Netanyahu needs to be in DC for UAE signing ceremony - analysis

The prime minister may not be doing great with the virus, but the country's foreign relations are blossoming.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed via telephone. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed via telephone.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
If these were normal times, next week’s planned signing ceremony in the White House of a normalization accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates would be huge news.
This is, after all, a very significant diplomatic event. After yearning for years for normal ties with a Persian Gulf country, here the day has finally arrived. And it arrived even though there is absolutely nothing moving on the Palestinian track.
Further, this is not just any Persian Gulf country, like the lesser important Kuwait, Oman or Bahrain. This is the United Arab Emirates, after Saudi Arabia arguably the most important state in the Gulf (though Qatar might argue this point). The UAE is so significant and wealthy that Palestinian attempts to get the Arab League to censure the move fell flat, largely because few want to alienate Abu Dhabi.
And here, the big day has now arrived – an Oslo-style signing ceremony on the White House lawn; Israel and an Arab state; the historic flutter of the wings of the dove of peace. Pop open the champagne; let’s have a party.
Yet Israel, right now, is not in much of a mood to party.
First there is the coronavirus, taking its toll in lives – more people have now died in Israel from the coronavirus (1,055) than were killed during the four years of the Second Intifada (1,045). The pandemic is also taking a heavy toll on the country’s health system, the economy and its morale.
Then there is the fact that the accord can be characterized as one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successes. Netanyahu may not be doing great with the virus, but the country’s foreign relations are blossoming. With the country split between those who love and those who loathe Netanyahu, those on the loathing side of the ledger are not going to want to celebrate one of his successes, regardless of its importance.
And all those elements – the country’s sour mood, half the country’s loathing of Netanyahu – are coming together in what is shaping up as a debate that will be with us until Netanyahu returns from the signing ceremony in Washington.
Should he go? Should the prime minister, in the midst of a pandemic and with the country on the verge of a lockdown, leave his watch and travel to Washington for what is basically pomp and circumstance? The deal is done; this is just the icing on the cake. Why not send an underling? After all, the UAE is not sending its leader or crown prince, but rather Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.
But this argument – gaining traction both on social and traditional media – seems like little more than sour grapes. Many of those arguing that Netanyahu should not leave the country at this time would also argue that he has not done that much to fight the coronavirus in the nearly 200 days the virus has been battering the country. So is his three-day absence really going to be missed that much?
Besides, he’s not going on vacation. The deal with the UAE is a big deal. Yes, it might be used as a prop in US President Donald Trump’s election campaign, and Netanyahu might leverage it to improve his own domestic standing, but it remains a very big deal, a potential Middle East game-changer.
The prime minister needs to be there to show how important this is to Israel. Beyond that, he deserves to be there, especially since normalization with the Arab world is something he has been strongly promoting for the last decade.
The accord with the UAE, which, in addition to its diplomatic significance, will also likely lead to enormous economic benefits, did not receive the type of welcome it probably would have had its midwives not been named Netanyahu or Trump. Some of this lack of enthusiasm is not because of the agreement itself, but rather because of those who brought it to fruition.
But that seems silly. Life is not all or nothing, black or white. Even those who dislike Netanyahu and Trump intensely should be able to see the importance of this agreement to Israel, the UAE and to all those who want to contain Iran.
Netanyahu should go to Washington for this event, even in the middle of a swirling pandemic. Before going, he should make a decision regarding the Rosh Hashanah lockdown, but then he should go and sign this landmark accord. While there, he should also try to meet Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden to show that Israel is not taking sides in the US election.
And then Netanyahu should come back as fast as possible to face all the music here, as cacophonous as it may be.