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Gantz calls on Abbas to join 'journey toward peace'

Netanyahu hails ‘warm peace’ with UAE as Knesset debates normalization deal

PM says no hidden annexes or secret additions to accord signed in DC; opposition leader Lapid calls agreement ‘excellent’ but ex-defense minister Ya’alon to boycott vote

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset on October 15 ahead of a vote on ratifying Israel's normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset on October 15 ahead of a vote on ratifying Israel's normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Opening the Knesset debate on Israel’s normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday hailed a “warm peace” coming amid a paradigm shift in the way Middle Eastern countries view Israel.

Netanyahu asserted that the so-called Abraham Accord with Abu Dhabi did not contain “any secret annex or hidden agendas,” rebuffing critics who reject the deal because of reports that Israel tacitly agreed to the sale of advanced weaponry to the UAE.

In a lengthy speech, he reviewed Israel’s decade-long quest for peace, calling on the Palestinians and Lebanon to negotiate agreements with the Jewish state and predicting many other Arab and Muslim countries will follow the Emirates and Bahrain in normalizing relations with Israel.

“Since the beginning of Zionism, one of our hands has been holding a weapon in defense and the other hand was stretched out to everyone who wants peace,” he declared. “They say peace is made with enemies. False. Peace is made with those who have stopped being enemies. Peace is made with those who desire peace and who no longer remain committed to your annihilation.”

In that context, the prime minister mentioned Wednesday’s onset of maritime border negotiations with Lebanon and expressed the hope that those indirect talks could in the future lead to full normalization with that country as well.

“I always believed that true peace will be achieved only from a position of power, not weakness. The strong are respected. Alliances are forged with the strong, while the weak are trampled,” he said. Israel has become a “superpower” in the fields of technology and intelligence, and that has turned the country into a “diplomatic power,” he posited.

“Israel under my leadership is not tempted to make dangerous withdrawals, to bow of the head, to appeasement that brings war closer rather than move it further away.”

Netanyahu said the agreement with the UAE was different from Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in that it does not require Israel to relinquish any territory. “It’s a warm peace, between peoples,” he said, recalling being moved at seeing on social media footage of Emirati children draping themselves in an Israeli flag.

“Israel, which for decades was perceived as an enemy, is today seen as a staunch and even essential ally. It is incredible that here in the Knesset of Israel there are some who would vote against peace,” he said, apparently addressing members of the majority-Arab Joint List, who are tipped to vote against the deal. “Those who are ostensibly in the peace camp oppose peace. You do not want real peace, you want the semblance of peace in which Israel gradually disappears.”

Netanyahu said the hopes the Palestinians will one day give up their desire to destroy Israel and recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people. “This day will come, too,” he predicted.

At the end of Thursday’s marathon Knesset session, which is expected to last several hours, the Knesset will vote on the agreement. In the very likely scenario that a majority of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers vote in favor of the treaty, it will return to the cabinet for ratification.

Once ratified, the agreement enters into force for Israel, but full diplomatic relations between the two countries will not be established until the UAE ratifies the agreement as well.

Lawmakers are expected to overwhelmingly support the deal, with only the Joint List thought to oppose the agreement, calling it an arms deal, not a peace treaty.

MK Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s former defense minister, said he would boycott the vote to protest that the agreement, and its alleged secret addenda, has not been presented in full to lawmakers.

Opposition Leader yair Lapid addresses the Knesset ahead of a vote on ratifying Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who took the podium right after the prime minister, agreed that the treaty with the UAE was “excellent” but lambasted Netanyahu and his government for various other alleged failures.

“It’s a good agreement and a real achievement. The prime minister has a tendency to complain that he doesn’t get enough credit. So here you are, excellent agreement. Credit where credit is due,” he said.

“And when it isn’t deserved, it isn’t. That’s how it works,” he added, before launching into a litany of criticism.

“You failed completely when it comes to the relationship with the Democratic Party and American Jewry. You failed totally in managing the health crisis. You failed totally in managing the economic crisis,” he said.

“You failed because you enacted an unnecessary lockdown for political reasons. You failed with the unpaid leave framework. You failed because there is no budget. You failed when you formed a government of 36 ministers that is incapable of getting anything done.”

The agreement with the UAE is a real achievement, “but we live here, not in the Gulf,” the opposition leader went on. “It’s time for a leader who will bring peace here at home, between us, between Israelis. Prime minister, it’s time for you to go,” he concluded.

After Lapid’s speech, more than 100 ministers and lawmakers were set to deliver short speeches, meaning the debate could last more than six hours before Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis summarizes the debate and the treaty is brought to a vote.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also commended the prime minister for clinching the deal with the UAE.

“The Abraham Accords are an opportunity to revitalize our efforts to reach a diplomatic accord with our Palestinian neighbors,” he said, calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “join this journey toward peace” rather than stay mired in refusal.

Gantz said he regretted that some lawmakers wanted to vote against the treaty. “This is the moment to ensure that we educate our next generation to peace and find the inroad to a better future for the children of the Middle East, Palestinians included,” he said.

Referring to the controversy surrounding the expected F-35 sale to the UAE, the defense minister said that he and defense establishment are “working on maintaining our security interests and qualitative edge,” noting that the US remains fully committed to Israel’s security.

“In the Middle East there have been and will continue to be arms deals. Let me say this in the clearest possible terms: As long as I am defense minister, Israel’s military power and its qualitative edge in this region will be maintained, strengthened, and further entrenched.”

In this August 5, 2019, photo released by the US Air Force, an F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

The US and the UAE are expected to sign an arms deal alongside the Israel-UAE normalization agreement in the next few weeks that will see Washington supply the Gulf state with, among other things, advanced F-35 stealth fighters.

On Wednesday, Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman decried the agreement, saying it was “aimed at undermining the struggle to end the occupation and eliminating the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.”

The Israeli far right is also wary of the accord because in it Jerusalem commits “to working together to realize a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both people.”

Emirati officials have started the process of approving and ratifying the agreement, which was signed by the two parties in Washington on September 15, but it is unclear when it will conclude.

“The UAE government is currently also working through its national and constitutional processes to ratify the Abraham Accords,” a senior Emirati official told The Times of Israel this week.

“There are a number of steps involved. The Accords need to be approved by the UAE cabinet, which is the step currently in progress. The UAE government will then issue a decree, in order to ensure the national implementation of the obligations,” the official said. “While the timing is not clear, the UAE government is moving expeditiously to finalize the processes required before ratification, and entry into force of the Abraham Accords.”

Once both parties have ratified the agreement, the treaty will be transmitted to the secretary-general of the United Nations for registration in the UN Treaty Series, a massive compendium of international treaties.

In parallel, Israeli and Emirati officials are currently negotiating various bilateral agreements, including about the opening of embassies and a visa regime allowing Israelis to visit the UAE.

View of a Knesset plenary session on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

The agreement reached the Knesset after ministers unanimously gave it their initial approval in a vote on Monday. Following that vote, Netanyahu announced that he and the de facto leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, spoke over the weekend and agreed to meet “soon,” according to a readout of their conversation provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The conversation was the first between the two since the agreement to normalize ties between the states was announced on August 13.

The readout did not specify where the meeting would take place, but Netanyahu said that he was looking forward to hosting a senior UAE delegation in Israel.

It would be “a reciprocal visit” following the August 31 trip to Abu Dhabi by an Israeli delegation headed by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, the prime minister said.

A statement carried by the Emirates official news agency said Netanyahu initiated the call and the two discussed “the progression of bilateral relations in view of the peace accord the two countries recently signed.” It did not mention a meeting or reciprocal visit.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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