JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu buoyantly approached the microphone, beaming at his diplomatic coup.
“I told you,” he told Israelis in a triumphant news conference on Thursday night (Aug 13).
Indeed he had.
At least since 2009, Mr Netanyahu had been insisting, against conventional wisdom, that Israel could build full diplomatic and trade relationships with Arab countries in the Middle East without settling the Palestinian conflict first.
At every opportunity, he badgered the Persian Gulf monarchs to bring their not-so-secret cooperation with Israel into the open.
Again and again, they demurred. Settle the conflict with the Palestinians, they said, then we’ll talk.
That was the answer so many times from so many Arab countries for so long that Mr Netanyahu’s persistence seemed disconnected and quixotic.
When he sealed a deal to normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates this past week, it was not because he had suddenly become more persuasive.
What had changed, analysts and former aides to Mr Netanyahu said, was the dynamics of the region and the world.
The Arab Spring uprisings had shown Gulf monarchs that popular anger over repression and corruption were bigger threats to their rule than any blowback over their failure to maintain solidarity with the Palestinians.
Other events changed their security calculus. Washington stood by as a staunch ally, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was ousted in a popular uprising, and failed to respond militarily when Syria gassed its own people and Iran was blamed for an attack on Saudi oil facilities.
It became increasingly clear to the Gulf states that the Western allies they had relied on for decades to come to their rescue might not be there in a pinch.
Finally, as Iranian-sponsored proxy forces grew more powerful across the region – in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – the Gulf states increasingly saw Iran as their greatest threat.
And the 2015 Iran nuclear deal persuaded them that Washington was not committed to destroying Iran’s nuclear ambitions or keeping Iran pinned down by sanctions.
Israel, by contrast, was unwavering in its campaign against Iran. And according to Mr Yaakov Amidror, Mr Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, the Gulf countries were hearing from Egypt and Jordan about Israel’s helpfulness and reliability on vital matters of national security.
Demographic changes in the Gulf states also reordered their priorities, forcing a focus on creating jobs for their young people more than standing up for the Palestinians. And Gulf leaders admired Israel’s economy and tech sector.
If the agreement with the UAE holds, it would be the first flowering of the redemption Mr Netanyahu has been promising Israelis for 11 years.
His hope is that other countries will follow suit. On Friday, Mr Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, said that normalised relations with Saudi Arabia were “an inevitability”.
On Saturday, Israel’s Intelligence Minister, Mr Eli Cohen, predicted that Sudan would open full relations with Israel by the end of the year.
But analysts question whether many of the 19 Arab states that do not have ties with Israel will follow the Emirates’ lead.
Although passion for the Palestinian cause no longer unites Arabs across the region in the way it used to, Israel remains deeply unpopular in the Arab world, where many see it as a usurper of Arab lands that illegally occupies the West Bank and, with Egypt, enforces a punishing blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Mr Netanyahu had inherited a rich tradition of Israeli prime ministers seeking pacts with Arab adversaries, but they were mostly “ad hoc alliances of convenience”, said Mr Uzi Arad, a foreign policy adviser to Mr Netanyahu in the 1990s.
In the 1960s, Israel airdropped weapons to Yemen to help Saudi Arabia, which was propping up the royalist regime there against revolutionary republicans backed by Egypt.
Israel had maintained secret links with Oman since the 1970s. In 1996, after the Oslo Accords, Israel opened diplomatic interest offices in Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Tunisia. They were later closed after violent clashes between Israel and the Palestinians.
In some ways, the Gulf countries held more potential for Israel than its “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan, countries it had fought wars with.
“They were not belligerents in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Mr Arad said. “They took sides, but there was no blood account. They were more distant. And they were oil rich, with business opportunities and economic interests.”
Israel ramped up its secret liaisons in the Arab world and found that despite Arab leaders’ public condemnations of Israel – and a Saudi peace initiative that made resolving the Palestinian conflict a requirement for normalisation – in private many were accommodating and practical.
“There is an intersection of interests, not a small one, between us and many of the Arab states,” Mr Meir Dagan, the Israeli Mossad chief from 2002 to 2011, said in an interview before his death in 2016.
“The interests of most of those states – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Morocco, and so on – did not correspond with those of radical Shi’ite revolutionaries or their allies in Damascus, let alone their heavily armed proxy militias. Those Arab states mostly feared the thought of Iran with a nuclear weapon, maybe more so than Israel.”
That cooperation led to major achievements by Israeli intelligence, including being able to identify, monitor and strike militants in Lebanon and Syria, pinpointing Iranian embassies that were dispatching operatives throughout the world and publicising revelations about Iran’s nuclear project.
Reelected in 2009 after a decade out of power, Mr Netanyahu took the controls of what had become a powerful vehicle for sub rosa diplomacy, and tried to drive it into the sunlight.
