Gerusalemme, il primo ministro israeliano Benjamin Netanyahu in conferenza stampa

Netanyahu’s Latest Trick

Benjamin Netanyahu has not been called “the Magician” for nothing. Each time the Israeli prime minister found himself with his back against the wall, he was somehow able to turn things around and escape.

Netanyahu’s Latest Gambit

This month, the odds seemed to be entirely against him: Israel is facing another rise in COVID-19 cases, combined with a growing economic crisis and an unprecedented judicial dilemma, evolving around the premier’s refusal to resign after he had been indicted for three counts of corruption.

But as always, Netanyahu seems to have found a way out. His dramatic announcement of a new “normalization” agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates took on-watchers by surprise. The deal had been reached secretly, with only a few key advisors on each side – and the Trump administration as a go-between – knowing what was about to happen.

Netanyahu’s Recent Victory

Netanyahu, it appears, took pleasure in the drama. He abruptly cut short a coronavirus cabinet meeting on Thursday, August 13, telling participants that an “urgent national matter” had demanded his attention and “pretty soon you’ll know”. His new, probably temporary, partners from the Blue and White party did not know anything, although its leaders serve as alternate prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister in the national unity government.

Even Israel’s intelligence community had been mostly kept in the dark. The prime minister acted by his own. He brokered a deal: full normalization between the two countries, in return for a few years (and probably permanent) postponement of his plan to annex the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In this, Netanyahu achieved two main long-term strategic goals, if you’d like – two important pillars of his regional policy: proving that the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians will not prevent further agreement with Sunni-Arab nations and upgrading the alliance against Iran’s attempts of reaching domination in the Middle East. At first, it seemed to be a win-win situation for Netanyahu: he could finally present the Israeli public with a surprise achievement, which would divert some of the attention from his mishandling of the virus; he would improve Israel’s strategic situation by strengthening the relationship with one of the wealthiest and most important countries in the Middle East; and he would also abort his ill-conceived annexation plan, which the Unites States was not going to support anyway.

But things are never that simple with Netanyahu. In the beginning, the Israeli media, at least, looked thrilled to finally deal with something different than counting hospital beds and pandemic fatalities. TV reporters were quickly dispatched to Dubai and Abu-Dhabi, to present the Israelis with the wonders of oil super-wealth and tourism at close to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade. Studio pundits took pleasure in repeating their amazement at Netanyahu-the-statesman. Only he, they claimed, could achieve such a remarkable feat, which relied on his deep understanding of the region’s intricate mechanisms and his close relationship with US President, Donald Trump.

The Darker Sides of the Deal Emerge Piece by Piece

Yet pretty soon, matters turned out worse for the prime minister. First, many of his hardcore ideological backers from the settler movement criticized him for deserting the divine vision of annexation for such short-term goals as an agreement with another Arab nation. Then, another secret was exposed. It turned out that the Emiratis were not only interested in halting annexation and paving the way for more technology and weapon deals with the Israelis (much of these happen anyway, for years, even without a formal relationship).

There had been another important reason for the historic agreement. For more than a decade, the UAE’s leaders have been trying to persuade the Obama administration and then the Trump administration to sell them ultra-sophisticated weapons systems. In particular, the Gulf state was interested in F-35 fighter jets and various kinds of attack UAVs. But there was always a problem.

The United States is committed, by stated policy and also by law, to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge. According to this policy, different administrations, from Jonson and Nixon onwards, refused to sell certain modern systems to Arab countries, sometimes even after those countries signed peace agreements with Israel. This time, the UAE was hoping Israel would turn a blind eye. Trump, it turns out, was on board. A few days after the announcement about the agreement he remarked that the Sheikhs were negotiating a massive deal, which would probably include the stealth F-35 planes (he then went on to discuss the virtues of American pilots, who apparently were better looking than Tom Cruise of “Top-Gun” fame).

Critics: Netanyahu Misleading the Nation

This was classic Netanyahu. When the Israeli press first reported a possible weapons deal, he vehemently denied and even accused the journalists of spreading “Fake News”. Israel, the prime minister maintained, opposed such a deal and the agreement does not include a secret understanding regarding the F-35. But that, precisely, is the point. The American QME rules do not give Israel a veto power over weapon deals.

They just state that an American President should first consult the Israeli government before deciding. This, in essence, is what Trump was saying – and why Netanyahu came onboard. Yet again, this fact was portrayed as not speaking truth to the Israeli public.

Pretty soon, Netanyahu’s political opponents caught up and began accusing the prime minister of misleading the nation. The sense of pleasant surprise had quickly evaporated. Then, demonstrations demanding the PM’s resignation resumed all over the country. At this point, one would gather that Israelis are more consumed by financial and health struggles than by plans for visiting desert tourist sites, using money they don’t currently have to pay for plane tickets on airplanes they will probably not be allowed to board, because of Israel’s stature as a COVID-19 hotspot.

Netanyahu, it seems again, is still not safe from his political worries, or from his legal troubles