As an election-fatigued Israeli, I was overwhelmed by last week’s sudden announcement of a pact between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is fantastic news. For more than 70 years, the Arab world (except Egypt and Jordan) has resisted reconciling even with the existence of a Jewish state, let alone moving forward with formal diplomatic relations. So this is an encouraging step toward a more peaceful Middle East.
I was thrilled for obvious reasons but cautious for others.
This is election season in the United States but, unfortunately, perhaps also in Israel. Again. The verdict is still out but the UAE deal may have shifted the political optics in more than one way.
There’s a stark difference between a politician and a statesman. One is a master of political chess, the other wins Nobel Peace Prizes and has airports named after him. One fulfills his base’s wishes, the other creates a new reality for his constituents and often, the entire world.
Before the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979, public opinion among Israelis regarding Egypt was understandably negative. In 1973, Israel had just barely won the Yom Kippur War, which was led by Egypt (along with Syria and other Arab nations) and Israelis were shell-shocked from loss of life and bloodshed. After that war, the majority of Israelis were understandably fearful of Egypt, with 89% of those polled expressing extreme concern for their security. But in one striking moment, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat spoke to his parliament and bravely declared that he was willing to travel to Israel for peace. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin took the ball and ran with it, inviting Sadat to Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter, both leaders addressed the Israeli parliament and a new reality was born. A few months before signing the agreement, only 41% of the Israeli public surveyed said Egypt was interested in a treaty that would keep Israel safe. Only 10 months after the agreement was signed, 74% of the people polled believed it.
The shift in public opinion was swift and stunning, and a cold yet stable peace has been holding firm since.
This is how a statesman/woman creates a new reality, and this is why Begin, who began his political career as leader of the more extreme organization The Etzel, will forever be remembered as a giant of giants.
Those who follow Israeli politics now know that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the greatest politicians in recent modern history. This is said of him not only by his fans and friends but also by his inveterate foes. Those who follow closely also know that Israel is teetering on the verge of yet another election. Everyone is waiting to see what Bibi wants. If he wants an election, that’s what he’ll do; if he doesn’t, he won’t.
No discussion of Israeli politics is complete without an examination of Netanyahu’s current legal entanglements. On Jan. 28, Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges in three separate cases: bribery, fraud and breach of trust. (A Jerusalem court ruled in July that his trial, which has been delayed because of the pandemic, will resume in January.)
He faces more than a decade in prison if convicted on all three counts. Critics have feared that Netanyahu will try to influence events in order to evade conviction.
Currently, Netanyahu is sharing power in the recently formed coalition with Blue and White’s Benny Gantz. The political rivals agreed to rotate the premiership, with Netanyahu serving first, with Gantz as deputy, then Gantz stepping up after 18 months.
Netanyahu’s camp already had indicated a few possible exit points he may use as an excuse to break up the unity government and call for an election by Aug. 26. However, everyone is crystal clear that this would be his choice and his choice only. If Netanyahu calls an election and emerges with a coalition, he might make a power play for immunity.
In that context, this UAE deal is interesting.
Plans to annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank — considered controversial and even illegal in much of the international community — either are suspended or postponed, depending on the news source and which language you read the news in. The U.S. and UAE say the annexation is dead; Bibi’s minions are equivocating in the Israeli media that we’ll just be back after the break.
But regardless of the future of annexation, one group of people isn’t happy these days: Netanyahu’s settlers base. Even by just “postponing” the move, Bibi broke his word on his (three) election promises, and actively turned on that base. For Israelis, “betraying” the base may be a signal that Netanyahu currently isn’t that interested in dragging the country into a fourth election in 1 1/2 years, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and an economic crisis that will take years to recover from — a welcome sigh of relief for the entire country.
The base, obviously, is pissed. But this is actually a great choice not only for the Middle East but maybe also for Netanyahu personally.
Every politician is cognizant of their legacy, particularly those who’ve been in power on and off for almost two decades. By turning on his base and forging a deal instead, Bibi is indicating that he may have changed his mind — that he wants his legacy to be that of a peacemaker and not of annexation. Bibi had been called a magician for years. However, this is the type of magic I can gladly get behind.
If this peace agreement is implemented and holds, if more Gulf states join in, and if Bibi doesn’t suddenly make a sharp U-turn back to his base and ends up calling an election no one wants, this turn actually can create that new reality a true stateman is entrusted by his people to create.
A fourth election next week would be yet more political wizardry that we all know will be coupled with the anticipated gaslighting, slander and blame thrown elsewhere (Bibi surely will blame the Blue and White Party for something but it actually will be about veto rights of the appointment of the chief of police and attorney general — for reasons obvious to everyone.)
However, sticking with the unity government in these turbulent times, the government that the majority of Israelis want, and continuing powerfully on the path to peace, is the right path to true statesmanship, and it is the same path, as history shows, that often leads a man to that coveted ceremony in Oslo.
Noa Tishby is an Israeli American actress, producer, activist and author. Her book, “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth,” is available for pre-order from Free Press, Simon & Schuster. She’s on Twitter at @noatishby.