Netanyahu gave Israel a place among the nations in a new Middle East

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: And as of August 13, that vision began coming to fruition in the Middle East as well, when Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced normalization.

NATIONAL SECURITY Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat meets with his Emirati counterpart, Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi, August 2020 (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
NATIONAL SECURITY Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat meets with his Emirati counterpart, Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi, August 2020
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Two major books envisioning a better future for Israel were published in 1993: The New Middle East, by Shimon Peres, foreign minister at the time, and A Place Among the Nations, by then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both saw a future in which Israel had relations with many more of the world’s nations than it had at the time, just as the Oslo peace process began, but they had a core disagreement on how they thought this would happen.
Peres wrote his book after the high of the Oslo Accords, which he believed would reshape the region for better, while Netanyahu named his chapter on the accords “Trojan Horse,” believing that it was a danger to Israel.
“At the heart of the conflict that has been going on for some 100 years,” Peres wrote, “a conflict that escalated with the founding of the State of Israel 45 years ago, stands the Palestinian matter.”
If Israel makes peace with the Palestinians, then the rest of the Arab world will follow, and “open the way for a fundamental transformation,” creating the titular new Middle East, he posited.
Peres held this position for the rest of his life, even negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he was president of Israel and Netanyahu was prime minister. It was a view that made him an international superstar. He had a lot of support behind it, from politicians around the world and the experts in their think tanks. The 2002 Arab Peace Plan was predicated on that very idea, that the Arab League states would have official relations with Israel only if there is a two-state solution to their liking.
Netanyahu, however, had and still has a fundamentally different view of what would make Israel a country with which it would be worth making peace. His last speech as opposition leader, in 1996, summed up his view on how he thinks the “new Middle East” will come to be, as delineated in his book.
“We can realize a glorious future for the State of Israel.... We have very sophisticated industries and very sophisticated people. People coming from the army, air force, intelligence, can operate in new media systems, in computer communications, information security, all those elements of the new industry of knowledge. We are about to become one of the truly successful economies, if we carry out the liberalization we believe in. If we take those steps, the economic power of the State of Israel will be among the 15 top economies of the world,” Netanyahu said.
The way for Israel to make those strides in “the real Middle East,” as opposed to The New Middle East, he said, “is not tearing down the walls, our walls of defense... [but] to fortify it – economically, socially, in terms of aliyah, in terms of settlement.”
Over the 27 years since those books were published, Israel repeatedly entered into negotiations with the Palestinians and offered major concessions, which the Palestinians always rejected. The Palestinian leadership has refused to negotiate with Israel at all in recent years.
But for 14 of those 27 years, Netanyahu was prime minister, so it is no surprise that Israel has pursued the Place Among the Nations vision. Israel’s economic development and fostering of its innovative spirit have brought on strong partnerships with countries around the world, especially in the past decade.
And as of August 13, that vision began coming to fruition in the Middle East as well, when Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced normalization.
IN ABU DHABI – with the large Israeli delegation meeting with Emirati officials, which arrived on the first-ever Israeli commercial airline flight to the UAE, which was also the first-ever Israeli flight over Saudi Arabia – it felt like something momentous was taking place.
It clearly was not just Israelis who were excited about this new development. The Emiratis pulled out all the stops. They literally rolled out the red carpet for the El Al plane that landed at the airport in Abu Dhabi. They held a banquet with steaks and caviar for the officials of both governments.
The journalists were given a private tour of the futuristic-looking Louvre Abu Dhabi and served a four-course dinner, including camel meat, a delicacy. (There was an elegant kosher option, from the newly OU-certified local kosher caterer, as well.) The local attendees included prominent figures such as the culture minister, the manager of UAE’s Mars mission and an MP who heads an anti-extremism effort, as well as Emirati journalists.
The group was obviously carefully selected to make a certain impression on the reporters who would then bring back the messages from the UAE to Israel. But there was still plenty to be gleaned from unscripted, candid conversations with people whose expertise was not necessarily foreign relations.
We heard from people who had Israeli friends from studies in the US and Europe. We answered questions about tourist sites to visit when they eventually come to Israel. People were interested in cooperation in technology and other research. One official compared the Israelis’ and Emiratis’ ambitious spirits.
Don’t compare this peace to that Israel has with Jordan and Egypt, one official said. This is peace between two peoples who want to get to know one another.
That the younger generation in the Middle East has much to gain from abandoning extremism and fostering ties with Israel was a theme that came up repeatedly.
