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Coronavirus-stricken Israelis indifferent to Netanyahu’s diplomatic victories

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps registering diplomatic achievement with Gulf countries, but most Israelis are preoccupied only with coronavirus troubles.
President Donald Trump meets with  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15,  2020.   (Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will stand opposite the Knesset dais Oct. 15 as he brings the Abraham Accords — the agreement that normalizes relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — to a vote.

True, the law does not require the prime minister to bring the agreement to the Knesset for validation after it was ratified by the government Oct. 12. But Netanyahu wants his big moment. It’s really the issue of respecting the country’s parliament by presenting it with the accords and seeking its approval. Netanyahu needs this festive ceremony on a personal level too. Almost certainly, the topic of normalizing relations with the UAE will be discussed at great lengths in the autobiography he will pen someday.

For Netanyahu, the Knesset session on Thursday will be a moment of victory in which he will garner the support of most of the Knesset members. That will include people affiliated with Israel’s left wing who have argued for scores of years that the heart of Israel-Arab diplomacy lies in a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. This was the solid, stable worldview that dictated political discussion in Israel for dozens of years: The Center-Left believed in the two-state solution outline. The formal foundations of this policy were laid in 1993 on the White House lawn when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accord together with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Meanwhile, the ideological right wing warned against partitioning the land and returning parts of it to the Palestinians.

Most of the Israeli public supported Netanyahu’s normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain and were happy about it. Many Israelis tend to view it as proof for Netanyahu’s insistence that diplomatic relations with Arab countries can be achieved before an agreement with the Palestinians. This was the prime minister’s mantra over the years, and even his greatest opponents cannot deny the fact that this process — normalization — is indeed taking place at this point in time.

The agreement with the UAE contains a section dealing with the Palestinians. It states that both sides must work together to realize a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an agreement that will fulfill the legitimate needs and aspirations of both nations, and promote comprehensive peace, stability and economic prosperity in the Middle East.

The left-wing Meretz faction has not yet decided how to vote. However, they realize that opposing the agreement or even abstaining from it will place their members in an embarrassing position.

Now Netanyahu has been hinting that other Arab states are heading down the same path as the UAE and Bahrain. Last week, this was made clear when Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan verbally attacked the Palestinian leadership, in effect accusing them of not coming to an agreement with the Israelis. This put the Palestinian public on the offensive and caused Netanyahu to win this round hands down.

Thus, one would think that in general, Netanyahu is coming out ahead of all his opponents. However, he has not been able to get many points from the Israeli public or the media for his great diplomatic and media successes, to his great chagrin. This is due to COVID-19, which is wreaking havoc in Israel. The virus claims the lives of many victims, inflicts damage on the economy, and puts Netanyahu on the defensive in light of what many view as his failure to win the battle against the virus.

Thus, a few hours before the government approved the agreement with the Emirates on Monday, Israelis remained apathetic to the fact that history was taking place on Haifa’s shores: A cargo ship from the Emirates entered Israel’s territorial waters; the ship carried electronic and firefighting equipment. Apathy and indifference prevailed even when it was reported that Netanyahu was talking to Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and the two leaders invited each other to visit their respective countries. Each of these two events constitutes a historic diplomatic occasion. Netanyahu mentioned this in a tweet and in his speech opening the winter session of the Knesset. Yet all this was forgotten under the worsening political crisis.

Twenty-seven years ago, Netanyahu was a young, 44-year-old opposition chairperson, leader of the Likud and the right wing. He led a public and political struggle against the Oslo Accord; he made militant, pessimistic speeches from the Knesset podium. On Thursday, he will stand on that same podium and argue that the path he took was victorious.

As the son of a historian, Netanyahu is aware of the power of such events, and throughout almost three decades he probably prepared for this moment. True, over the years and especially when he served as prime minister, Netanyahu was sometimes forced to toe the line and utter the two-state solution mantra. He never did this on his own, only out of diplomatic pressures and constraints. For example, in his formative speech at Bar Ilan in June 2009, Netanyahu announced that he was willing to recognize a demilitarized Palestinian state.

In the Oslo era, Netanyahu was viewed as a troublemaker who planted fear and demoralization in the public, as opposed to Rabin’s optimistic “bring the day” peace scenario. According to polls of the time, public opinion was on the side of the two-state solution as a basis for negotiations. Later on, in 1995, a right-wing Israeli who wanted to halt the Oslo Accord at all costs assassinated Rabin. Netanyahu was then accused of incitement that preceded the murder; this almost ended his political career.

However, Netanyahu rallied and won the 1996 elections and, as a young prime minister, he was forced to carry out the Oslo Accord; he even returned to Hebron and shook Arafat’s hand. The Israeli peace camp viewed this as a victory for Rabin’s legacy, and Netanyahu lost the ideological right-wing voters. Afterward, Netanyahu explained that the signing of the Hebron Protocol had been only a tactical move, and he would continue the “great war” against evacuating Israelis from settlements.

Between 1999-2009 several Israeli prime ministers tried to realize agreements with the Palestinians. The most salient of them were Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who won the elections based on the two-state agenda. They were even willing to make extensive compromises, including the partitioning of Jerusalem. But these territorial changes were never implemented, to a large extent due to Palestinian non-cooperation. And this, in turn, caused the Israelis to lose faith in the chances of ever coming to a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians.

Since 2009, Netanyahu has been re-elected time after time. The right is stable, and the dead end with the Palestinians only deepens. The Israeli public has become less prone to define itself according to the political dichotomy of left and right: between supporting land partitioning or opposing it. The left will have to update its political/diplomatic agenda.

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