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Israel-UAE Talks Cause Political Strain in Jerusalem
Cars pass by beneath Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags lining a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, August 16, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel-UAE Talks Cause Political Strain in Jerusalem

Netanyahu’s decision to keep Gantz, Ashkenazi out of loop ‘not unusual,’ diplomats say

Israelis are still waiting for details after last week’s much-publicized announcement by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of a “historic peace accord” with the United Arab Emirates.

While the extent, scope and timeline of the normalization process between the two countries remain to be determined, one thing was made clear by Netanyahu on Thursday evening – Israel’s alternate prime minister and defense minister, Benny Gantz, and its foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, were kept in the dark regarding the peace talks, and first learned of the pact mere minutes before the press and the Israeli public did.

While the political considerations for such a process are clear, The Media Line spoke with former high-ranking diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials to find out if such compartmentalization tactics are common, and whether they might be damaging to the government’s work.

A lot of Israel’s diplomatic achievements came as a surprise [to the Foreign Ministry]

“[Netanyahu’s actions are] not at all extraordinary,” explains Danny Ayalon, former ambassador to the United States and deputy foreign minister. “Look at past agreements [Israel has reached]. They were all done quietly.

“Take the Oslo Accords,” Ayalon told The Media Line, referring to the 1993 agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which were handled initially by foreign minister Shimon Peres before being secretly advanced by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. “Besides Peres and his people, nobody knew about it before it was official – not the military, not the Defense Ministry, not the Foreign Ministry.”

Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general and ambassador to Turkey and South Africa, agrees. “The Foreign Ministry is usually in charge of all diplomatic relations with countries with which Israel has official ties,” he explains. “The rest, the countries that don’t want to officially declare they do business with us, are handled by the Mossad [intelligence agency].”

According to Liel, “The Mossad has a lot of experience and successes under its belt. A lot of Israel’s diplomatic achievements came as a surprise [to the Foreign Ministry].”

A secretive and much-respected organization in Israel, the Mossad’s stature among government agencies has risen even further in recent years, as its chief, Yossi Cohen, is considered one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants.

“The relationship between [Netanyahu and Cohen] is such that Yossi is his trusted man, and his personal appointee,” Liel notes. “So, he led the issue on the UAE. But still, that’s not totally out of the ordinary. It was like that with the Jordan [peace talks in 1994].”

Liel added that had Cohen been foreign minister, he would have probably been tasked with the UAE peace talks anyway, given his close relationship with the prime minister.

“You can’t separate it from the political context,” he says. “Netanyahu obviously gains from keeping his political rivals out of the loop, but it’s still not an unheard-of process.”

In his press conference on Thursday, Netanyahu implied that to avoid details of the bilateral talks leaking to unwanted players in the region, namely Iran, Gantz and Ashkenazi were kept out of the loop. According to Netanyahu, this was a demand put forth by the American and Emirati parties.

“The secrecy and exclusion of other ministries are crucial. When you want something to remain secret, you keep the circle of people who know about it to the bare minimum,” explains Ayalon, adding that he doesn’t believe Netanyahu actually feared the two former military chiefs of staff would let such vital information leak.

You can’t separate it from the political context. Netanyahu obviously gains from keeping his political rivals out of the loop, but it’s still not an unheard-of process.

“That’s an old standard,” Liel responds with a smile to the subject of leaking. “It’s a worn excuse against bringing the Foreign Ministry into the loop. The Defense Ministry used it a lot [during the] Egypt and Jordan [peace talks], claiming that the Foreign Ministry is like a sieve.”

But rather than drawing the ire of Iran and its proxies against the emerging deal, Liel points to other, more domestic political factors that might have jeopardized the talks’ success had they been given advance notice. “Imagine this would’ve come out a week [before the agreement became official],” he says. “The settlers [in the West Bank] and [right-wing] Likud members of parliament would have given [Netanyahu] hell.”

“Bottom line,” concludes Ayalon, “this isn’t a precedent, and it causes no damage [to Israel’s diplomatic arm].”

On Sunday, the Blue and White Party’s Ashkenazi was already flexing his ministry’s muscles, conducting Israel’s first official phone conversation with his UAE counterpart and promising further advancements, including a face to face meeting in the near future.

Bottom line, this isn’t a precedent, and it causes no damage [to Israel’s diplomatic arm].

Both former diplomats agreed that now, after the agreement has been made public, Ashkenazi’s and Gantz’s ministries, among others, must be involved.

“The handling [of the negotiations] must now transfer entirely to the Foreign Ministry,” Liel says.

“In order to transform the pact from a written document into real, tangible content, the expertise and knowledge of the Foreign, Tourism, Defense and many other ministries are needed,” Ayalon concludes.

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