TEL AVIV—Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed historic peace agreements on Tuesday during a festive ceremony at the White House presided over by President Donald Trump. Several hundred cheering officials and dignitaries gathered on the South Lawn, with Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani delivering remarks from the White House portico high above. The U.S.-brokered accords were a political boon for Trump in the midst of his tight re-election bid, a useful opportunity to shift attention away from his “downplaying” of the domestic COVID-19 pandemic and burnish his reputation as a global dealmaker.
Calling it “an important day for the world, [and] an important day for peace,” Trump took singular credit for the peace deals that had brought Israel and the Gulf Arab kingdoms together. “There were only two [peace agreements] in Israel’s first 72 years. We have achieved two in a single month,” Trump said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with reason, touted the agreements as a “pivot of history” in his country’s bid for acceptance in the Middle East. “Let us put all cynicism aside… let us feel on this day the pulse of history. Long after the pandemic is gone, the peace we make today will endure,” he said. “The people of Israel well know the price of war… Those who bear the wounds of war cherish the blessings of peace.”
Yet the pageantry at the White House stood in sharp contrast to the situation in Israel, with the country in crisis as it heads into another nationwide lockdown later this week due to spiking COVID infection rates, an economy already reeling from the fallout of the pandemic, a government that barely functions, and a prime minister on trial for corruption.
The peace treaties, to be sure, were a rare bit of good news for Netanyahu in recent weeks, yet troubles on the domestic front threaten to overshadow his diplomatic achievements.
“This big event, a historic peace, could not have come at a worse time for Netanyahu,” Tal Shalev, chief political correspondent for Walla News, told The Daily Beast. “Most of the public’s attention won’t be in Washington, but on preparations for the lockdown during the Jewish high holidays.”
The multi-week holiday season that starts on Friday with the Jewish New Year is usually a time of family meals and trips, religious ceremonies, and social gatherings. This year much of that is banned due to stringent new COVID restrictions that will limit most Israelis to no more than 500 meters from their home, with restaurants, event halls, hotels, schools, and beaches shuttered. After an initial (and successful) six-week lockdown in the spring, Israel is the first developed country in the world heading to another nationwide closure regime.
Polls show that two-thirds of the public disapproves of the long-serving premier’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, with the same proportion pessimistic about the country’s overall mood on the eve of a new year. “There is a lot of anger with the government. The first lockdown [in March/April] was traumatic. With Netanyahu now in Washington, it reinforces the sense that he’s disconnected,” Shalev added.
The public anger and pessimism are understandable given that Israel in recent weeks has the world’s highest per capita rate of new COVID infections: over 3,000 per day—and hitting 5,000 on Tuesday—in a country of only 9 million people (for comparison, the United Kingdom with 67 million people has had in absolute terms roughly the same number of daily infections).
The lockdown, set to last for an initial three weeks in a bid to lower these eye-watering figures, was the least worst option at this point in time, officials argue—primarily to avoid future attrition in the local health system. In truth, this option was only adopted after an earlier “differentiated” plan of localized closures in COVID hotspots was delayed due to political squabbling.
“It took some time to agree on every little detail, and by the time [this differentiated model] was implemented two weeks ago, it was already too late,” Prof. Ran Balicer, chief adviser to the national coronavirus taskforce, told The Daily Beast. Critics contend that Netanyahu balked at locking down primarily ultra-Orthodox towns that have experienced major COVID outbreaks, as they form a key part of his political support base. “We can’t know if this model failed because it didn’t have a chance,” Balicer added. Nearly seven months into the pandemic, Israel still has not established a robust contact tracing infrastructure, which officials now predict will only come fully online by late October at the earliest.
Trust in the government has plummeted, and with unemployment nearing 20 percent, and many Israelis—small business owners, restaurateurs, and freelance contractors—have vowed to remain open. One senior opposition politician even went so far as to call on the public not to obey the new restrictions.
“[The government is] leading the public towards anarchy. They had four months to get organized for a reality where we would have to go into lockdown again, we alerted them about everything, and no lessons were learned,” the head of the local Independent Workers Union told the Haaretz daily paper.
Most worrisome, it remains unclear if the weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstrations in Jerusalem will be allowed to continue as normal. While judicial authorities have made clear that public protest is a fundamental right that the government cannot ban, strict social distancing guidelines may dilute the numbers.
Netanyahu has repeatedly called the protestors “anarchists” and “vectors for disease,” with his partisans urging authorities to halt the demonstrations. Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist responsible for the police, made clear on Sunday that violating the lockdown orders would be considered a criminal offense.
“We’re running towards the abyss and there is no choice but to enforce with a strong hand. The emphasis needs to be on [public] gatherings… you will see dispersals, including by force,” he said ominously.
Compounding these health and economic emergencies, Israel’s political system appears, if such a thing were possible, even more in crisis.
After three stalemated elections in the span of 15 months, the current Israeli government was formed in May as a power-sharing “emergency unity” coalition between Netanyahu and his centrist rivals from the Blue and White party. Its primary stated goal: tackling the pandemic. As COVID numbers ticked up, politicians spent the summer squabbling over various ministerial and legislative issues, as well as a bid by Netanyahu to annex large parts of the West Bank, now reportedly shelved for three years as part of Israel’s understanding with the UAE.
The government has barely met over the past month, senior civil servant appointments have been left unfilled, and a budget for this year and next has not been passed. Defense minister (and “alternate prime minister”) Benny Gantz and foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, senior Blue and White officials, were not informed of the impending peace deals with the Gulf Arab states ahead of time; neither made the trip to Washington. Netanyahu and his Likud party have declared open warfare against the judicial authorities who have charged the prime minister with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a slew of graft cases. It is all, according to Netanyahu, a conspiracy by the “left-wing deep state” to unseat him.
“It’s a moment of deep and unprecedented democratic and constitutional crisis,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, told The Daily Beast. “The political system has been close to paralyzed for almost two years, and now everyone is behaving like another election will be called in December.”
The reason for the paralysis, and the shadow looming over all government business—coronavirus, economy, politics, and more—is Netanyahu’s own personal future, Plesner observed. With the witness phase of his trial set to begin in January, Netanyahu may opt to call snap elections just beforehand in a bid to win a clear parliamentary majority and pass laws shielding him from prosecution.
“The attention and ability to respond to the coronavirus is closely tied to this,” Plesner said. “He’s using his powerful position as prime minister to attack and undermine the legal authorities. He also wants to preserve his base at all costs, which undermined the differentiated [geographic] strategy, which is how we got to a national lockdown.”
Netanyahu in Washington may look, to all the world, like a strong statesman making international deals, but the view from Israel is vastly different. Several hundred protestors blocked the road to the Tel Aviv airport ahead of his departure late Sunday night. “If we are in lockdown, you should be locked down too,” they demanded. Upon his return home he will be, inside a country teetering on the brink.