The process that led to last week’s announced peace deal with the UAE was starkly different from what happened at Camp David.
By YAAKOV KATZ, JPOST AUGUST 20, 2020
Once upon a time things were different. From Right – Ezer Weizman, Moshe Dayan, Anwar al-Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin at theas they walk in Gettysburg during the Camp David Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations in 1978. (photo credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
In September 1978, three heads of state – president Jimmy Carter, prime minister Menachem Begin and president Anwar Sadat – gathered at Camp David in an effort to reach a peace deal. Thirteen days later they signed one on the lawn of the White House.
Begin didn’t come alone. Alongside were a group of advisers but also two of his ministers: foreign minister Ezer Weizman, and defense minister Moshe Dayan. Weizman at the time was a member of Begin’s Likud Party, but would eventually switch sides to Labor. Dayan, an independent, came from the opposite political camp.
Both had prime ministerial aspirations, and both would have loved to replace Begin. But they were there because Begin wanted them there. A peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s most formidable enemy that the Jewish state had fought four wars against, required input from the defense minister and foreign minister. Both were also war heroes: Dayan as former IDF chief of staff, and Weizmann as former commander of the Air Force.
Both men played critical roles at the summit. Weizman had developed a personal friendship with Sadat, and was able in conversation to put the Egyptian president at ease; and while sharing some peanuts one evening with Carter, Dayan convinced him that Begin was serious and prepared to make the necessary concessions to reach a comprehensive peace deal.
I was reminded of Israel’s delegation 42 years ago following the announcement last week of the historic peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and how the process that led to last week’s declaration was starkly different from what happened at Camp David.
This time, not only did the prime minister not involve his defense minister and foreign minister, he left them completely in the dark – providing them with an update just moments before the official announcement. And if that wasn’t enough, he then gave an interview saying that he intentionally did not tell them because he didn’t trust them. Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, said Benjamin Netanyahu, would have leaked the news.
The inherent problems with this behavior are vast. First and foremost is the process, but before we get to that, let’s focus for a moment on the claim that Ashkenazi and Gantz – two former IDF chiefs of staff – would have leaked.
Ashkenazi and Gantz are both former chiefs of staff of the IDF. They have literally held Israel’s greatest secrets in their hands. What is also ironic is that Ashkenazi was chief of staff in 2007 when Israel uncovered, located and eventually destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction in northeastern Syria. Gantz was a member of the General Staff at the time as head of the Ground Forces Command. Both kept silent for years. And who was the first Israeli official to go on television and openly talk about the operation, confirming that Israel had attacked Syria? The head of the opposition in 2007. Benjamin Netanyahu.
GETTING BACK to the process: in a normal country where the system actually functions, a historic and important deal of this kind would have been discussed among the government’s senior leadership. Netanyahu would have held a meeting with his defense minister, foreign minister, IDF chief of staff and commander of the air force, would have told them of the peace talks, and informed them that it was likely that the UAE – which has asked repeatedly in recent years to purchase F-35 fighter jets – would receive US approval to purchase the advanced aircraft following the deal.
Netanyahu would then go around the table and ask to hear everyone’s opinion. The commander of the air force’s view would have been critical. If the commander said, for example, that F-35s in the hands of an Arab country would pose an existential threat to Israel, that would give everyone pause. If, on the other hand, he said it was something Israel could live with, that would provide the needed confidence to advance with the plan.
We had none of that.
At the security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Netanyahu was asked by some of the ministers whether the UAE deal included the sale of F-35s. Netanyahu had a prepared printed answer: on June 2, his national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat spoke with IAF chief Amikam Norkin to hear his opinion on a potential F-35 sale; on July 7, Netanyahu said that he personally voiced his opposition in a meeting with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; on July 8, Netanyahu said he sent a letter making that same point to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; on July 29 he updated Gantz; and on August 3, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer met with Pompeo and reiterated Israel’s position.
Sounds good? Unfortunately, this is not how things really went down. It is true that Ben-Shabbat called Norkin to get his opinion on an F-35 sale to an Arab country, but he did not mention the UAE, and he did not mention that a peace deal was forthcoming. It was such a random call that Norkin did not even update the chief of staff or the defense minister.
At Netanyahu’s own meeting at the end of July with Gantz – one of the last meetings the two have held over the last few weeks amid their political bickering – the two prime ministers spoke about a few dozen topics. At one point Netanyahu asked Gantz what he thought about a future sale of F-35s to an Arab country, and Gantz said he didn’t think it was a good idea. Netanyahu said nothing about the imminent peace deal, or that the Arab country was the UAE.
