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UAE agreement stabilizes Israel's unity government

For the Blue and White Party, the normalization agreement with the UAE is yet another justification for continuing its complicated partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz (2nd-L) attend a cabinet meeting of the new government at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020. (Photo by ABIR SULTAN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Even before El Al flight 971 made its historic landing in Abu Dhabi on Aug. 31, ministers from the Blue and White Party had a series of warm phone calls with their UAE counterparts.

The first to make a call was Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. He spoke with the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed just a few days after news of the agreement was released. They agreed to maintain a direct line of contact in the days leading up to the signing of the normalization agreement and said that they would meet in person soon. The next day, Israelis and Emirates could place direct calls to each other.

On Aug. 30, Minister of Agriculture Alon Schuster spoke with his counterpart, the UAE’s Minister of Food and Water Security Mariam al-Muhairi. A statement from Schuster’s office said that he and Muhairi agreed to collaborate on projects pertaining to food and water security. They also agreed to open a direct line of communication between the two ministries and to work together on a plan for cooperation. Schuster said he found a very impressive partner with a series of well-conceived ideas about the environment, water and food security.

Their conversation took place after the UAE announced on Saturday that it was lifting its economic boycott of Israel, an indication of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed's commitment to achieving full normalization with Israel as quickly as possible.

For the Blue and White ministers, the normalization agreement with the UAE is justification for continuing their complicated partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, those same ministers are subject to constant criticism from their voters for participating in a government led by someone accused of bribery. Fighting within the party is taking a harsh toll on it, as evidenced by the sharp decline in support for Gantz among his center-left base. Now, however, Blue and White has a chance to participate in the realization of the vision of a “new Middle East,” which they hope will soften the sting of their partnership with Netanyahu.

True, everything seems to be following Netanyahu’s timeline, which is the opposite of what they expected. Normalization of relations with the pragmatic Arab states is taking place first, while a return to negotiations with the Palestinians has been pushed off to an uncertain future date. Nevertheless, there is a major shift in motion that could reshape the region, especially as other pragmatic Arab states join the peace process.

It looks like the next few weeks will help the Blue and White publicly and politically. Both Israel and the UAE have been highlighting the economic and civil potential of the agreement to advance a thriving economy in the region, and this means that quite a few Blue and White ministers with portfolios relevant to collaborative ventures will become more active in the peace process. Potential candidates include Minister of Culture Hili Tropper, Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir and even Labor Minister of Economy Amir Peretz.

Current assessments, supported by recent reports, indicate that embassies in Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv will open in a matter of months, and that Israelis will soon be able to fly freely to the UAE and vice versa. High-ranking delegations from these ministries are already preparing to visit Abu Dhabi, while Israel is preparing to receive the first UAE delegation.

A defense delegation headed by the director of the Defense Ministry, Gantz confidant Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, is set to leave for Abu Dhabi within weeks. The event is expected to receive extensive media coverage and lead to a series of agreements that the press will inevitably dub historic. The situation will play into the Blue and White's hands.

The real question is whether this agreement will save Israel’s unity government and the train wreck of the relationship between Gantz and Netanyahu. It is too early to tell.

It is already obvious that the normalization agreement has improved the mood in the unity government, which is still reeling from the health and economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. In practical terms, the longer Netanyahu enjoys some quiet from his partners, the greater the chances of this government surviving. Because of the diplomatic breakthrough, Blue and White leaders Gantz and Ashkenazi seem to have been supportive of Netanyahu over the last few days. They must realize that they also stand to benefit from this agreement so went out of their way to praise the delegation that flew to Abu Dhabi on Monday.

On Sunday, an American delegation led by White House adviser Jared Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien landed in Israel. After meeting with Netanyahu, the delegation met with Gantz and Ashkenazi, helping Netanyahu counter claims that he sold out Israel’s security by allegedly agreeing to the sale of F-35 jets to the UAE as part of the agreement. That news, which figured prominently in the Israeli media over the last two weeks, cast the UAE agreement in a bad light. It also embarrassed Gantz and Ashkenazi and put them on the defensive, since they had been excluded from the process. Gantz was furious at the possibility that Israel would agree to the Americans selling the F-35s to the UAE. Though Netanyahu denied making the concession, he could not overcome Israeli fears that it already happened. This task was left to Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law with whom Netanyahu has an excellent relationship.

After meeting with Kushner and O’Brien on Sunday, Gantz indicated that the meeting was a success. The defense minister congratulated Kushner and his team “for their constructive efforts to establish peace in our region and for the American commitment to Israeli security,” noting that he considered it an important step forward in strengthening stability in the Middle East.

Interestingly, Gantz said that he was satisfied with the answers he received about the deal. The proper thing to do, he noted, is to work together with the US administration to find the right ways to ensure Israel’s superiority in matters of defense, so vital to maintaining regional stability.

That statement was politically significant, supporting government stability by absolving Netanyahu of suspicions that the agreement is at heart an arms deal that endangers Israel.

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