Why the criticism of the Israel-UAE-Bahrain deal doesn’t hold up

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Israelis know that our country has long been cut off from the rest of the region, and that two countries seeking ties with Israel because doing so will benefit them.

L to R: Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords. September 15, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
L to R: Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords. September 15, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
Sometimes, the obvious also needs to be stated, as former prime minister Menachem Begin famously said. Which is why it should be noted that most Israelis support peace with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Israelis know that our country has long been cut off from the rest of the region, and that two countries seeking ties with Israel because doing so will be beneficial to them is a big thing and a positive thing.
Polling bears this out, with Channel 12 finding that 76.7% of Israelis thought the UAE deal was the right thing to do, and this crossed societal lines between Jews and Arabs.
Why does this obvious statement need to be made again?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted in his meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office that the media were trying to “chip away” at their achievement.
After reporting from within a coronavirus capsule that included nearly every major news outlet in Israel, I can say that this was not so. Everyone, including those who wear their antipathy for Netanyahu on their sleeve, was well aware that this was truly a moment that would go down in history, marking a sea change for Israel and its place in the world.
But there are naysayers out there, both in Israel and, even more so, in the US. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called the signing ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn merely a “distraction.”
An organization led by former Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On released a position paper calling the whole thing “fake peace.”
And on the Right, ahead of the ceremony, were those warning that this is not “peace for peace,” as Netanyahu called it, but peace for selling out the settlement enterprise.
Here are some of the criticisms that have been leveled lately, and what is right or wrong about them:
This isn’t a peace treaty, because Israel and the UAE and Bahrain were never at war.
This has come up repeatedly from supposedly serious people who are knowledgeable about foreign policy issues. But it’s an extremely superficial argument.
For the 72 years of Israel’s existence, there has been the “Arab-Israeli conflict.”
In more recent decades, some have tended to narrow it down to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the Arab world – with the exception of Egypt and Jordan – never officially backed down from its stance of being in conflict with Israel.
Even if the UAE and Bahrain weren’t independent countries at the time, their stance toward Israel leaned on the Arab League’s “three noes” announced in Khartoum in 1967 – no peace, no recognition, no negotiations – and depended entirely on Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. When the Oslo process seemed like it was going to work out, there were moves toward negotiations; when the Second Intifada broke out, they stopped.
Even as ties between Israel and moderate Sunni Gulf states warmed in recent years, those countries would not officially acknowledge Israel.
As little as five years ago, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba had to deny to the media that he had a good relationship with Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, even though they were quietly working together on opposing the Iran deal, and the members of the Washington foreign policy establishment could see it with their own eyes.
The agreements that were signed may not be been between countries that had directed tanks or missiles at each other, but they are between countries that were on opposite sides of a decades-long conflict. And in that sense, they most certainly are about making peace.
Beyond that, the idea behind them that the smaller conflict between Israel and the Palestinians should not have to reverberate through the entire region, when there really are no hostilities between Israel and most Arab countries, is one that will promote peace and stability.
Plus, this is, in a way, more like peace than the agreements with Jordan and Egypt. Previous peace treaties were only about stopping aggression between the countries. It was peace between leaders.
But the Jordanian parliament calls to cancel peace with Israel practically every month, and the country harbors terrorist Ahlam Tamimi, who orchestrated the 2001 Sbarro bombing that killed 15 people and has become a local TV star, while the Egyptian media are laden with antisemitic, anti-Israel messaging.
Those are countries that constantly seek Israel’s help in security, agriculture and other areas, while Israel gets only nonaggression in return.
With the UAE – and to a lesser extent Bahrain – this is peace between peoples that are excited to cooperate with each other. Israeli bankers flew out to the UAE, and Emirati businesspeople are already working on investments in Israel. One is even considering buying Beitar Jerusalem.
One clear sign of this is that UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed spoke in Arabic at the White House. Contrary to the criticism that Arab leaders say one thing in English and another thing to their people, he wanted to send the same message of peace with Israel at home and abroad.
This has been in the works all along, so it’s not a big deal.
Ties between Israel and the UAE been warming for the past two decades or so, with an uptick in the past several years; it’s true. The turning point seems to be the Obama administration’s Iran deal.
Both Israel and the Gulf states saw the developing agreement as a threat, and worked together behind the scenes to fight it. But these joint efforts were kept under wraps, as noted above.
To highlight the disingenuousness of this criticism, which has been leveled by Obama administration alumni, among others, here is a quote from then-secretary of state John Kerry at the Saban Forum in 2016:
“There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes say, ‘Well, the Arab world is in a different place now, we just have to reach out to them and we can work [out] some things with the Arab world and then we can reach out to the Palestinians.’
No, no, no and no. I can tell you, I reaffirmed that last week when I talked to the leaders of the Arab community, there will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
So, no, this isn’t something that was happening all along. The shift in the Middle East prompted by the Obama administration’s empowerment of Iran, plus the Trump administration’s willingness to look at the region differently, along with efforts by Netanyahu and the courage of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan made this new, big thing happen.
The F-35 argument: This is just an arms deal dressed up as peace.
One of the reporters in the Israeli delegation was surprised to find that whenever he wrote anything about Israel-UAE peace in English, he was bombarded with tweets about the “military-industrial complex.”
Trying to convince the Noam Chomsky/Howard Zinn/Oliver Stone acolytes is probably a waste of time. But those who are not predisposed to thinking that everything is part of a vast warmongering conspiracy may want to look at the actual facts of the situation.
On the side of the “this is just an arms deal” argument is the fact that these are all parties that view Iran as a threat.
Broadly, Israel and the UAE have always bought weapons from the US. This deal is not going to change that.
