Fight begins to replace Shinzō Abe as Japanese PM after he steps down. A US official visit highlights partnership with Palau. Donald Trump focuses re-election campaign on law and order. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kushner central player in Israel–UAE deal

The head of Israel’s national security council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, US presidential adviser Jared Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien board an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on Monday.
The head of Israel’s national security council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, US presidential adviser Jared Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien board an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on Monday.
Credit: Nir Elias / AFP

Great power rivalry

Japan: Last week, Shinzō Abe, who is 65 years old, became Japan’s longest-serving uninterrupted prime minister but, ominously, spent the morning of the record-breaking day – August 24 – in hospital. Four days later, he announced his resignation due to a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that also ended his first term in 2007.

Abe’s resignation after eight years in office has triggered a succession battle within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but has also promoted speculation about the long-term trajectory of the nation, which remains the world’s third-largest economy after the United States and China.

A conservative and staunch nationalist, Abe has long tried to adopt a more assertive defence policy. Despite boosting defence spending and reinterpreting the pacifist constitution to enable Japanese troops to fight abroad, he ultimately failed in his bid to revise the constitution to allow for a more expansive role for the military.

Similarly, much of his economic agenda remains unfulfilled. Debt is rising, the country officially fell into recession in May, and though the workforce participation rate of women has increased, there has been little progress in addressing the stark gender gap in leadership positions and senior management.

Abe will remain in office until a successor is in place. Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary and an Abe loyalist, is believed to be the likely replacement. Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, a critic of Abe, is more publicly popular but has less support among his political colleagues. The party has excluded rank-and-file members from participating in the party’s leadership vote, which has greatly improved Suga’s prospects.

The neighbourhood

Palau: The US defence secretary, Mark Esper, last week travelled on a 10-hour flight from Hawaii to spend three hours in Palau, a Pacific island nation that has a population of 22,000. The visit was the first by a secretary of defence to Palau, which, as a close, reliable and remote ally of the US, has typically not been included in the itineraries of senior American officials. But tensions have been growing in the Pacific as China has increased its influence in the region. Palau is one of just four Pacific nations – and 15 globally – that continue to recognise Taiwan rather than China. Last year, Kiribati and Solomon Islands both switched their allegiances from Taiwan to China.

During his visit, Esper said the US wanted to work with partners such as Palau to protect the international rules-based order, which he said is “under threat from China, in its ongoing destabilising activities in the region”.

Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau, told reporters the country had secured additional US aid to build infrastructure and extra support to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. He said the strengthening relationship was not just motivated by concerns about China but by the Compact of Free Association between the countries, which makes the US responsible for Palau’s defence.

“Palau as you all know is a close brother, friend and ally of the United States,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

United States: On Tuesday, Donald Trump, who faces an election in two months, visited the small lakeside city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, which has experienced deadly rioting following an incident – captured on video – in which a white police officer shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back.

Dismissing the local mayor’s pleas to stay away, Trump drove through the city centre and visited stores damaged during the violence.

“These are not acts of peaceful protest, but really domestic terror,” he said. “… We’ve seen tremendous violence and we will put it out very, very quickly if given the chance.”

As protests against police brutality and racism have continued and have resulted in violent clashes with Trump supporters, the president has begun to centre his election campaign on law and order – a tactic that appears to have improved his electoral prospects. Polling across six battleground states shows he trails the Democratic contender, Joe Biden, by 2.6 percentage points, compared with a margin of about 6 percentage points in late July.

Biden responded this week, delivering a speech in which he described Trump as a “toxic presence” who has inflamed tensions and emboldened white nationalists.

“You know me,” Biden said. “… Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”

Before Trump’s visit to Kenosha, he defended one of his supporters, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged after allegedly shooting and killing two protesters.

“He fell and then they [the protesters] very violently attacked him,” Trump said.

Blake, who is 29 years old, remains in hospital. Asked what he would say to Blake’s family, Trump said: “I feel terribly for anybody that goes through that.”

Spotlight: The Israel–UAE deal

On Monday, the Israeli airline, El Al, flew from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, marking the first commercial flight between the two countries. The flight follows their agreement to normalise relations, which makes the UAE just the third Arab state in the Middle East to recognise Israel, alongside Egypt and Jordan.

The deal, announced on August 13, followed secret talks brokered by the White House. The American team was led by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, who was aboard the El Al flight. After landing, he told reporters: “The future doesn’t have to be predetermined by the past.”

In Abu Dhabi, delegations from Israel and the UAE, supported by US officials, worked on deals to open embassies, enable regular flights, and arrange for trade and tourist visas. The two countries have developed informal ties in recent years, joined by common concerns about Iran’s growing reach.

The deal has boosted the political fortunes of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and is under pressure over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. To secure the UAE’s agreement, Netanyahu committed to “suspend” his controversial plan to annex parts of the West Bank. But the Palestinians were incensed by the deal, accusing the UAE of a betrayal. Previously, Arab states have refused to normalise ties with Israel unless it withdraws from the West Bank. But, as fears of Iran grow, other states, including Oman and Bahrain, are expected to abandon this condition and consider normalising ties.

Significantly, El Al’s flight travelled across Saudi Arabian airspace – a journey that not only kept the flight time to three hours, but also signalled that the kingdom, a leading regional power and another staunch opponent of Iran, quietly supports the deal. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 5, 2020 as "Kushner central player in Israel–UAE deal".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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