At no point on the trip did the Palestinians come up, unless an Israeli brought them up. On the record, the response was that “one of the prerequisites of the commencing of bilateral relations was the halting of annexation,” and the UAE has “assurances from key leaders in the US and Israel” on the matter, as Foreign Ministry director of policy planning Jamal al-Musharakh said in a briefing on Tuesday, just before the flight back to Israel.
The UAE “remains with the Arab consensus and resolutions pertaining to [the Palestinians]. We have not backed out even an inch from our position,” he said.
But when asked if the normalization process would stop were Israel to move forward with sovereignty plans, Musharakh said “it does not.”
Off the record, other officials were very unsatisfied with the Palestinians’ reaction to the UAE’s normalization with Israel. One at the dinner said the UAE needs to do things in its own interest and not listen to others’ diktats. Ties with Israel are not about the Palestinians, and had been in the works for years, she pointed out.
NPR’s Daniel Estrin had a similar impression, writing that “Emiratis were offended by what they perceived as Palestinian insults to their leader. Several Emiratis in recent weeks have privately expressed to NPR their disdain for the Palestinian leadership.”
IT WOULD be naive to say that everything is perfect and exactly how Israel would like things to be now.
The hotel in which the Israeli delegation stayed in Abu Dhabi was crawling with Israeli and Emirati security, and coronavirus was not the only reason Israelis were strongly discouraged from exploring the city on their own. Emiratis may seem to be excited about peace with Israel, but they make up only about 15% of the UAE’s population; better to be safe than sorry.
The normalized ties are not going to include visa-free access anytime soon, because of Israeli security concerns. A senior Israeli official on the trip did say that Emiratis seeking to come to Jerusalem and pray at al-Aqsa will likely have a shorter wait than Egyptians and Jordanians – who can wait six months or more if they’re even allowed in – because the risks are not as great. The Israeli Embassy in the UAE is also less likely to be in a big, fancy stand-alone building like some of the other countries’, because a unit in an office building is easier and cheaper to secure.
And, of course, the UAE is just one country, as advanced and influential as it may be. The response of the rest of the region is decidedly mixed.
No one was expecting anything different from Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called normalization with Israel a “betrayal” and said “the Emiratis will be disgraced forever.”
But the response was tepid even from Sunni states that have warmed to Israel behind the scenes.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who took the historic Tel Aviv-Abu Dhabi flight, continued to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia after the UAE.
In Manama, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told Kushner that regional stability relies on Saudi Arabia, the official Bahrain News Agency said. That was a signal that the Bahrainis are not about to make ties with Israel official until the Saudis do. He also highlighted “endeavors to reach a just and comprehensive solution that guarantees the Palestinian people their legitimate rights and lasting peace in the region.”
In Neom in northwestern Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Kushner talked about “the need to resume negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to achieve a just and lasting peace.”
But the following day, Saudi Arabia announced that it was “allowing the passage of the kingdom’s airspace for flights coming to, and departing from, the United Arab Emirates to all countries,” as its Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan wrote, though he also clarified that this did not mark a change in its position toward the Palestinians.
This was, as Netanyahu said in a statement soon after, a “tremendous breakthrough.”
“These are the benefits of a peace that is genuine,” he said. “There will be a great deal more good news to come.”
Netanyahu also spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on Wednesday. Sisi notably not only praised the development of open ties between Israel and the UAE and called to “preserve the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” he said that moves toward peace in the region should “provide security for Israel,” according to the Egyptian readout.
The conversation with Sisi is also a reminder of how far things have come since Israel had its first peace treaty with an Arab state, Egypt, in 1977. Unlike Egypt, the UAE is not a pariah. Saudi Arabia is even, in a way, facilitating Israel-UAE peace by letting the flights between the countries take about half as long as they would have otherwise.
It took 17 years between Israel’s first two peace treaties with Arab countries, the second being Jordan, and another 26 until the UAE became the third.
It may take a long time for Israel to be recognized by all 22 Arab states, as Kushner forecasted this week. History is not evenly paced; it progresses in unpredictable spurts and stops.
But we can say with certainty that what we’ve seen in recent weeks was not The New Middle East, with the Palestinians holding the keys to Israel’s future. It is a new Middle East in which Israel has A Place Among the Nations. This was Israel making peace mostly because of what Israel has to offer, and what Israel will keep offering to countries that genuinely want relations.