In Face of Israel’s Normalization With Gulf States, Los Angeles Times Stuck on Autopilot

The more Israel and Gulf states advance in the historic process of normalization, the more The Los Angeles Times struggles to shoehorn the expanding ties into the narrow prism of old dogmas about Israeli-Palestinian relations.

israel’s National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat (right) and Jared Kushner at the meeting with UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Gargash (Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Times’ insistence on treading within the well-worn path of old familiar narratives regardless of the actual circumstances on the ground was comically apparent in last month’s article of the normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Veteran journalists Nabih Bulos and Tracy Wilkinson wrote in the Aug. 14 print edition: “Direct flights would be established as well as reciprocal embassies – though Emirati delegations would probably go to Tel Aviv and not the holy city of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians and controversially recognized as Israeli by Trump, the only world leader to do so” (“Israel suspends annexation in pact with UAE; Agreement to pursue diplomatic ties angers Palestinians aiming for a unified Arab bloc”).

As CAMERA noted at the time, there is no functioning airport in Jerusalem, so discussion about directing flights to Tel Aviv allegedly because of Jerusalem’s disputed status is absurd. The political consideration regarding Jerusalem certainly does come into play regarding the question of the UAE’s future embassy to Israel – but not its flight destination, as the Sept. 2 correction was compelled to acknowledge. Yet the reflexive tendency to cite the disputed Jerusalem mantra took hold even in the case of airports, where it wasn’t relevant.

The Times  journalists were apparently functioning on autopilot again early this month in an article which prematurely crowed that President Donald Trump’s normalization efforts were doomed in light of the lack of progress on the Palestinian front. The Times pounded away again and again on the anachronistic theme of the supposed futility of normalization efforts so long as the Palestinian issue wasn’t resolved. The argument appeared in the Sept. 4 headline: “Arab countries balk at recognizing Israel; United Arab Emirates’ deal has not led others to follow suit despite pressure from Trump.”

The point was spelled out in the article’s first paragraphs:

When he announced a potentially historic deal last month in which Persian Gulf nation United Arab Emirate said it was preparing to recognize Israel, President Trump predicted other Arab states would quickly follow suit.

But after two trips through the region by senior Trump advisors to build on what they hoped would be momentum from the Emirates deal, no other Arab nation has said it is willing to take the long-shunned leap to accept and recognize Israel as a legitimate Mideast neighbor, at least not until Israel resolves its conflict with Palestinians.

Despite visits to the region by presidential advisor Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to persuade Arab leaders to join the Emirates in normalizing with Israel, “Both officials came up empty-handed,” Wilkinson claimed.

(Note also the effort to downplay the significance of the UAE-Israel deal as “potentially historic,” as opposed to actually historic, which indeed it was.)

And then ignoring evidence of normalization progress, the Times journalist continued:

Kushner this week referred to countries joining “in months,” and State Department officials spoke of news by the end of the year. Kushner told reporters he was “100%” certain that additional nations would relent.

Aboard El Al’s flight [to Abu Dabai], Kushner told reporters he hoped “this would start a more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond. The future should not be determined by the past.”

Pompeo predicted that the administration’s opposition to Iran would attract Sunni Arab states that are in conflict with Tehran to join the coalition recognizing Israel. But there is no evidence of that yet.

But there was evidence of Saudi warming in the direction of normalization if not immediate recognition of the Jewish state, evidence which Wilkinson entirely and conspicuously omitted. As this writer tweeted at the time: Why did The Los Angeles Times ignore Saudi Arabia’s Sept. 2 historic decision to open its skies to Israeli flights? Not to be distracted from the “normalization not compatible with ongoing Palestinian issue” narrative, Wilkinson tweeted back derisively, completely out of step with many of her colleagues at other media outlets: “Seriously?”

Yes, seriously. Countless other media outlets recognized the historic significance of the Saudi move to open its airspace to Israeli planes, with headlines about the taboo-breaking decision at media outlets including the Associated Press (“Saudi Arabia says flights to, from UAE can fly over kingdom”), The New York Times (“Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli flights for first time”), Bloomberg (“Saudi Arabia Breaks 72-Year taboo with green light to Israeli flights”), Axios (“Saudi Arabia to allow all Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace”) and even Iran’s Press TV (“Saudi Arabia officially opens airspace to all UAE-Israel flights“), among others.

Wilkinson closed the piece with a quote from an observer who reiterated the supposedly foregone conclusion that the UAE is alone in its intentions to normalize with Israel. She wrote:

“This may be it for now,” said Michal Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel advocacy organization that also supports the two-state solution. He said the sale of the fighter jets to the Emirate – which Netanyahu opposes – was key to its agreement to recognize Israel. But he questioned whether Washington would have any additional weapons packages to offer other countries in the region, just two months before the presidential elections.

And then just one short week later, on Sept. 11, Bahrain announced that it too was ready to recognize Israel and normalize relations, completely upending Wilkinson’s  assessment that the United Arab Emirates would stand alone.

A Flightradar screenshot of the first commercial flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Avi, flying over Saudi Arabia, Sept. 1, 2020 (Screenshot by Eliad Sternthal)

Following the Sept. 4 Pompeo and Kushner “came up empty-handed” article, Wilkinson backtracked on Sept. 12 that Kushner and Pompeo “made separate trips to the region in recent weeks, attempting to persuade other Arab countries to follow the UAE. Most refused” (“Bahrain agrees to normalize ties with Israel; Persian Gulf nation joins UAE in effort to ‘establish full diplomatic relations,'” emphasis added).

