Like His Predecessors, Netanyahu Opted for Realism Over Messianic Dreams

The former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, the late David Landau, once told me that history would view all the events of the peace process as a single progression of accepting Israel into the Middle East, that started after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, albeit with some long pauses.

Landau’s remark was brilliant but in recent years I thought he had been too optimistic; that the process of normalization had stopped, or at least, would take longer than expected. There were obstacles aplenty: The freeze in the peace process with the Palestinians, the aspiration of the right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex parts of the West Bank, and the weakness of the regimes in Arab nations, which was exposed by the “Arab Spring” upheavals.

Watching the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, I thought of my former boss and wished I could tell him: David, you were right. Ultimately the joint interests of Israel, the United States and its Arab allies prevailed over the ideology of the Greater Land of Israel or pan-Arab solidarity with the Palestinians. These interests impelled the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to declare peace with Israel and to establish full and open diplomatic relations, and led Netanyahu to abandon the advocates of annexation and the “Temple Mount Faithful” on the extreme right, and to return to the path that all his predecessors since 1973 have trod. Some happily, some under pressure, but all with the same outcome: they relinquished their messianic dreams in favor of pragmatic, realistic arrangements that have turned Israel into a welcome neighbor.

The ceremony looked like a rerun of similar events in the past, especially the signature on the peace agreement with Jordan, which was broadly supported by the Israeli public. Netanyahu’s speech sounded like cut and paste from the texts that Eitan Haber wrote for Yitzhak Rabin at the time. The same reminisces about war, battle and bereavement – thanks to which the leader understands the importance of peace; the same verse from the Bible; the same thrill the Israeli prime minister gets from proximity to his neighbors, who no longer hide or avoid him as he passes by; the same understanding among the Arab rulers that the road to Washington passes through Jerusalem; the same dramatic words from the news anchors. Even the same missile sirens that remind us of the existence of the Palestinians, the occupation and the conflict over the division of the Land of Israel, in case anybody thought they’d disappeared.

When Netanyahu came to power after Rabin’s murder and the defeat of Shimon Peres in the election, the “peripheral” nations in the Gulf and North Africa folded away the flags of normalization they had waved after the Oslo Accords. There is poetic justice in Netanyahu actually being the one who now has led them to unfurl the flags again.

Palestinians burn pictures depicting Donald Trump, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Benjamin Netanyahu, in Gaza City, September 15, 2020.
Palestinians burn pictures depicting Donald Trump, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Benjamin Netanyahu, in Gaza City, September 15, 2020Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump promised that other countries will follow the Emirates and Bahrain. It is hard to rely on his word but suddenly this promise doesn’t sound silly anymore, even if it doesn’t happen in the few weeks left before the U.S. presidential election. For people who who grew up in a country under siege, where all the land borders were closed and whose passports weren’t accepted by a host of other countries – any agreement forging diplomatic relations and enabling flights are another small victory on the road to Israel becoming a “nation like all nations.”

In contrast these victories, there were three losers on Tuesday. First of all, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose boycott of Trump and Netanyahu freed them from the burden of making so much as a symbolic gesture. Without straining himself, Abbas could have stood on Tuesday by the side of the signatories and gotten something in return.

Second, the Israeli far left, which supports boycotting Israel as the most effective tool to end the occupation and bring the Palestinians freedom. The third loser are the settlers and their representatives in the right-wing parties and Israeli establishment, who were forced, for now, to shelve their dream of annexation.

But it is too soon for schadenfreude toward the settlers, or to assume their ideology suffered a fatal blow on the White House lawn. Experience teaches us that even if small steps accrue and create a single process, its opponents find new ways to divert the peace train from its tracks. David Landau’s vision will have to overcome many more obstacles and upheavals before being achieved in full.

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