Image from danisanerd; via imgur
The final results are in from Israel’s fourth election in two years. From the results, it looks like neither Bibi’s bloc nor the opposition will be able to form a solid coalition. Israelis will probably have to drag themselves back to the polls for a fifth time. However, I will not get into the dynamics producing this never-ending deadlock in this blog post. Instead I will be discussing the unusual strategy Benjamin Netanyahu pursued in this election and its international/regional repercussions. Specifically, Netanyahu’s surprising targeting of Arab voters and it the response from the UAE and Jordan.
When I first read that Netanyahu was targeting Arab-Israeli/ Palestinian citizens of Israel voters, my first thought was that it had to be satire, I couldn’t believe it. This was Mr. “Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves” (Zonzsein 2015). Netanyahu made that infamous race-baiting statement as a last-minute rallying cry for his right-wing supporters in the 2015 Israeli election. In the subsequent 2019 election, Likud sent “election monitors” with cameras to polling stations in Arab towns to intimidate Palestinian voters (Pileggi 2019). Netanyahu’s Likud-led government has passed numerous anti-Arab legislation such as an “anti-terror law” which undermined the civil liberties of pro-Palestinian activists in Israel (Cook 2016) and threatened them with deportation (Fernandez 2015), as well as the “Nation-State” basic law in 2018 which Ayman Odeh, the chair of the Joint List, panned as codifying Arab-Israelis’ second class status (Berger 2018). Palestinian cities have continued to be neglected under Netanyahu’s leadership (Sudilovsky 2020), and their calls for support from law-enforcement to address rampant gun violence have been ignored (Shahbari 2018).
Netanyahu has responded to this criticism by apologizing for some of these past remarks while promising better relations between the government and Arab-Israelis (Boxerman 2021). However, no amount of promises can undo the fundamental lack of credibility Netanyahu faces with Arab Israelis. One Arab-Israeli I talked to described such statements as “lies on lies,” and said that “Arab Israelis who actually understand and see what is happening will not support him.”
Netanyahu certainly does not expect Arab voters to turn around and vote in droves for Likud as a result of this posturing. Instead, his goal has largely been to divide the Arab Joint List, the unification of four major Arab political parties, which together gained an unprecedented 13 seats in the last election. With the withdrawal of Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party from the alliance, Bibi succeeded in his goal (Ibid).
There have been two main motifs in Netanyahu’s overtures to Palestinian Israelis: The first was part of his broader electoral strategy of highlighting the Israeli vaccine rollout (often delivering these remarks at vaccination sites in Arab towns). The second was touting recent peace and recognition agreements with four MENA countries: the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco (Ibid).
Netanyahu has especially highlighted the Abraham Accords agreement with the UAE (Bahrain was also a signatory), making overtures such as, “If Jews and Arabs can dance together in the streets of Dubai, they can dance together here in Israel. A new era begins today, of prosperity, integration and security” (Ibid). He has specifically highlighted the economic benefits of the agreement and the relationship he has formed with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (also known as MBZ) (Kershner 2021).
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, this has put him in hot water with MBZ and the UAE government. The UAE Foreign Affairs minister took the rare step of publicly rebuking Netanyahu’s campaigning in an English tweet stating, “The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever.” While not directly related to this spat, Netanyahu’s postponing of a planned visit to Dubai has also highlighted the new tension in the recent relationship (Kershner 2021).
One has to wonder why the UAE would denounce so publicly and so harshly the Israeli Prime Minister’s championing at home of a peace agreement which they had signed with him. I cannot claim to understand the full scope of reasons behind this. However one can look to the circumstances surrounding the deal and the UAE’s stated reasons for answers. According to the UAE foreign affairs minister “From the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region.” Let’s explore that a little more.
What made the Abraham Accords so notable, like other past Arab “normalization” agreements with Israel, was their eschewing of traditional Pan-Arab popular support for Palestinian liberation and the Arab League’s traditional “Three Nos” policy forbidding peace, recognition, and negotiations with Israel. The assassination of Anwar Sadat as a result of public disapproval of his peace agreement with Israel demonstrated the risks Arab leaders take when pursuing such a course. Thus, for an Arab state to make peace with Israel, there must be overriding interests guiding its leaders’ decisions.
One of the main forces driving the UAE’s involvement in the Abraham Accords was the pursuit of a more integrated anti-Iran strategic partnership between Israel and the Gulf (Malek 2020). For the UAE, the Abraham Accords was also likely seen as a way of forming a closer military relationship with the US and the Trump administration, probably to help secure their acquisition of the F-35 and assuage concerns that such an acquisition would violate Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (Congressional Research Service 2020; Senate Foreign Relations Committee 2020). Both Israel and the UAE have also frequently highlighted mutual economic investment.
While the UAE may have been driven towards the Abraham Accords as a result of more imperative security or economic interests, they certainly did not do so as an endorsement of Netanyahu and his caustic policies of apartheid with respect to the Palestinians. This is demonstrated by the fact that Netanyahu was forced to walk back his annexation plans of the West Bank in order to secure the deal (Halbfinger 2020). It’s clear this agreement was made not as a result of Netanyahu’s leadership but in spite of it. While public support for peace deals with Israel is much higher in the UAE than in Jordan or Egypt (Polluck, Cleveland 2020), the vocal Palestinian resentment of the Abraham Accords (Shehada, Mahmoud 2020) still has domestic and regional implications which MBZ cannot ignore. MBZ likely saw Netanyahu’s cynical electioneering as an opportunity to posture and demonstrate that the UAE’s support for Israel is not unconditional and that it has not abandoned its support for Palestinians (even if Palestinians themselves feel abandoned).
While this little diplomatic spat appears is unlikely to derail the accords in any significant way, it is an exceptionally clear example of the value of looking at MENA politics through multiple levels of analysis. We can understand the event on an individual level (ie. Bibi and MBZ’s personal aims), domestic level (Israeli election, the level of opposition of the publics of Arab states towards diplomatic agreements with Israel), interstate (the security and economic partnership forming the basis of the Abraham Accords), regional (how conflict and power competition, particularly between the Iran and the Gulf, changes traditional relations between states, the social capital of the Palestinian liberation movement in the region), and global (the US’s impact in driving the UAE towards the Abraham Accords, global economic forces of neoliberalism and globalization altering traditional relations between states).