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Analysis'No one is rushing to help Netanyahu's election campaign'

For Israel, endless electoral discord carries perils for ties with Arab world

Political instability in wake of Abraham Accords puts plans on backburner, and Mideast leaders grow weary of being treated as pawns or punching bags

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

People walk past an electoral billboard for the Likud party bearing a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), and opposition Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, in Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2021, ahead of the March 23 general election. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
People walk past an electoral billboard for the Likud party bearing a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), and opposition Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, in Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2021, ahead of the March 23 general election. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

With four nearly consecutive elections failing to dent two years of Knesset gridlock, the “only democracy in the Middle East” is giving the rest of the region an up-close view of some of the more painful aspects of putting political power in the hands of the people.

In the past, it might have been regarded as an oddity, but less than a year after an unprecedented diplomatic opening that saw Israel move toward normalization with four Arab states, the seemingly endless parade of elections and instability that comes along with it may be putting a significant strain on the still-fresh agreements.

Aside from putting new partners and other potential allies on a wait-and-see footing as they wait for Jerusalem to figure itself out, Arab states are also chafing at being used as fertile ground for political point-scoring by Israeli politicians, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“In general, this doesn’t look good beyond our borders for the same reason it doesn’t look good here,” said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. “There is no stability, and the folks over the border don’t always understand our system… They don’t like instability.”

Oded Eran, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, recently told The New York Times that the lack of political stability had put Israel’s ties with the United Arab Emirates, a cornerstone of the Abraham Accords, “on hold.”

“They are not canceling the deal, but they don’t want more at this point,” Eran said. “They want to see what the agenda of the new government will be.”

The Abraham Accords came into being when Netanyahu and US president Donald Trump were in office. Trump is now gone and Netanyahu’s political future is uncertain.

“They don’t know who will replace him, if someone will replace him,” said Inbar. “I assume there are fears about the future of the relationship.”

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of the process that led to agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan took place during the election process that began in December 2018 (though the actual agreements came during the brief window when Israel actually had a unity government).  Israel’s new partners were well aware that Israel was in an uncertain period politically when they agreed to ties.

“They’ve been living with this level of uncertainty regarding where Israel is going to end up since fairly early in the process,” said Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “All of the open aspects of the new wave of normalization have taken place within the framework of two and a half years of elections, in which any observer – and believe me, our partners are not unastute observers –  understand that things can change.”

Gulf press outlets have been writing about the elections, but haven’t indicated that there is any major tension in the relationship, said Middle East Institute senior fellow Ibrahim al-Assil.

“They’ve been interested and they’ve been following the Israeli elections,” he said. “Most of them are not talking about the Abraham Accords.”

The UAE’s first ambassador to Israel, Mohammad Mahmoud Al Khajah, with President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Political pawns

One consequence of the years-long election season is that the line between policy and politics becomes blurred. Netanyahu is notorious for exploiting any election advantage he can find, and, not surprisingly, Israel’s neighbors aren’t especially thrilled playing supporting roles on Netanyahu’s stage.

“No one is rushing to help Netanyahu’s election campaign,” Krasna said.

Israeli and Moroccan officials sign a bilateral agreement at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Likud leader has a long history of attempting to parlay his position on the world stage into political points, showcasing his diplomatic acuity by scheduling high-level meetings or attention-grabbing trips in the run-up to elections.

In 2019, Netanyahu reportedly tried to arrange trips to Morocco on two separate occasions, in what were widely understood as attempts to boost himself politically. In February 2019, reports emerged that Netanyahu was seeking to arrange a state visit to Morocco just before Israelis went to the polls in April 9 elections.

In December 2019 of that year, Netanyahu tried to join US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on his visit to Morocco, but Morocco’s King Mohammed VI vetoed the idea. Netanyahu was hoping to score a “real diplomatic accomplishment” to bolster his political chances before the Knesset’s December 11 deadline to tap a lawmaker to form a government, according to Channel 12 news.

“It was too obvious an election ploy for them,” said Krasna. “In the end the Moroccans came to a deal with us because they didn’t have that big a problem of doing it in the first place and because they got something good from the Americans.”

In Amman, King Abdullah is said to have turned down repeated requests by Netanyahu to meet, though he reportedly met quietly with Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently.

“It’s very clear to the Jordanians that any meeting with Netanyahu over the past two years would immediately be used for election purposes,” said Krasna.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II gives a speech during the inauguration of the 19th Parliament’s non-ordinary session, in Amman, Jordan, December 10, 2020. (Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court via AP)

The UAE as well made rare public overtures designed to get Netanyahu to back off attempts to turn them into a domestic political pawn.

Numerous plans for Netanyahu to visit the UAE over the past several months have been called off for various reasons. According to reports, the UAE was reluctant to host him due to concerns it would be perceived as election interference.

Netanyahu was said to have deployed Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to convince them to change their minds, but a March 11 trip was called off when Jordan apparently refused to okay the premier’s plane crossing their airspace.

Netanyahu would have used the visit to announce a $10 billion investment fund by the UAE aimed at strategic sectors in Israel. Many believe that Netanyahu’s decision to announce the plan from Jerusalem anyway, after a phone call with Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, angered officials in Abu Dhabi.

