You won’t find Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu on any list of philanthropists or altruists. They’re takers, not givers.
Interestingly, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, is a well-known philanthropist, though I doubt he sold out the Palestinians due to an excess of altruism.
Behind the peace agreement between the UAE and Israel that was announced yesterday – announced but not signed, note – is a trade-off. Its details have not been made public yet, though it’s not particularly difficult to discern its contours.
One broad hint is the centrality of Trump, who was the third leg in the joint statement issued by the two countries. The US has traditionally played a mediating role in Middle East negotiations, though it’s doubtful if any previous president has needed a “victory” as much as Trump does.
With less than three months to go before the US elections and plummeting in the polls – one result of his farcical handling of the coronavirus pandemic – Trump needed a major boost. It wasn’t going to be a domestic achievement – corona again, economic collapse, rioting in the streets – and his preferred foreign policy surrogate, the Taliban, didn’t play ball.
Enter the UAE, a tiny but rich territory, which includes the playland of the Arab world, Dubai.
Netanyahu, too, was in need of a diplomatic achievement. His initial coronavirus “victory” has soured rapidly, he is hounded by demonstrators in the street and, as an accused grafter who barely survived three elections last year, his magic was looking decidedly tarnished.
What’s more, Benny Gantz – Netanyahu’s intended dummy – did not turn out to be as obsequious as the boss had expected. Election fever was beginning to contaminate the air in Israel before yesterday’s announcement. A peace agreement with an Arab state – only the third since the founding of the state – could be the basis of a dream campaign.
But what of Al Nahyan, who lacks neither oil nor riches? The current common wisdom is that he was motivated by brownie points – as the Arab leader who got Netanyahu to renounce annexation of part of the occupied territories. But did he?
Trump says he did, the US ambassador to Israel says maybe he did but tomorrow’s another day, and Netanyah says he didn’t – he merely agreed to a “temporary suspension.”
Even a suspension will be regarded as a sell-out by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, for whom annexation has spiritual, rather than political, significance. But they detest Netanyahu anyway and typically vote for parties to his right. I doubt that their opposition – however vociferously expressed – will make much of an impact on the premier – to whom selling out comes naturally; he is normally juggling a few of them at any given moment.
Netanyahu is an experienced horse trader. If the annexationists desert him, he will find other partners. He’s always found them in the past.
Either way, stopping annexation does not appear to be sufficient recompense for betraying a 73-year-old, pan-Arab principle – not recognizing Israel before it has signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It’s unlikely that Al Nahyan would have left the fold without additional inducement.
That, I suspect, is where Trump comes in. There’s nothing a Middle Eastern potentate likes more than expensive, shiny things that kill – and America makes more of them than any other country. Israel is no slouch in that respect, either, though its role will probably be to provide intrusive software and digital systems, rather than hardware.
And then there’s the Iranian Satan, on which all three countries – the UAE, Israel and the US – see eye-to-eye. It stands to reason that a geo-strategic agreement that further tightens the screws on Iran is central to the peace pact. They all want it and there’s no downside – except for Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Shi’ites in general.
On the face of it, the agreement announced yesterday is a win-win for Netanyahu and Trump. Its timing was perfect and neither of them will face much opposition. As for how Al Nahyan benefits from it – it’s too early to tell. I certainly don’t see the divided and self-interested Moslem world uniting against him.
And then there’s the Palestinians. I can’t see any upside for them in the current situation. Amid the triumphalism of Trump and Netanyahu, they have again been overlooked, betrayed, stabbed in the back – choose your own metaphor. If annexation is really all that Israel gave away, it will make precious little difference to those who have been effectively annexed for decades.