The UAE-Israel deal shows the Netanyahu Doctrine at work

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The idea is relatively simple: get countries to realize that their interests are served better by having ties with Israel than by pretending the country doesn’t exist.

THE El Al airliner carrying Israeli and US delegates approaches to land at Abu Dhabi International Airport on Sunday. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE El Al airliner carrying Israeli and US delegates approaches to land at Abu Dhabi International Airport on Sunday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There’s an old saying in the army that can loosely be translated like this: “If you did something and didn’t say anything about it, it’s as though you didn’t do it.” Or, as the American mystery and suspense writer Jon R. Lansdale once said, “If you don’t toot your own horn, it goeth untooted.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a leader who makes sure that his horn will not go untooted; if he does something, he makes sure people know about it.
Is that humble? Not exactly. But humility is not what enables one to be Israel’s prime minister for some 14 and a half years, or just over 20% of the country’s entire history.
Some would argue that there was an overdose of Netanyahu’s lack of humility on display on Monday night, when he convened a press conference on the day that a high-level Israeli delegation – escorted by US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner – flew directly from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, over Saudi airspace, essentially ushering in a new era in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. Netanyahu made sure to take his share of the credit.
Steps he has taken going back to his first term in office, from 1996 to 1999, he said, “laid the foundations of a completely different system of relations with many countries in the region and beyond.”
He included in those steps taking measures to turn Israel into a robust free-market economy able to host a hi-tech ecosystem, and actively opposing Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, which attracted the attention of other like-minded states.
Humble? No. True? Yes.
More than 14 years in office gives a leader the ability to chart policies that could fairly be known as a doctrine. David Ben-Gurion, who was in power for 13 years and four months, also developed a foreign policy doctrine. On the other end of the spectrum, Ehud Bark, who served for just 610 days as prime minister, obviously did not.
The normalization of ties with the UAE is, so far, the crowning achievement of Netanyahu’s doctrine, the last in a series of doctrines that have governed Israel’s foreign relations since independence in 1948.
The first and most famous was Ben-Gurion’s Periphery Doctrine. This doctrine maintained that with the country living in an implacably hostile neighborhood, and no chance of alliances with any of its immediate neighbors, Israel would have to build alliances with non-Arab countries on its periphery: Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia.
This doctrine governed the country’s foreign policy for nearly its first three decades. However, it needed to be replaced after Ethiopia moved into the Communist orbit in 1974 and Iran fell to the ayatollahs in 1979. As a result it gave way to a new doctrine that took hold in the 1990s.
Following the Madrid Conference in 1991, the signing of the peace agreement with Jordan in 1994, and the heyday of the Oslo process, there was a sense in Jerusalem – call it a doctrine – that Israel’s relations with the world would improve as peace blossomed with the Palestinians.
This way of thinking was reflected in foreign minister Shimon Peres’s decision in 1993 to eliminate the Foreign Ministry’s hasbara (public diplomacy) department. If Israel had “good policies,” he reasoned, it would not need hasbara – as though a change of Israel’s policies would lead to a dramatic change in its foreign relations, and it would no longer have to explain itself to the world. The overriding idea here was that as Israeli-Palestinian relations would improve, so, too, would Israel’s relations with countries – including Arab countries – that hitherto had shunned the Jewish state.
This was the period, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, that saw an explosion in diplomatic ties with countries with which ties had either never been formally established or were frozen after the Six Day or Yom Kippur wars, countries like India and China. This period also led to low-level relations, and even the establishment of trade offices in Arab states such as Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Mauritania.
But then the hope of Oslo turned into the despair of the Second Intifada, and the countries in the region – in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians – broke off ties. This closed the book on that doctrine, just as the last standing remnant of Ben-Gurion’s Periphery Doctrine, Turkey, fell under the spell of the stridently anti-Israel Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sending ties into a tailspin and making the entire periphery policy obsolete as well.
A new doctrine was needed, and it was provided by Netanyahu when he came into power for a second time in 2009. He argued that military strength, unmatched intelligence capabilities, economic power, technological prowess and diplomatic heft attract friends – even if there is no progress on the Palestinian track.
Picture the world as a schoolyard. Under this doctrine, the popular kid, the one the others want to be friends with, is the good-looking, muscle-ripped kid with ample means able to give the others what they need.
Netanyahu set out to turn Israel into that kid, thereby decoupling Israel’s ties with the world from the Palestinian issue. How? By leveraging Israel’s advantages and turning it into a state providing other countries things they need.
Israel’s natural gas finds cemented a newfound alliance with Cyprus and Greece; cutting-edge weapons became a key element in Israel’s flourishing ties with India; technology was the oil that greased relations with China and Latin America; water, agriculture and security expertise are what African countries hoped to gain from ties with Israel; and Israel intel was sought after everywhere.
Countries were keen to learn from Israel about how to breed innovation, and about how to protect and defend their own airports, harbors and cities – expertise Israel had acquired from decades of living in a hostile environment and having to figure out how to do just that.
In addition, a willingness to stand up to Iran, and the intelligence and military capabilities to do so, made Israel a vital asset for certain Persian Gulf countries.
Israel became important and necessary to states in the region and beyond because it developed more to export than juicy Jaffa oranges and electric hair removal devices.
Netanyahu first presented this doctrine to journalists in a somewhat systematic manner during a landmark trip to Latin America in 2017 – the first time an Israeli prime minister ever traveled there, going to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.
THE WORLD wants Israeli technology across a wide range of fields, he explained, and it needs Israeli expertise in fighting terrorism. It also wants Israeli weaponry, though this he did not so baldly state.
But all this costs money to develop. Intelligence capabilities costs a fortune, and Israel’s technological developments – be they in the sphere of cybersecurity or new weapons systems, water or agriculture technology – also cost billions.
To be able to afford all this, Netanyahu explained, the country needs a strong free-market economy. And for a strong economy, Israel needs to expand its markets – which is why he went to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico on that trip, and to China, India and Africa on numerous others: to expand Israel’s markets to those countries so it will be able to produce the technology and intelligence that those and other countries will want from Israel, even in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
It’s all interconnected.
Standing in the UN in 2017, Netanyahu declared, “We’re in the midst of a great revolution, a revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations. This is happening because so many countries around the world have finally woken up to what Israel can do for them.”
What Israel can do for them – that is the key to this doctrine. It is the reason the UAE is normalizing ties with Israel, and why the Saudis gave a big, very visible wink to this move this week in tearing down the wall that made it impossible for Israeli carriers – and all others, except for Air India – to fly over their airspace to and from Israel.
Despite what an aggrieved Saeb Erekat said this week, the UAE has not turned into Zionists. (The longtime Palestinian negotiator slammed the normalization as a “public birth for Arab Zionists.”) The rapprochement with the UAE is an example of the “Bibi Doctrine” at work: develop and produce what others need, and friendship will follow. Israel has what the UAE needs in terms of technology, health services, agricultural expertise, real-time intel, ties in Washington, and combating Iran’s hegemonic designs.
The idea is relatively simple: Get countries to realize that their interests are served better by having ties with Israel than by pretending the country doesn’t exist. Implementation is much more difficult. It’s one thing to do that with countries in Africa and East Asia, another with Arab countries in the Middle East. Yet, after 72 years, here we are – an extraordinary accomplishment by any measure.