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Official: 'The article caught certain Israelis off guard'

Revealed: What Netanyahu really thought of UAE envoy’s peace for no-annexation offer

When landmark op-ed appeared, Israeli envoy Dermer called Emirati counterpart irate at being kept out of loop, and warned that Jerusalem would have no choice but to annex, ToI told

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

(L-R) UAE Ambassador to the US speaks during an event in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018, and his Israeli counterpart Ron Dermer speaks at conference in Detroit, June 4, 2018. (Jon Gambrell; Paul Sancya/AP Photo)
(L-R) UAE Ambassador to the US speaks during an event in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018, and his Israeli counterpart Ron Dermer speaks at conference in Detroit, June 4, 2018. (Jon Gambrell; Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

WASHINGTON — In June 2020, the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba penned an op-ed in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily that laid the groundwork for his country’s normalization agreement with Israel a mere two months later.

But according to two officials familiar with the matter, official Israel’s first response to that piece was, in fact, anger.

The officials told The Times of Israel that al-Otaiba received an irate phone call from then-Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer who was incensed over the Emirati envoy’s conditioning of an improved relationship with Abu Dhabi on the shelving of the West Bank annexation plans being led by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The op-ed by Otaiba was published in Hebrew on the front page of Yedioth — a direct appeal to the Israeli public, the likes of which had never been seen before. It was written weeks before the July 1 “deadline” when Netanyahu had pledged to begin applying Israeli sovereignty to large chunks of the West Bank.

Otaiba used the opportunity to warn Israelis of what they had to lose if the controversial move was seen through. “Recently, Israeli leaders have promoted excited talk about normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. But Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction,” the UAE ambassador wrote.

“These are the carrots – the incentives, the upsides – for Israel. Greater security. Direct links. Expanded markets. Growing acceptance. This is what normal could be,” he continued. “Normal is not annexation. Instead, annexation is a misguided provocation of another order.”

The op-ed’s message resonated overwhelmingly with Israelis, with 80 percent of the population backing the forgoing of annexation in exchange for a normalization agreement.

It also kickstarted marathon negotiations between al-Otaiba, then-senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Dermer, which ultimately led to the announcement of the Abraham Accords in August 2020 and to annexation plans being postponed indefinitely.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-tourism minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Yet, the op-ed infuriated Netanyahu and his inner circle, who had been in the midst of a campaign to convince the Israeli public along with world leaders that the Arab world did not actually care if Israel moved forward with its annexation plans, an aide to a then senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Roughly two weeks before al-Otaiba’s editorial was released, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom published an above-the-fold “exclusive,” relying on sourcing provided to the writer from those close to the prime minister, the aide said. The story was headlined “Under the radar: Arab countries agree to annexation” and appeared alongside pictures of Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. All of them, the article alleged, had given a green light to annexation behind closed doors, despite opposing the plan vehemently in public forums.

Al-Otaiba’s op-ed presented a contradictory message and highlighted not only the UAE’s opposition to Netanyahu’s plan but that of other Arab allies in the region as well.

“A unilateral and deliberate act, annexation is the illegal seizure of Palestinian land. It defies the Arab — and indeed the international — consensus on the Palestinian right to self-determination. It will ignite violence and rouse extremists. It will send shockwaves around the region, especially in Jordan, whose stability — often taken for granted — benefits the entire region, particularly Israel,” wrote the Emirati envoy, a close confidant of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

In this September 15, 2020, file photo, from left; former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former US president Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, sit during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Hours after the op-ed was published, al-Otaiba received a call from Dermer who fumed over having not been given a heads-up, the aide recalled. Al-Otaiba had enlisted the support of American-Israeli business mogul Haim Saban to place the article in Yedioth and ran the piece by Kushner, but did not inform Netanyahu’s office.

Dermer also warned al-Otaiba during the phone call that as a result of the op-ed, the Netanyahu government would now be left with no choice but to move forward with its annexation plans because it could not be seen as having caved to the Arab world, the aide said.

“I think the op-ed caught certain Israelis off guard and it very much irritated them,” another official involved told ToI.

Dermer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story was first told a year ago to The Times of Israel off the record. The sources granted permission to publish the information on Thursday. Some of the details were written in Israeli reporter Barak Ravid’s book “Trump’s Peace” published in Hebrew earlier this month.

That book also told of Washington’s outrage over Israel’s annexation plans which, it claimed, caught the administration completely by surprise, and led to tense exchanges between the US and Israeli leadership.

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