Forced to drop the erroneous claim that the UAE is isolated in its desire to normalize, Wilkinson simply ignored that just one week earlier she had adamantly reported that no other Gulf state would step forward to sign the deal. In contrast to Koplow’s closing statement on Friday, Sept. 4, that “This may be it for now,” Wilkinson pivoted to a different analyst in her Saturday, Sept. 12 story: “This one is totally expected. Bahrain could very easily have gone before UAE,” she quoted Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Notably, once Bahrain’s normalization was a done deal, Wilkinson found it convenient to depict the development as totally predictable, and therefore less of an accomplishment on the part of the Trump administration and the parties themselves. Similarly, in her Sept. 4 article, she downplayed the Emirati deal: “In many ways, it was a natural transition for the Emirates to recognize Israel: The two countries already had extensive, albeit secret, security and business ties.”

In the Sept. 12 article about the Bahraini announcement, Wilkinson introduced a new approach to discredit the normalization momentum, casting it as “part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to drive a wedge between Palestinians and their Arab supporters, to isolate the Palestinians and further erode their standing.”

That notion that the Trump administration is spearheading normalization efforts “to drive a wedge between Palestinians and their Arab supporters” and to further isolate the Palestinians is indicative of a reckless and unprofessional commitment to an old reality which ignores the current, changed geopolitical realities. While Wilkinson’s default position is that everything in the Middle East is always about the Palestinians, much of the rest of the world, the Palestinians notwithstanding, has moved on. A strong dose of anti-Trump sentiment is likely another factor tainting the reporter’s coverage of the issue in which she ascribes nefarious motives to the administration for pursuing peace deals aimed at bringing new stability and prosperity to a troubled region where former foes now share a range of common interests.

As Reuters rightly reported (“Bahrain follows Emirates in normalizing ties with Israel“):

Bahrain joined the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday, a move forged partly through shared fears of Iran but one that could leave the Palestinians further isolated.

Thus, while Palestinians are likely to suffer further isolation if they continue down the generations-old path of rejectionism even as other Arab states embrace new diplomatic ties with Israel, their isolation was not the purpose of normalization, aimed at much broader goals unrelated to the Palestinians.

Wilkinson continued to downplay the historic significance of the Emirati deal, stating:

President Trump exaggerated the reach of the UAE deal when he announced it earlier this month, with UAE officials saying it bound them only to finding a “road map” toward normalization with Israel, as opposed to the immediate opening of full diplomatic relations.

Trump portrayed the arrangements with Bahrain and the UAE as “historic peace deals,” although neither country was at war with Israel.

Of course, it wasn’t only Trump (and Israel) which described the Emirati-Israeli deal as “historic.” The joint statement which the Emiratis  signed refers to the “historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region” and “today’s historic achievement.”

The Times correspondent deceptively attempted to cast doubt on the Emiratis’ genuine intentions about normalization with Israel, reporting “The crown prince of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the emirates, declined to attend” the upcoming signing ceremony in Washington. From the context and elliptical reporting, readers would likely conclude that that Zayed’s staying away from the signing ceremony is commentary on the new relationship with Israel. In fact, Mohammed bin Zayed’s absence this week at the White House ceremony is completely unrelated to his views on normalization. As the Associated Press reported:

Sheikh Mohammed has not traveled to the U.S. since being named tangentially in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on President Donald Trump and Russian interference in America’s 2016 election. His inclusion stemmed from his mysterious role in a 2017 meeting between a Trump associate and a Russian middleman for Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles.

The Bahrainis, too, do not escape Wilkinson’s manipulations. She reported:

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and point man on the Middle East, said he believed the developments with Bahrain and the UAE would “reduce tensions” in the region and allow Arab states to “separate” their national interests from those of Palestinians. He said he was confident there was momentum in the direction of broader recognition of Israel.

However, the Bahraini foreign minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Zayani, later interjected with a note of caution. He said the deal with Israel “will help strengthen regional security and stability — including achieve the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

Wilkinson ignored that Kushner’s statement about allowing Arab states to “separate” their national interests from the Palestinians was made in the context of his reference to the fact that the Emirati and Bahraini deals allow for the entrance of all Muslims to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism’s most sacred site and the third holiest site in Islam. As the Times of Israel reported:

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said Friday that the two Trump-brokered normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will allow Muslim countries to prioritize their own national interests over those of the Palestinians.

During a phone briefing with reporters after it was announced that Bahrain would follow the UAE in signing a deal with Israel, Kushner highlighted the inclusion of clauses in both agreements, as well as in the Trump peace plan, that affirm Israel’s commitment to allow all Muslims to visit and pray at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque.

“This will reduce tension in the Muslim world and allow people to separate the Palestinian issue from their own national interests and from their own foreign policy, which should be focused on their own domestic priorities,” Kushner said.

Given that the Bahraini-American-Israeli joint statement affirms the three countries’ efforts “to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enable the Palestinian people to realize their full potential,” and Kushner’s statement about the separation of national interests from the Palestinian issue against the backdrop of granting Temple Mount access to all Muslims, it’s difficult to understand exactly what Wilkinson meant by the Bahraini foreign minister “interject[ing] a note of caution.” That analysis only makes sense if you buy into the notion that the Trump administration, led by Kushner, is advocating normalization not to bring stability and prosperity to the region, but to drive a wedge between Palestinians and other Arabs.

Indeed, the Bahrainis, Americans and Israelis are all in agreement: the normalization deal will bring “increase[d] stability, security, and prosperity in the region.” It’s The Los Angeles Times’ Wilkinson who is apparently out of step on this point, but her failure to grasp the countries’ common interests is hardly surprising  considering that just one week earlier she was so sure Bahrain, like the rest of its neighbors aside from the UAE, had slammed the door on normalization.