While Jerusalem and Washington spoke of an “agreement,” Bin Zayed talked on Thursday about processes, a “roadmap toward” an agreement rather than a final deal. Bin Zayed has not actually committed to a final deal, at least not in his own rhetoric, a fact that likely flows from the Emirati calculation that they must hold the relationship perpetually over Netanyahu’s head to prevent an annexation that would hurt them all the more as the relationship deepens.

Judging by one evening’s maneuvering, Bin Zayed is no fool: he brought the most populous Arab state, and the first to strike a full diplomatic peace with Israel, into the bargain.

In a statement, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi congratulated all the parties involved in terms that carefully tracked Bin Zayed’s formulation.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi speaks at the “G20 Investment Summit – German Business and the CwA Countries 2019” on the sidelines of a Compact with Africa (CwA) in Berlin, Germany on Nov. 19, 2019. (John MacDougall/Pool via AP)

“I followed with great interest and appreciation the tripartite statement between the United States of America, our brothers the United Arab Emirates, and Israel regarding the agreement to stop Israel’s annexation of the Palestinian territories and to take steps to bring peace to the Middle East,” Sissi wrote. “I value the effort of those embarking upon this agreement for the sake of achieving prosperity and stability for our region.”

It’s about stopping annexation “of the Palestinian territories,” Sissi was explaining — to his people, to the Arab world at large, and no less important lest he miss the point and embarrass them all, to Netanyahu.

It’s an impressive achievement for Netanyahu, and may grow more impressive still if new countries are added to the normalization bandwagon. US officials told Palestinian media outlets on Thursday night that Oman and Bahrain are slated to announce similar agreements with Israel — all as a precursor for the real prize, a Saudi normalization announcement down the road.

All would come into the mix under the rules set down by Bin Zayed: Israel gets its coveted recognition and over-the-table diplomatic, economic and security relations, and the governments granting those things get enough Israeli concessions on the Palestinian front to prevent it from becoming a political albatross.

Netanyahu has bought a lot from the conservative Sunni states with his threat (as they perceive it) of annexation — and they are working to ensure he will lose a lot if he makes good on the threat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed, on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)

A new Netanyahu?

And that puts Netanyahu in a difficult bind.

“A great achievement,” mocked MK Betzalel Smotrich of Yamina in a Thursday night tweet. “Surrendering a historic opportunity to apply sovereignty, resuscitating the left’s talk of two states after the right spent years pushing it off the table (just listen to Trump and the Emiratis), and all to sign onto a ‘peace agreement’ with a country we were never at war with…classic Bibi [Netanyahu], not right-wing, not trustworthy.”

It was a dense and succinct tweet. And it wasn’t alone.

Shimon Riklin is one of Netanyahu’s most prominent and loyal defenders in the Israeli media landscape, a former settlements activist, one-time Jewish Home candidate and now the diplomatic analyst for the right-wing Channel 20.

“Dear prime minister,” he wrote in a tweet after the agreement was announced. “You’ve disappointed. You know and we know that there’s already full cooperation with the United Arab Emirates. So the headline about normalizing relations with them is a joke. But sovereignty, that’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Once again you’ve fed us bullshit about sovereignty. We’re there with you all the way when it comes to the injustice they’ve done to you” — a reference to Netanyahu’s corruption trial — “and you don’t advance a single right-wing issue. For how long?”

Shimon Riklin at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

In Israeli popular culture, ad matai, “For how long,” is a question scrawled on army bathroom stalls by frustrated enlistees contemplating the long months and years that remain to their service. It isn’t a question, but a cry of frustration — this time directed at Netanyahu from one of his most loyal defenders, a man he tried to crowbar onto the Likud Knesset list in the March 2019 election.

It’s too early for polls, of course, but a quick glance at the statements issuing from a broad cross-section of the Israeli right, and even from within Likud by the likes of Yuli Edelstein and Gideon Sa’ar, suggest the right-wing base is unmoved by the prospect of diplomatic normalization, and is downright crestfallen at the price Netanyahu has paid by putting annexation into deep freeze.

Netanyahu has a right-wing opponent that stands ready to benefit from that disappointment: Yamina, an alliance of right-wing parties now surging in the polls amid widespread disaffection on the right over Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic.

The National Union party, which is part of Yamina, produced a video Thursday night that showed nothing but tweets from left-wing personalities expressing admiration and excitement about the agreement, along with profuse praise for Netanyahu.

The tweets included expressions of support from New Israel Fund and former Peace Now officials, from a Labor party MK, and even from one activist who suggested “the left is busy fighting the best prime minister it’s ever had.”

Netanyahu didn’t need this political problem. Yamina has been soaring in the polls since June, carried on a wave of frustration at the prime minister. The party won six seats in the April election but has polled as high as 19 over the past two weeks.

It can now add the failed promise of annexation to its long list of grievances drawing right-wing voters away from Netanyahu.

Unless, that is, Netanyahu pivots first.

Netanyahu has been in power a long time, longer than the news cycle can really remember. In his first return to the premiership in 2009, he built his political position on a complex kind of centrism, telling Israelis wracked by years of peace process-induced violence and war that he was a “responsible” steward of national affairs, the antithesis to the wild, bloody and ultimately failed experiments of peacemaking and unilateral withdrawals that had defined the previous two decades. He would not start wars, not annex new territories, and not withdraw, at least until Israel’s minimum security needs could be met by new terror-free politics on the Palestinian side.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Home Front Command base in Ramle on August 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

He was a centrist who prided himself on torpedoing right-wing bills that sought to weaken the judiciary — the very initiatives his party and his Facebook page now champion.

Beginning roughly in the 2015 election, after the collapse of the dysfunctional government he had led with centrists Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu began to pursue a different strategy, one built on cannibalizing his rightist flank to shore up Likud’s Knesset showing.

The rightward turn was jarring to both right and left. He warned right-wing voters that a vote for right-wing parties other than Likud would result in “leftist” victories. He began to openly race-bait Arabs with campaigns against them being bussed “in droves” to the polls and attempts to film voting stations in Arab towns. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, he began to promise dramatic new policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, including last year’s promise to annex significant portions of the West Bank.

Whatever one thinks of the ethics of those campaigns — and even some Likud MKs have apologized or expressed discomfort with some of their excesses — it worked. Likud swelled, mostly at the expense of the rest of the right, and Netanyahu’s position became unassailable.

Or at least, it worked until election day in April 2019, the first of three indecisive elections in a row that all failed to deliver a clear-cut victory for Netanyahu or Likud.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an election campaign visit to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The rightist strategy may have exhausted itself. After a year and a half of deadlock, Netanyahu now faces a right-wing Yamina grown strong on his perceived failures, a pandemic that still threatens to ravage the economy further in the coming months, and a foreign policy now grown too accommodating for his right-wing base.

A strategy premised on him clawing back those disillusioned voters is looking riskier by the day.

All of which suggests that 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.

Nothing is certain, of course. Likud is now earnestly polling these questions. And even if Netanyahu takes that route, it won’t happen quickly or decisively; he still has a vast right-wing constituency to lose, and contenders for his throne within Likud biting at the chance to take him on from the right.

The caveats are important here. 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. If the geopolitical shift opens that centrist political window just as Netanyahu’s rightist option dims, Israel’s politics may yet be reshaped by the new diplomacy.

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