JERUSALEM – On Monday, the Israeli Prime Minister met with the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates on the first official visit of an Israeli leader to the Gulf state, a historic meeting that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and which showed the rapid change of the country. Middle East, driven by common fears of a nuclear Iran.
Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, spent four hours with the de facto Emirati leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed – two hours longer than planned. They met in Abu Dhabi amid renewed tensions between the United States and Israel, which oppose revived efforts by Washington to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions.
“I fly back to Israel, very optimistic that this relationship can be an example of how we can create peace here in the Middle East,” he said. Bennett in a video released shortly before his departure for Israel.
Expelled for years by all but two Arab countries, Israel began to establish formal relations with four others, including the United Arab Emirates, in August 2020. Mr. Bennett’s visit was a testament to both the speed with which Israel has consolidated some of these ties over the past 15 months and the precedence of concerns about Iran for some Arab leaders, even over their long-standing demands for a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the end of the meeting, the two leaders issued a joint statement praising it as “another milestone in the development of warm relations and a huge partnership forged between the two countries.” Journalists were excluded from the talks, but photographs and silent videos released by the Emirati government showed the two leaders chatting informally and laughing together, and at one point it appeared the prince was whispering in the prime minister’s ear.
Together with their mutual fears of Iran, hopes of shared economic prosperity form the basis of relations between Israel and the Emirates.
Israel is keen to support a regional alliance against Iran at a time when negotiations have resumed between Tehran and a US-backed alliance, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Iran remains a major threat to Emirati’s security, and Emirati shares Israel’s fears that Tehran will acquire a nuclear bomb. They are also against Iranian support for Shiite proxy militias active throughout the Middle East. But their country is an important trading partner with Iran and is in favor of a less confrontational approach than Israel, keeping the possibility of dialogue open.
Last week, Emirati’s national security adviser visited Tehran to meet with the new Iranian president.
While the Americans and others want Iran to reduce or freeze its nuclear program, perhaps in exchange for sanctions, Israel wants to keep the possibility of military action open. And Israel is opposed to easing restrictions on the Iranian economy, fearing that it will reward Iran without decisively depriving it of the ability to create a nuclear arsenal in the future.
The Emirati government sees an advantage in keeping an open line of communication with Tehran, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political scientist.
“There is no illusion about how big a threat Iran is,” he said. “And despite all this, it’s time to talk to Iran.”
It could potentially also benefit Israel, Mr. added. Abdulla. “The United Arab Emirates is in the best position to perhaps carry messages between these two antagonists,” he said.
During his visit to Abu Dhabi, Mr Bennett achieved a foreign policy victory, which was denied to his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was forced to postpone three trips to the Emirates last winter, partly because of the pandemic, and partly because the emirate leaders did not want to appear with him while he was in the middle of a re-election campaign.
Mr. Bennett’s visit fell on the six-month anniversary of his inauguration, a reminder that the Israeli-Emirate standardization agreement had survived the agreement’s architects, President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu, political death.
Israeli prime ministers have visited the Emirates before, but never a prime minister – until Mr Bennett’s arrival on Sunday.
In their public statements about the meeting, common economic interests were paramount.
The joint statement released after the meeting said leaders had discussed trade, economic, climate and food security issues and promised to set up a joint emirate-Israeli research and development fund as well as a joint business council. It did not say whether they had discussed Iran, and an Israeli official who attended the meeting declined to comment on what regional geopolitical issues were mentioned.
The official said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not discussed and that the two leaders instead talked at length about establishing a free trade agreement in which Mr. Bennett called an Israeli official during the meeting to expedite its implementation.
Once a minor player in the Middle East, the Emirates has in recent decades used its oil revenues to become a great regional strength, providing funds and military assistance to allies in Yemen, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.
For decades, it maintained only secret ties with Israel and chose not to join Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab states with formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Like most Arab leaders, the Emirati royal family had long preferred to postpone a relaxation until the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Emiratis finally announced their relationship with Israel in August 2020, announcing the start of formal ties after Israel promised to delay the implementation of a plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Later followed agreements with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan; Palestinian leaders condemned the agreements as a betrayal, while opinion polls suggested the agreements were opposed by most of the Arab public.
Emirati officials have said little about the Palestinians since then.
The Palestinians portrayed the meeting as a betrayal.
“This is the ultimate betrayal,” said Muhammad Abul Eis, 41, a driver in Gaza City. “History will never forgive and will not show mercy to the United Arab Emirates or any country that normalizes ties to the occupation.”
While Monday’s meeting showed the potential of Israel’s rapprochement with the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, questions have been raised about the durability of the agreement with Sudan. The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors, Sudanese officials have distanced themselves from the process, and a recent coup in Khartoum, The capital of Sudan, casts doubt on the whole event.
No new agreements between Israel and Arab states have been announced this year, despite hopes that Saudi Arabia – which shares many foreign policy goals with the Emirates, including an antipathy to Iran – would become the fifth country to join the process .
Despite their alliance, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates do not always trade together. In 2019, Abu Dhabi began to withdraw its troops from Yemen, where they had fought alongside Saudi-led forces in a war against the Iran-backed Houthi militia. In July, the two countries collided on oil production – The Emirates wanted to increase it while the Saudis sought to keep it.
The Emirates has also been prepared to go it alone in more banal matters.
Last week, officials announced that the United Arab Emirates would change the time of its weekends to adapt to the Western calendar and implement a 4.5-day week.
Saudi officials have insisted that the country will not copy the emirate-Israeli normalization agreement until Israel has concluded a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Israeli media reported that Mr. Netanyahu met in secret in November 2020 with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince. But Saudi officials denied it.
Initially, the Israeli government invited a group of Israeli journalists to join Mr. Bennett in the Emirates. But it later became clear that there would be no joint news briefing or access for journalists to the prince’s palace where the meeting was being held.
Mr. Bennett’s office later suspended journalists from the flight, officially due to growing concerns about Omicron, the new variant of coronavirus.
People in the Emirates, where dissent is rarely tolerated, used social media on Monday to praise the meeting between the two leaders. But some emirates abroad were far more critical.
“This scene burns the heart of all free emirates,” wrote Ahmad Alshaibah Al Nuaimi, a London-based emirate writer, in response to a video by Mr. Bennett’s arrival in Abu Dhabi.
In Israel, the visit was seen as another step in a gradual thaw between Israel and the Arab world.
“Any trip made for the purpose of creating a dialogue is good and is a welcome step, because any kind of dialogue and conversation can promote Israel,” said Maayan Yamin, a 40-year-old psychologist from the central city of Rehovot. Israel. “That’s a good thing he raised.”
Reporting was contributed by Myra Noveck of Jerusalem; Asmaa al-Omar of Beirut, Lebanon; and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.