He had long harboured a fascination with the Arab world, said Mr Dore Gold, a veteran diplomat and adviser to Mr Netanyahu.
Mr Gold recalled Mr Netanyahu holding forth to a roomful of Arab journalists at the Madrid peace conference in 1991.
“He spoke to them not as somebody who was hostile, but to the contrary, as somebody who wanted to work with them.”
As Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu sought small deals and accommodations with the leaders he courted.
In an early move, Mr Gold said, Mr Netanyahu’s diplomats lobbied for the headquarters of the new International Renewable Energy Agency to be established in the Emirates, a boon to the Emiratis’ quest for international standing, on the condition that Israeli diplomats would have to be accredited.
In 2015, Israel opened a permanent mission to the agency, its first diplomatic post in the UAE.
“This is how things were built, step by step or stone by stone, to create a whole web of cooperation,” said Mr Arad, Mr Netanyahu’s national security adviser from 2009 to 2011.
At the same time, President Barack Obama’s downgrading of the Middle East in American foreign policy, followed by Mr Trump’s haste to pull out of the region and his vacillating response to aggression attributed to Iran in 2019, intensified the Gulf countries’ attraction for Israel, Mr Netanyahu’s associates say.
“No one wants weak allies,” said an Israeli official who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive diplomatic matters.
“Israel is in the region. We’re not going to become neo-isolationists or pivot to Asia. And we have this convergence of interests where Israel’s enemies are their enemies.”
At times, those relationships strained.
The 2010 Mossad assassination of a senior Hamas leader in Dubai, without even a heads-up to local intelligence, and an aborted attempt to atone by selling Israeli drones to the Emiratis set back Israel’s work with the UAE by several years.
Still, Mr Netanyahu did not let up with his efforts to persuade Arab leaders to bring their ties into the open.
Those discussions often ran aground over the Palestinians. Mr Amidror recalled a Washington event at which a Saudi diplomat urged Israel to resolve the Palestinian conflict so regional cooperation could flourish.
“And I said, ‘Don’t give the key for that change to the Palestinians,'” Mr Amidror said. “That was the essence of the argument between us and the Gulf countries. Why give the Palestinians the key?”
But Mr Netanyahu began to bring those relationships to light.
For years, Israeli military censors had prevented reports on Israeli-Arab cooperation, fearing that they could spark demonstrations against the cooperating governments.
But when Mr Netanyahu eased up on the censorship, the protests did not materialise. The Arab public, it turned out, was largely indifferent.
Occasional breakthroughs accelerated into a steady drumbeat of news.
Israel gave Egypt the lead in brokering the deal for the release of an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas in 2011.
A Qatari envoy was allowed to deliver millions of dollars each month to the Gaza Strip as a financial balm for the impoverished enclave.
Israel cabled its diplomats to support Saudi Arabia against Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah in a dispute over Saudi intervention in Lebanon, citing Iran’s “regional subversion”.
More recently, Israel bombed ISIS targets in Sinai to help Egypt. Saudi Arabia granted overflight rights to Air India for planes on the Delhi-Tel Aviv route. Mr Netanyahu visited Oman. And in February, he met with Sudan’s de facto leader and opened a new air corridor that trimmed hours off Israeli flights to South America.
The Emiratis, too, were eager to bring their relationship into the open.
Mr Taufiq Rahim, an Emirates-based senior fellow at New America, a research institute, said that the relationship had been building quietly for years and that it was only a matter of time before it became public.
“There is only so much you can gain by having covert relations, and that also applies to the investment, the business and technology side as well,” he said.
With the Emiratis, the question became how to bring their relationship into the open.
In 2018, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, ran into one another at a Washington restaurant and chatted openly about better relations.
When Mrs Sara Netanyahu, the Prime Minister’s wife, said she hoped Mr Otaiba would one day visit Jerusalem, he replied “Inshallah”, or “God willing”.
It helped that both countries were friendly with the Trump administration.
Last year, Mr Otaiba spoke with Mr Kushner about the possibility of diplomatic relations with Israel.
“He said, ‘This is something we see as an inevitability. If we can find the right way to do it, we’re interested,'” Mr Kushner recalled in an interview.
The momentum grew last year when the Emirates and two other Arab nations showed up at a White House-sponsored conference in Bahrain to discuss Mr Kushner’s peace plan.
The Arab leaders braced for repercussions at home for participating in a plan that sidelined the Palestinians, but none came.
It was Mr Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank that made open relations impossible, as Mr Otaiba wrote in an Israeli newspaper in June.
In an ironic twist, that plan became the catalyst that finally gave Mr Netanyahu the opening he had long sought.
With pressure building for him to drop the annexation plan, he traded it away for something he wanted even more.