Netanyahu's UAE trip debacle dents his foreign policy reputation -analysis

Netanyahu was hoping to take a victory lap in the United Arab Emirates – albeit a belated one, after three aborted attempts – on Thursday.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel last week.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, he had a message that he wanted to emphasize.
“I can fly the plane – I can protect Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I have a record, results, receipts. And they [his political opponents] don’t, they don’t have it. They are full of ambition, but they have no record, no experience, no capacity, no proven ability and now we have to fly the Israeli plane. Who’ll fly the plane?”
Netanyahu was so fixated on saying that he is experienced and his opponents in the March 23 election are not that he used the phrase “fly the plane” eight times.
On Thursday, the plane experienced a bout of turbulence with Netanyahu at the wheel.
One of the areas in which Netanyahu said he would be a better pilot than his political rivals is in foreign policy: “What standing do these people have?” he scoffed.
Foreign policy is, generally, one of Netanyahu’s political strengths. The Likud ran with a campaign in 2019 that said Netanyahu is “in another league,” along with billboards and videos of him meeting with then-US president Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
More recently, Netanyahu has emphasized that his stature on the world stage was what allowed Israel to be first in line to vaccinate its population against COVID-19: “I’m working right now with Pfizer and Moderna... Who’s going to do that? Is Yair – Yair who? Do you know how many prime ministers and presidents call Pfizer, call Moderna? They don’t take the call. They took my call.”
Then there’s Israel establishing diplomatic relations with four Arab states in the past year, an extraordinary feat for which even many of his rivals give him credit. Netanyahu, justifiably, makes sure to emphasize at every opportunity the Abraham Accords and the opportunities they hold for Israelis.
Netanyahu was hoping to take a victory lap on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates – albeit a belated one, after three aborted attempts. The Emiratis were less than enthusiastic about the trip taking place so close to Election Day, but after sustained pressure, they relented. One source in Abu Dhabi said that they prefer Netanyahu remain prime minister anyway, so they ultimately put propriety aside.
And beyond that, Netanyahu and the Trump administration worked hard to get what would be the crown jewel of Israeli regional foreign policy: diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration has also said this is one of their goals. In the meantime, unofficial Israel-Saudi ties are closer than ever, and Israel and the UAE were pushing for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to meet Netanyahu in Abu Dhabi this week – which would have been their second secret meeting in several months.
But in the end, Netanyahu’s UAE trip was pushed off for the fourth time, due to an area in foreign policy that he has long neglected: Jordan.
Tensions with Jordan have been ongoing for years, with foreign policy experts and insiders repeatedly warning Netanyahu that he should do more to repair the relationship.
Jordan’s King Abdullah is the official guardian of the Temple Mount, and it is a job he takes extremely seriously. Though Israel has sovereignty over Judaism’s holiest site and the third-holiest for Islam, it is administered by the Wakf, the Jordanian Islamic Trust.
Many may forget now, but in the years 2013-2015, more or less, there was significant tension on the Temple Mount, with organized Islamist groups harassing and threatening Jewish visitors – and an assassination attempt on Yehudah Glick, later a Likud MK – coupled with political pressure on the Israeli Right to allow Jews to pray on the Mount, where even a few whispered words could mean ejection.
In 2017, after Muslim terrorists murdered two Israeli-Druze policemen at the Temple Mount, Israel put metal detectors up on the site. Riots and Palestinian terror attacks ensued, before Israel removed them.
In all of these incidents, Jordan strongly opposed any changes in the status quo.
These go together with ongoing tensions in recent years over Israeli plans to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley with the Trump administration’s imprimatur – which ultimately didn’t come to fruition – and Jordan taking back farmland Israel had been leasing since the 1994 peace treaty between the countries.
King Abdullah has also refused to take Netanyahu’s calls more than once in the last few years.
This week, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah was meant to visit the Temple Mount. Jordan and Israel coordinated the prince’s security. He arrived at the border with what Israel says was a larger number of armed guards than they had agreed to, while Jordan says Israel changed its terms at the last minute. Either way, the prince did an about-face and did not reach Jerusalem.
In a transparent tit-for-tat, Jordan responded to the disagreement over the prince’s visit by blocking Netanyahu’s planned flight to the UAE from flying over its airspace, and not relenting until it was too late and Netanyahu had already postponed the visit.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi made serious efforts to repair the Israel-Jordan relationship in the months since Netanyahu dropped the West Bank sovereignty bid in favor of the Abraham Accords. Gantz has reportedly held a secret meeting with King Abdullah, and Ashkenazi met with his Jordanian counterpart multiple times.
And Gantz has been saying repeatedly in recent weeks that Netanyahu is damaging Israel’s relationship with Jordan, which, in turn, is damaging to Israel’s national security.
Gantz is Netanyahu’s political rival, and a bitter one at that, yet the recent history of Israel-Jordan relations under Netanyahu’s leadership lends credence to his claim.
While Netanyahu successfully pursued peace with new partners across the Middle East, he didn’t do enough to maintain the existing peace treaty with Jordan, and now, their revenge has been served cold.
With 11 days left until Election Day, the photo-op that Netanyahu so hoped for in Abu Dhabi was thwarted. A diplomatic crisis was the last thing Netanyahu needed to undermine the campaign message that he, and he alone, has the experience in foreign relations and a steady hand to “fly the plane.”