More specifically, the issue of F-35s has come up repeatedly in the media. The UAE sought to buy the jets years before it decided to move forward with normalization with Israel, and it has not dropped that request.
Israel is currently the only country in the Middle East that owns those warplanes, and the official position of the government and the IDF is to oppose the sale to any others in the region, as it would weaken Israel’s qualitative military edge. The QME is guaranteed under American law.
Israel, the UAE and the US all say that F-35 or any other arms sales are not, I repeat not, part of this deal. Officials from all three countries have said this publicly and on the record.
And as far as the written agreement goes, this is true.
Does the UAE still want to buy the planes?
Yes, and as its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said this week, it expects that the peace agreement will help. Does the Trump administration want to sell them? Yes.
Did Israel give tacit agreement? In The Jerusalem Post’s assessment, after much digging into the subject, no. But there is someone out there anonymously telling The New York Times otherwise; make of that what you will.
In any case, some Democrats, such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, have already spoke out against the possible F-35 sale, which could take years and will have to be approved by Congress.
Whether or not the UAE gets the jets will probably depend on who is president and who is in Congress next year.
Regardless, it is not an annex to the peace deal, even though it is a related matter.
Israel is supporting nondemocratic countries by making peace with the UAE and Bahrain.
This is one of the most absurd arguments, and yet it is coming from places like the Brookings Institute, where one would think its scholars would know better.
Taken to its logical endpoint, this means that Israel should remain isolated in the Middle East as a point of principle. Because if Israel were to make peace only with democracies, it would be limited to Tunisia, and that’s only in the past decade.
It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of democracies in the world – with the exceptions of Tunisia and Indonesia – have relations with Israel, while it is the dictatorships that do not.
Most countries that do not have ties with Israel are authoritarian. Sudan, an Arab League state that is now emerging from a dictatorship, is actively seeking ties with Israel.
The hypocrisy of leveling this criticism at Israel when nearly every other country in the world has relations with Bahrain and the UAE is incredibly glaring.
And, of course, people want Israel to make peace with the Palestinians despite Mahmoud Abbas and his cohort being far from paragons of democracy.
This is all about boosting Trump and Netanyahu politically.
There is merit to this criticism, as this deal has major political advantages for both.
As Pelosi said this week: “Good for [Trump] for having a distraction on a day when the numbers of people who are affected and the numbers of people who are dying from [coronavirus] only increases.”
Plus, the agreement clearly appeals to Trump’s Evangelical Christian base, whose leaders were at the ceremony in the White House and celebrated the breakthrough.
The Abraham Accords are named after the “common ancestor Abraham” and call “to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of all faiths... live in and are committed to a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect.”
This also bolsters Trump’s “dealmaker” image in the run-up to the November presidential election, and he made sure to mock “Sleepy Joe” Biden during his meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office.
Netanyahu’s position as a statesman who boosts Israel’s stature on the world stage has only grown stronger in the month since the UAE normalization was announced.
Netanyahu can point to his consistent position that Israel can make peace only through strength and not through concessions, and say that he was right all along with this deal.
However – and this is a major caveat – the political benefits for Trump and Netanyahu only go so far.
For Netanyahu, the timing could not be worse, as Israel heads to a three-week lockdown to try to curb the rise of coronavirus morbidity. Was the agreement celebrated in Israel?
Yes. But it was also overshadowed by people trying to figure out how to juggle their jobs with kids who are stuck at home and preparing for holidays, or people who are going to spend the holiday alone, or people wondering whether their businesses will survive. Netanyahu faced strong criticism for leaving the country for three days while it was in such a crisis, and for not wearing a mask while sitting near Trump in the Oval Office.
And while Trump may have hoped this would distract from coronavirus, it didn’t exactly work. The chyron across the bottom of the screen on CNN during the signing ceremony noted the crowds and lack of masks.
And like Israelis, Americans are dealing with the effects of varying degrees of lockdowns and high numbers of people with the virus.
Plus, the economy is the No. 1 election issue in the US. Foreign policy is low on that list. This is unlikely to actually move the dial very much for Trump.
This isn’t peace without concessions; Israel gave up on sovereignty in the West Bank.
This argument from the Right highlights the weakness of the previous criticism; Netanyahu took a risk with his base in making these agreements on these terms.
This is also an argument that has some merit to it, since Netanyahu had been playing up sovereignty moves for so long.
The Trump peace plan allowed for Israel to apply its laws to up to 30% of Judea and Samaria, including all of the Israeli communities and the Jordan Valley, and for a time it seemed like it was on track to really happen.
But White House senior adviser Jared Kushner was hesitant from day one. When Netanyahu announced he was going to make sovereignty moves immediately after the Trump plan was presented, Kushner put a stop to it, and the Americans never gave the green light. Netanyahu was never going to go ahead without an OK from Washington.
In the end, Israel is getting something concrete in exchange for stopping something theoretical, something that had not happened yet. The opportunity for sovereignty may not come back, even though the US says it’s “suspended” and not totally off the table – but the opportunity might not have actually been there to begin with.
Right-wing critics should note that the Trump administration touted Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state in the framework of its plan, and a map of what Israel’s borders would be. But the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement includes none of that.
It also does not include any mention of settlements at all, let alone the settlement construction freeze some feared, though there has been a de facto freeze for six months, since Netanyahu has not convened the planning committee that could authorize building.
IN CONCLUSION, nothing is perfect. It’s important to examine things our government does critically; that is one of the key roles of media in a democratic society. But these popular criticisms do not stand up to serious scrutiny. It’s unbelievable that this needs to be repeated, but peace, in whatever guise it arrives, is a good thing, and should be valued and appreciated.