“That really upset them quite a bit,” a Dubai-based Gulf expert who asked not to be named told the Times of Israel.

Assil agreed it was a “significant hiccup.”

Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (right), receives King Abdullah of Jordan at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates March 13, 2016. (Crown Prince Court Abu Dhabi via AP)

A comment by a senior Emirati official was the first public indication that the Emiratis were displeased.

“From the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed.

“The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” he said, without elaborating.

The comments from Gargash, who until recently was the face of UAE diplomacy as its minister of state for foreign affairs, were unusually candid for an Emirati official.

From left, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Trump Administration Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash and Israel’s National Security Advisder Meir Ben Shabbat meeting in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020. (Israeli Prime Minister’s Office)

The UAE also reportedly suspended plans for a summit at which it was to host Netanyahu, senior US officials and the heads of Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel. According to a report by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, the summit had been set to take place in Abu Dhabi in April but has now been shelved after Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed was angered by what he reportedly perceived as Netanyahu’s endeavor to use the Gulf nation for electioneering.

Another Emirati official appeared to criticize Netanyahu amid the diplomatic tiff over the premier’s attempted use of Abu Dhabi as a stop on the campaign trail, saying the normalization deal was not made for the benefit of political leaders.

“The UAE signed the Accords for the hope and opportunities they provide our people, not individual leaders,” the Emirati official told CNN.

“They have this mixed relationship with Netanyahu,” said the Dubai-based expert. “They’re happy with his position toward Iran. They’re happy to be on the same page as him on that and to have gone through with the normalization.”

“But on the other hand, they also don’t trust him that much. Especially recently….that trust has really gone down quite a bit.”

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article.

Experts said the moves by the UAE were designed not only to send a message to Netanyahu, but to any other Israeli leaders who might have similar designs.

“They clearly wanted to draw a line – not only for Netanyahu – but I think for the future that they do not want to be part of any domestic competition within the Israeli political sphere” Assil stressed. “They didn’t want to be part of any electioneering.”

Krasna noted that the constant electioneering may also be making other potential partners reluctant to move ahead with diplomatic ties.

“I think they understand and sometimes perhaps are not that happy that a lot of their function is as an election prop,” he said. “I personally think this might be part of the reason why the Saudis are a little bit more wary.”

Saudi Arabia has yet to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, though ties between the countries are an open secret.

Another problematic byproduct of the elections is a change in official discourse in Israel. “Because of the election, people talk about things they didn’t necessarily talk about before,” said Krasna. “Think about the attacks on Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. We used to not talk about it, now we talk about it all the time.”

Ties with Jordan in particular have become strained by Netanyahu election promises that tack to the right. King Abdullah publicly opposed Netanyahu’s push to annex parts of the West Bank last year — widely seen as an elections ploy — which the prime minister dropped as part of the agreement to normalize ties with the UAE.

“It puts them in a place where they don’t want to be,” said Krasna. “They have a lot of connections with the Palestinians. And Israel, for election reasons, put things that used to be dealt with quietly as maybe the cornerstone of Netanyahu’s most recent election campaign.”

Years of Jordanian frustration with Netanyahu boiled over earlier this month, as officials in Amman appeared to accuse him of endangering the region for political reasons and alleged that Israel had violated agreements with them.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at a press conference in Berlin on March 10, 2021. (Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu may have also used Jordan as a punching bag to shore up support on the right. Aides to the prime minister attacked Jordan in Haaretz last month, calling it a country in decline that is increasingly dependent on Israel. The comments reached Jordanian papers the next day. Netanyahu also reportedly delayed approving a request from Jordan for water aid last week.

“The right thinks that the Jordanians have pushed too far and need to be slapped down to size,” said Krasna, “and because of the elections, I think that’s part of what’s driving Netanyahu.”

Kahanist brotherhood

Parties that could be part of a governing coalition could also complicate Israel’s ties with its neighbors.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, prays in the northern town of Maghar on March 26, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The Islamist Ra’am party, which won four seats in the March elections, is being courted by both Netanyahu’s camp and the parties seeking to replace him. Having Ra’am, which traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, in a government could upset both the Egyptians and the Gulf.

“What, we are fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza alongside everyone, and at the same time we are putting people who are like them but without rifles into the coalition?,” said Inbar. “They won’t look at it favorably.”

“The UAE would be concerned about that for sure,” said the Gulf security expert.

Netanyahu’s moves to bolster the conservative Jewish extremist Otzma Yehudit party could also muddle Israel’s relations in the region. The far-right party, which will enter the Knesset as part of the Religious Zionism party and would likely be a part of any Netanyahu coalition, supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty they wish to extend throughout the West Bank.

Religious Zionism party chairman Bezalel Smotrich (L) and candidate Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate at the party headquarters in Modi’in on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Last week, Israeli media reported that Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region told Israeli officials that normalization would likely be hurt by the election of far-right candidates to the Knesset. In recent days, the Gulf officials said they expected Netanyahu to condemn racist statements from lawmakers, the report said.

“For the decision-makers in the UAE it is a concern,” said Assil. “Even though they have a limited number of seats, they are racist, they are anti-Arab, and they certainly might complicate issues for the Arab states.”

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