Israeli PM visits the UAE, a sign of deepening ties with Arab states

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


More than a year since the Abraham Accords ushered in a new era of normalization between Israel and some Arab states, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli prime minister to meet Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Though the historic nature of Mr. Bennett’s move was not lost on many in the region, much of the discussion focused on the economic and political implications of Israeli-Arab rapprochement. In Israel, the occasion served as a means of revisiting former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role in the Accords, which have become a source of disagreement between the Arab states and Iran. 

Commenting on the burgeoning UAE-Israeli economic and political exchanges, Khaleej Times published earlier this week a report by WAM (also called the Emirates News Agency) documenting the benefits of the growing trade relations between the two countries: “A year after the signing of the Agreement in September 2020, the bilateral relations between the two countries have achieved remarkable development across various fields and sectors. The value of intra-UAE trade with Israel amounted to more than Dh3.5 billion until the end of September 2021, and the value of non-oil foreign trade between the two countries exceeded Dh2.9 billion during the first nine months of this year. … The UAE’s relationship with the countries of the world is based on the ‘Principles of the 50,’ launched under the directives of the UAE’s wise leadership. The principles come as a strategic roadmap crafting the ‘Projects of the 50’ and driving the UAE’s march to deliver a brighter tomorrow with economic security and social wellbeing for generations to come.” 

Ahmed Charai, publisher of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, in an op-ed written for The Jerusalem Post, builds on this narrative by pointing out the profound changes that have taken place in just over a year since the signing of the Abraham Accords: “Less than two years ago, most Arab nations would not admit travelers who had Israeli stamps in their passports. That restriction is now gone, and millions of Arabs and Israelis have visited each other. Indeed, all of these things have become so common that they are no longer remarked upon. … If the Arab street has anything to say about it, more Arab nations will make peace with Israel and begin trading and investing with the nation that some Arab state-run broadcasts still refer to as the ‘Zionist entity.’ Many Arabs in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, courageously, without fear or hesitation, now say that they favor normal relations with Israel. The momentum for peace across the Arab world is real and growing.” 

The visit by the Israeli PM is now likely to be followed by a return visit from the UAE crown prince, who, according to this Times of Israel report, has been officially invited by Mr. Bennett: “In addition to his talks with bin Zayed, Bennett met Monday with the UAE’s Industry and Advanced Technology Minister Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and Culture Minister Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi. The premier arrived Sunday in Abu Dhabi, where he was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince’s brother. … Israel and the UAE forged ties in the United States-brokered Abraham Accords last year, bringing over a decade of covert contacts into the open. Their relationship has flourished since then. Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco later also joined the Accords, and other countries were also rumored to be in talks, though none has come to fruition so far.” 

This week’s developments have also provided fodder in Israel for political point scoring between supporters of the current government and those of former PM Netanyahu, with the latter insisting, as Ariel Kahana does in this Israel Hayom op-ed, that the real credit for the thawing of relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors goes to Mr. Netanyahu: “As one of the architects of the Abraham Accords, Benjamin Netanyahu can and should have been the one to represent Israel in the Gulf but somehow Naftali Bennett, who misled the Israeli public, got to be the first Israeli prime minister to meet the UAE crown prince. … Regional implications aside, the Abraham Accords manifest daily, in tourism, business ties and a growing range of collaborations. This is how it should be. These excellent developments are clouded by only one small detail: anyone privy to the events leading up to the treaty knows that it is not Bennett who was supposed to be the first Israeli premier to meet the leader of the UAE – historical justice should have afforded this honor to Netanyahu.” 

However, that narrative was undermined after the release of a new book showing that Mr. Netanyahu argued in favor of the postponement of the rollout of the Accords. As an Anadolu Agency article published by the Daily Sabah asserts, “Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to back out from declaring a normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one day before it was announced, according to a new book. … It said former Israeli envoy to the U.S. Ron Dermer called Trump adviser Avi Berkowitz and informed him that ‘in Israel, there is a crisis over the budget and the government may be dissolved in few days, so, Netanyahu believes that the timing is unsuitable for the announcement of the deal with the UAE.’ … Trump told Ravid that Netanyahu was not serious about signing a peace deal with the Palestinians and that, if the former U.S. president had not recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, part of Syria occupied by Israel, Netanyahu would not have won election in 2019.” 

Meanwhile, the Iranians have openly questioned the wisdom of Arab countries’ extending an olive branch to Israel. Iran’s military chief, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, in comments published by Tehran Times, was among those who expressed dismay at the “normalization” process. Instead, he considers Israel an obstacle to regional peace: “The visit comes as Jordan state news agency Petra reported on Monday that Iran and Saudi Arabia security officials have met in Amman and discussed [the] missile program and cooperation in the field of nuclear fuel in detail. … Iran has always welcomed peace and de-escalation in the region, but it is crystal clear that Israel’s presence in the region is detrimental to peace as the Israeli regime is actively trying to sabotage the ongoing nuclear-deal talks between Iran, the P4+1 (Russia, China, France, UK, and Germany) and the United States in Vienna by threatening to take military action against Iran.” 

UAE political analyst Salem Al Ketbi pushes back against such zero-sum arguments coming from either camp. In an op-ed written for the Israeli news website Arutz Sheva, Al Ketbi draws a distinction between UAE relations with Israel and those with Iran, arguing that one set of exchanges does not exclude the others: “Some Israeli media speculate whether this [UAE-Iran] rapprochement will come at the expense of UAE-Israel relations. Some fear that it could undermine the peace and progress being built for more than a year under the Abraham Agreement. … The UAE’s new strategic approach towards Iran should not worry Israel, just as the signing of the peace agreement was far from the accusations and speculations raised. The peace with Israel is not aimed at Iran. … Cooperation with Israel is still in its infancy. Ambitions remain high as aspirations, capabilities, and resources fuel optimism about the future of this cooperation. … No one wants to hear news about wars and conflicts. Everyone’s dream is a world without bullets, where societies live together in a climate of tolerance and togetherness.” 


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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