Netanyahu’s grand strategy on peace, security vindicated with UAE deal

The concept of “peace for peace” rather than “land for peace,” in effect, ends the 2002 “Arab Peace Plan” that called for significant Israeli concessions as a precondition for normalization.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Mecca on May 30, 2019; Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90/BANDAR ALGALOUD/SAUDI ROYAL COURT/REUTERS)
Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Mecca on May 30, 2019; Benjamin Netanyahu
Some 41 years after the Begin-Dayan peace treaty with Egypt, and 26 years after the Rabin-Shamir treaty with Jordan, Israel’s new peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates and probable future treaties aren’t isolated or standalone events. They are stages in the comprehensive peace strategy that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued for almost 10 years, long before President Donald Trump entered the White House.
The strategy is based on two pillars: Israel’s long-term security on the one hand, and a viable political arrangement with the Palestinians founded on the principle of optimal separation and preventing the “one state” formula, on the other. A further important element in this strategy is Israel’s economic and technological prowess.
The concept of “peace for peace” rather than “land for peace,” in effect, puts an end to the 2002 “Arab Peace Plan” that called for significant Israeli concessions, including an implied “right of return” of Arab refugees as a precondition for normalization with the Arab world.
Netanyahu’s strategy has reversed the order of things: First, normalization with as much of the Arab world as possible, then agreements with the Palestinians bolstered by the support of the Arab world. Netanyahu’s concept may not be “real peace,” in the sense of David Ben-Gurion, but at least it is a practical, de facto peace, supported by a major part of the Arab world and, hopefully, the international community – while ensuring Israel’s aims of security as well as its other important political and Zionist interests.
This is unlike, for instance, the late Yitzhak Rabin, who was no less determined to achieve peace and security, but who got ensnared, against his own instincts, in the “Oslo Accords,” about which he was later heard to say, “I adopted Oslo as one adopts an illegitimate child.”
Thomas Friedman, The New York Times’ senior political commentator, dubbed the treaty “an earthquake” and “a huge breakthrough” – not just a peace treaty but a new order in the entire Middle East, adding that “the big geopolitical losers are Iran, Hezbollah, Iran’s Iraqi proxies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Houthis in Yemen, and Turkey.”
Unlike Barack Obama, who aimed at an Iranian-Saudi influence-sharing deal in the Middle East which, among other things, would have further advanced Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, the new peace treaty leaves Iran isolated, and to quote Friedman again, sends it a clear message on behalf of the Arab states: “We now have Israel on our side, so don’t mess with us.”
THE GULF states understood what most countries in Europe, for example, didn’t: that the US canceling the nuclear deal with Iran, and actions such as eliminating Kassem Soleimani, not only did not increase Arab hostility toward the West and Israel, but on the contrary, prepared the ground for an additional Arab-Israeli peace deal and regional stability.
To shore up popular political support in the Emirates and the Arab world in general, Israel delayed its plans to apply sovereignty over certain parts of the “West Bank,” and while the long-term importance of sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and the large settlements blocs has not diminished, continuing the “status quo” in the rest of the area, subject to future political agreements, is probably the best option.
Meanwhile, in Israel, not everyone was happy, and as expected, political nitpicking aroused some mini-storms, e.g. “Why didn’t Netanyahu update Gantz and Ashkenazi?” As if Ben-Gurion had kept his foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, in the loop over preparations with the French for the 1956 Sinai-Suez Campaign; or Menachem Begin had told ministers about the top-secret meeting between foreign minister Moshe Dayan and the Egyptian vice-president in preparation for the Sadat visit.
Netanyahu knew what he was doing!
Another artificial media storm arose around whether Israel had “agreed,” as part of the treaty, for the US to sell F-35s to the UAE. The prime minister denied it and so did the spokespersons of the UAE, but who cares about facts? Since the Reagan administration, America’s position has been to assure Israel’s qualitative edge – reinforced in 2017 by law. But that didn’t stop the US in the past from supplying advanced fighter jets to Egypt, and AWACS to Saudi Arabia, claiming that those were not contrary to the above rule.
On the merits, some people in the Israeli defense establishment, including Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, feel that supplying F-35s to the UAE actually serves Israel’s security interests in the context of Iran, a view shared by Prof. Yehezkel Dror, an experienced and respected voice in the realm of strategic planning in a recent Haaretz article.
There may, of course, be other views, but whether the F-35 deal goes ahead or not, Israel will – as it has in the past – find ways to maintain its advantage, with the support of the US, as has just been confirmed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Politics in Israel is never far away, especially in the present acrimonious political atmosphere. Thus, the extreme (and sometimes the not-so-extreme) Left continues to be blinded by its “anti-Bibi” obsession, while the extreme Right opposes any hint of even temporary or partial concessions on Judea and Samaria – both apparently holding firm to the notion that theirs is the only correct way and that diplomacy is a one-way proposition.
DESPITE THE positive strategic consequences of the peace treaty, Iran continues to be a critical and urgent topic on Israel’s political and security agenda. Israel has effectively dealt with some of the elements of the Iranian threat, but completely eliminating it has not yet been achieved.
Netanyahu’s proactive diplomacy has enabled Israel to operate in Syria (according mostly to foreign sources), with the tacit agreement of both Russia and the US, taking their respective interests into account. John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security advisor, notes in his book how Russian President Vladimir Putin told him, asking that the message be conveyed to Trump, that “Russia has no interest in an Iranian presence in Syria, and in any event, gains no advantage from it.” On the contrary, it creates problems, and “he had spoken about it with Netanyahu.”
But there are warning signs, particularly in case there should be a change of administrations in the US, and though the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, has welcomed the Israel-UAE peace treaty and is a proven friend of Israel and Netanyahu, his party’s platform relative to Iran states that a Democratic administration would oppose Iranian regime change as part of its policy, would call for “de-escalation” with Tehran, and put an emphasis on a return to Obama’s nuclear agreement.
The direction is clear: canceling the sanctions and limitations on Iran imposed by the Trump administration and restoring Obama-style “diplomacy.” Such a trajectory, in the absence of pressure and means of enforcement, could quickly turn into appeasement.
On the other hand, the new peace treaty and its positive ramifications may give Israel, if correctly handled, an opening to solve the differences with the Democrats’ centrists, who in spite of the left-wing elements trying to increase their influence on the party’s policies, are still the majority.
A Democratic win is not assured, but even if Trump gets another four years in the White House, an important objective for Israel should be rehabilitating support for it on both sides of the American political divide. The American Jewish community, which plays a not insignificant role in the Democratic Party in more ways than one, must also be part of this supremely important task.
The writer, a former MK, served two terms as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.