Officials who were later briefed on what happened in the meeting said Netanyahu’s explanation sounded like someone on the defensive, someone who had prepared his case in advance. It is referred to in Israel as “speaking to the protocol” – remarks that are made so the person speaking can be protected one day in case there is an investigation.
Here’s the thing: because the peace deal is so important and strategic for Israel, there might not even have been opposition to the deal had this been done in a normal and correct way. A number of former IDF generals have weighed in on what the delivery of F-35s to the UAE means for Israel, and the opinions vary. Some believe Israel will be fine; others think Israel needs to try to stop such a sale.
But believing that Israel can simply stop a transaction of F-35s shows a misunderstanding of the way arms sales work in the US.
By law, the Defense Department is required to ensure that weapons sales to Mideast nations comport with an American guarantee of Israel’s military edge, what is known as the Qualitative Military Edge process. Israel can object, it can lobby the administration and even appeal to representatives and senators, but ultimately, if America wants to sell their weapons, it will happen. The prime example is the famous AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, as well as the sale of satellite-guided missiles to the Gulf state just a few years ago.
Netanyahu easily could have explained to Israelis – when announcing the deal – that the UAE would likely receive permission in the coming years to purchase advanced weapons from the US. Abu Dhabi doesn’t just want F-35s. It is interested in attack drones, cyber weapons and missile defense capabilities.
Truthfully, there was no reason to hide it. After the peace deal with Egypt, for example, the Egyptian military started to receive over $1 billion in annual foreign military aid from the US, which it used to purchase F-16s, Apache attack helicopters and much more. After the peace deal with Jordan, the Hashemite Kingdom also started to receive approval to purchase advanced US weaponry, including F-16 fighter jets.
The Saudis already fly F-15s, and the UAE has some of the most advanced F-16s in the world. That the UAE will now be able to buy more US weapons actually makes sense. Simply put: when a country makes peace with Israel, it moves from the bad club to the good club, and when you are in the good club you enjoy the perks.
THE PROBLEM is that Netanyahu didn’t tell the full story. Instead, he preferred to boast how he makes “peace for peace” deals and not “peace for land” deals like the Left. He tried to present Israelis with a Fata Morgana – a mirage – as if this deal happened just because he is strong, and by consequence, Israel is strong.
But this was not true. It was fake, and now Israel is paying the price. Instead of celebrating a historic peace deal with the potential for positive change the Middle East, Israelis are busy arguing who fooled whom, who cheated whom, whether it was right for Netanyahu to keep Gantz in the dark, and whether Israel will fight a sale of F-35s to its new peace partner one day (we can probably agree that it might not be the best way to start a new friendship).
None of this should come as a surprise though. Anyone following this government knows that the different sides despise one another. Netanyahu and Gantz can barely stand being in the same room together, and some parts of the Netanyahu camp believe that the establishment of this government was a strategic mistake – that having Gantz as a part of it has only brought the prime minister and his family bad luck.
This is the camp that wants him to let the Knesset disperse on Monday night.
There is another camp within the Likud that is concerned that another election is too much of a gamble, that eventually – after four elections – Netanyahu’s luck will run out. These are the more moderate elements within the party, the members who have been around the block with Netanyahu a couple of times and who today are staying quiet.
Parts of this camp believe that the effects of the coronavirus in Israel are still not yet fully known; that the economic crisis is far from over; and that going to an election now is not just a huge political gamble, it is irresponsible.
In the midst of all of this is Netanyahu, who feels like he has to try one more time to get a right-wing majority before his trial kicks into high gear in five months. Dispersing the Knesset now and holding an election in November might be his last chance to avoid having to sit three days a week in a courtroom come January.
That 800,000 Israelis are out of work, or that Israelis cannot fly to Europe or other places because of the spike in infections, does not mean much now to Netanyahu. He is more focused on Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, whom he believes is doing everything possible to trip him up in the Justice Ministry.
No one can still think that the political crisis this week was about a disagreement over the length of the budget, be it one year or two. Even Likudniks can’t hide that what is really at play is Netanyahu trying to obtain more influence over the appointment of a new police chief, a new attorney general and a new state attorney. This has nothing to do with the people. It is all about him and him only.
What happened with the UAE deal illustrates a misunderstanding of how a responsible government is meant to function. In a system of government like Israel’s, decisions of these kind are made by the coalition, not by a single individual. Netanyahu, of course, does not see it this way, and he has systematically tried since 2015 to rid the country of all checks and balances.
That is what he has tried to do with legislation against the courts, decisions against the police, attacks against the media, and even legislation that allows him to bypass the Knesset’s parliamentary oversight: push everyone out of the way so he can decide on his own and rule on his own.
If the Knesset disperses next week, Israelis will have a chance to decide what they want: a country that functions, or a government that cares about one thing and one thing only – the fate of its leader.