DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Israel’s new foreign minister was in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, kicking off the highest-level visit by an Israeli official to the Gulf Arab state since the two countries normalized relations nine months ago.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is expected to meet the UAE's foreign minister in Abu Dhabi, with talks likely to focus in part on Iran, which both countries view as a top regional threat.
The Emiratis and Israelis had strong reservations about the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers brokered by the Obama administration, which aimed to limit Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Their shared concerns that the deal did not go far enough helped propel quiet ties and covert meetings long before they formally announced full diplomatic relations last year.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told reporters Tuesday that the pace of bilateral cooperation between the two countries has been “unprecedented.”
“There’s been years of under-the-radar relations between Israel and the UAE, and we are now enjoying the fruits of the infrastructure of peace that we’ve built in the last decades,” Haiat said.
The Trump administration brokered the agreement that established ties between the UAE and Israel. It was hailed at the time by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump as among their greatest achievements.
Lapid’s visit to the UAE was one that Netanyahu had hoped to make himself before his 12-year-run at the helm ended earlier this month. He’d repeatedly tried to score a lightning trip to Abu Dhabi to capitalize on the normalization deal his government signed and boost his re-election campaign.
President Joe Biden's push to revive the nuclear accord after Trump pulled the U.S. out of it has raised concerns among Israelis and several Gulf Arab states, which had favored Trump's pressure campaign on Iran.
On Sunday, Lapid was quoted as saying that Israel has serious reservations about the nuclear deal being discussed in Vienna, but pledged Israel would make its objections privately.
While in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Lapid is to inaugurate Israel’s Embassy. The Israeli foreign ministry says he is also attending a trade expo where Israeli companies are exhibiting technology.
On Wednesday, he is to inaugurate Israel's consulate in Dubai and visit the Israeli pavilion at the site of the six-month-long Expo in Dubai. The World Fair will begin in October after a year's delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lapid is also due to meet with members of the expatriate Jewish community residing in Dubai.
Press access to the foreign minister’s various events in the UAE has been strictly limited to Emirati media or to select Israeli media traveling with Lapid.
In recent months, the UAE and Israel have signed extensive trade and cooperation deals, and bilateral trade is already expected to have exceeded $354 million. More than 200,000 Israeli tourists have traveled to the UAE, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has said. Many of those visits have been to Dubai, which does not require quarantine upon arrival and is open to tourists.
Shortly after the UAE-Israel pact was signed, the Trump administration authorized the sale of 50 advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, which would make it only the second country in the Middle East, after Israel, to acquire them. The Biden administration has vowed to go ahead with the sale of the jets and advanced armed drones.
The UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel — after the two countries signed the U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords” — marked the first time in over two decades that an Arab state had established relations with Israel, following Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively. It was quickly followed by Bahrain, with similar announcements made later by Sudan and Morocco.
Biden’s administration has expressed support for these accords, but has also said they are no substitute for engaging on issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinians across the political spectrum have slammed the UAE’s ties with Israel, which break down a longstanding Arab consensus that recognition of Israel should only be granted in return for concessions to the Palestinians in a final peace settlement.
Lapid's visit to the UAE comes barely six weeks after an 11-day war in the Gaza Strip that killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children. Gaza's Health Ministry has not said how many of the dead were militants. In Israel, 13 people died as a result of the conflict, including two children.
Emotions ran high among the Arab public across the Gulf, particularly in the lead-up to the conflict when Israeli forces skirmished with Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in the final days of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The site in east Jerusalem is holy to both Jews and Muslims.
The tensions in Jerusalem drew rare public rebuke from the Emirati government, which has rushed to embrace and deepen its newfound public ties with Israel in the months since formalizing ties.
However, the UAE's tone changed in public statements after Hamas began firing rockets at Israel. The UAE considers Hamas as an Iran-backed militant group and an offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Lapid's visit to the UAE also comes shortly after Israel's new government was sworn in earlier this month. Lapid heads the centrist Yesh Atid party and is a former popular TV anchorman in Israel and novelist.
He struck a power-sharing deal with the ideologically hawkish, right-wing Naftali Bennett, who became Israel’s prime minister at the head of a coalition of eight diverse parties, ranging from Jewish ultranationalists to a small Islamist party.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Aya Batrawy And Isabel Debre , The Associated Press