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Tensions With Arab Allies Undermine a Netanyahu Pitch to Israeli Voters

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Israelis are voting for a fourth time in two years. Follow along with live election updates.

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel presents himself as a global leader who is in a different league than his rivals — one who can keep Israel safe and promote its interests on the world stage. But strains in his relations with two important Arab allies, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have dented that image in the fraught run-up to Israel’s do-over election.

Mr. Netanyahu’s personal ties with King Abdullah II of Jordan have long been frosty, even though their countries have had diplomatic relations for decades, and recently took a turn for the worse. And the Israeli leader’s efforts to capitalize on his new partnership with the United Arab Emirates before the close-fought election on Tuesday have injected a sour note into the budding relationship between the two countries.

Senior Emirati officials sent clear signals over the past week that the Persian Gulf country would not be drawn into Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign for re-election, a rebuke that dented his much-vaunted foreign policy credentials.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has always portrayed himself as the only candidate who can protect Israel’s security and ensure its survival in what has mostly been a hostile region. He has touted peaceful relations with moderate Arab states, including Jordan and the Emirates, as crucial to defending Israel’s borders and as a buttress against Iranian ambitions in the region.

But the tensions with Jordan and the U.A.E. undermine Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to present himself as a Middle East peacemaker as part of his bid to remain in power while on trial on corruption charges.

The first signs of trouble came after plans for Mr. Netanyahu’s first open visit to the Emirates were canceled. Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a landmark agreement last August to normalize their relations, the first step in a broader regional process that came to be known as the Abraham Accords and that was a signature foreign policy achievement of the Trump administration.

Mr. Netanyahu was supposed to fly to the Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, on March 11 for a whirlwind meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the country’s de facto ruler. But the plan went awry amid a separate diplomatic spat with Jordan, one of the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

The day before the scheduled trip, a rare visit by the Jordanian crown prince to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — one of Islam’s holiest sites — was scuttled because of a disagreement between Jordan and Israel over security arrangements for the prince.

That led Jordan, which borders Israel, to delay granting permission for the departure of a private jet that was waiting there to take Mr. Netanyahu to the Emirates. By the time permission came through, it was too late and Mr. Netanyahu had to cancel the trip.

Mr. Netanyahu said later that day that the visit had been put off “due to misunderstandings and difficulties in coordinating our flights” that stemmed from the disagreement with Jordan. He said that he had spoken with the “great leader of the U.A.E.” and that the visit would be rescheduled very soon.

Mr. Netanyahu told Israel’s Army Radio last week that his visit to Abu Dhabi had been postponed several times over the past few months “due to the lockdowns and other reasons.”

But he made things worse by publicly boasting after his call with Prince Mohammed that the Emirates intended to invest “the vast sum of $10 billion” in various projects in Israel.

“It became clear to Prince Mohammed that Netanyahu was just using him for electoral purposes,” said Martin S. Indyk, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was formerly a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The Emiratis threw aside their usual discretion and made no secret of their displeasure.

“From the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region,” Anwar Gargash, who served until last month as the Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs and who is now an adviser to the country’s president, wrote on Twitter.

“The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” he added.

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the Emirati minister of industry and advanced technology, told The Nation, an Emirati newspaper, last week that the Emiratis were still examining investment prospects but that they would be “commercially driven and not politically associated.” The country is “at a very early stage in studying the laws and policies in Israel,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu’s aborted push to visit the Emirates before the Israeli election on Tuesday also upended a plan for the Arab country to host an Abraham Accords summit meeting in April, according to an individual who had been briefed on the details of the episode.

That gathering would have assembled Mr. Netanyahu, leaders of the Emirates and of Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — the other countries with which Israel signed normalization deals in recent months — and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

Mr. Indyk described Mr. Netanyahu’s relationships with Prince Mohammed of the U.A.E. and King Abdullah II of Jordan as “broken” and in need of mending.

In the first heady months after the deal between Israel and the Emirates, Israeli tech executives and tourists flooded into Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the country, despite pandemic restrictions. Now, analysts said, the honeymoon is over even though there has been no indication the normalization deal is in danger of collapse.

The relationship is essentially “on hold,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and Jordan.

Beyond Mr. Netanyahu’s electioneering, Mr. Eran said, the Emiratis were upset because as part of the normalization deal, Israel dropped its opposition to the Emiratis’ buying F-35 fighter jets and other advanced weaponry from the United States, but that transaction is now stalled and under review by the Biden administration.

In addition, he said, the Emirati leaders were concerned about what might happen after the election in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu has said his goal is to form a right-wing coalition with parties that put a priority on annexing West Bank territory in one way or another.

“They are not canceling the deal, but they don’t want more at this point,” Mr. Eran said of the Emiratis. “They want to see what the agenda of the new government will be.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents have seized upon the diplomatic debacle.

“Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s conduct in recent years has done significant damage to our relations with Jordan, causing Israel to lose considerable defensive, diplomatic and economic assets,” said Benny Gantz, the Israeli defense minister and a centrist political rival.

“I will personally work alongside the entire Israeli defense establishment to continue strengthening our relationship with Jordan,” he added, “while also deepening ties with other countries in the region.”

Mr. Netanyahu has said that four more countries were waiting to sign normalization agreements with Israel, without specifying which ones.


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