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September 15, 2020 11:38 am

The Middle East Transformation

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Reuters/Osman Orsal.

It is hard — but not too hard — to feel sorry for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Now in the 15th year of his four-year term, he confronts the new reality that two Arab states — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — have recognized Israel. The triumphant El Al flight to the UAE, with permission from Saudi Arabia to fly through its air space, was the wedge that opened the gate to a new era of amicable relations between Israel and the Arab world. The ceremonial White House signing marks its affirmation.

Predictably, the New York Times quickly found reasons for caution and criticism. A chorus of four Times reporters, responding to the Israel-UAE accord, noted sharp disapproval from the PLO, whose spokesman called it “a black day in the history of Palestine.” Palestinians “have not authorized anyone to make concessions to Israel in exchange for anything,” he said, as if Palestinian approval was required.

Focusing on “Democrats and many Middle East analysts in Washington” who dismissed praise for the agreement as “hyperbolic,” the Times cited an “expert” who claimed, with no supporting evidence, that “it’s hard to credit the Trump administration with this deal.” The Times also noted “an immediate backlash” from Jewish settlers, whose opinions are rarely sought by its reporters and columnists for anything but criticism of Israel.

One day later, London Bureau Chief Mark Lander reiterated the Times’ denigration of the accord. He hastened to assert that the new agreement was “not the result of months of delicate shuttle diplomacy by the Trump administration.” Instead, it represented “an opportunity to make progress on one front after its failure on another: brokering a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.” In the end, he concluded, Jared Kushner (President Trump’s son-in-law and chief Middle East negotiator) was “hungry for success after three years of Middle East diplomacy.”

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Primacy on the Times opinion page was, predictably, given to Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, who has served as a PLO adviser. The give-away Times headline asserted: “The UAE-Israel Flight Is Nothing to Celebrate.” For Ms. Buttu, the deal between the UAE and Israel was a failure because it is “normalizing relations with Israel without Israel ending its military rule over Palestinians.” She lamented that the United States, Israel, and now even Arab countries “are willing to move ahead with plans that disregard Palestinian rights.”

Later, the Times reiterated Palestinian suffering with a five-column article devoted to Abbas himself (born, ironically, in the Galilee town of Safed to parents who fled to Syria in 1948). With characteristic Palestinian self-destructiveness, Abbas refused to accept more than $100 million in taxes collected monthly by Israel that account for more than 60% of the Palestinian Authority budget.

As a result, salaries to Palestinian government employees go unpaid, families confront severe hardships, and the Palestinian Authority “is careening toward bankruptcy.” Like a petulant child, Abbas — furious that he was not consulted about the UAE agreement — absurdly imagines that the suffering of his own people can persuade the UAE to relent.

Predictably, given its loathing for Israeli settlers, the Times focused on Palestinian hardship in the Jewish sector of Hebron, where 25,000 Palestinians outnumber 750 Israelis. The accompanying photograph shows two Palestinians walking along a deserted street between shuttered shops. The Times ignored the prospering Arab sector, where 200,000 Palestinians (no Jews allowed) enjoy the pleasures of shopping malls, high-rise apartment buildings, and universities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s signing of a normalization agreement at the White House with the UAE and a Declaration of Peace with Bahrain came nearly 30 years since Israel’s last treaty with an Arab state (Jordan). The price, exorbitant to 450,000 Jewish settlers, is an Israeli agreement to postpone indefinitely any steps toward annexation of settlements in Biblical Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). But it is absurd to identify flourishing Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria — Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, Modi’in Illit — as “settlements.” Their thousands of residents are as unlikely to be removed from their homes as settlers in Tel Aviv.

Annexation, even the less menacing “extension of Israeli sovereignty,” may be on hold for now. But as Prime Minister Menachem Begin pointedly declared decades ago, “You cannot annex your own homeland.” One way or another, settlements are and will surely remain under the umbrella of Israeli sovereignty. It is cause, even if not at the Times, for celebration.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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