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New foreign minister makes Israel’s 1st high-level visit to United Arab Emirates

A closeup of Yair Lapid in suit and tie.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Rome on Sunday, where he met with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

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.

Soon after his arrival in the UAE, Lapid told diplomats gathered at the inauguration of the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi that the moment represented “the right to determine our fate by ourselves.” Israel, he said, isn’t going anywhere.

“The Middle East is our home. We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognize that, and to come talk to us,” he said, according to the speech released by Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

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Press access to Lapid’s various events in the UAE has been strictly limited to Emirati media and select Israeli outlets traveling with the minister.

The Trump administration brokered the so-called Abraham Accords that established ties between the UAE and Israel. It was hailed at the time by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump as among their greatest achievements.

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard has vowed that there will be dangerous consequences for the United Arab Emirates after it announced a historic deal with Israel to open up full diplomatic relations.

Lapid’s visit to the UAE was one that Netanyahu had hoped to make himself before his 12-year-run as premier 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 reelection campaign.

In acknowledgment of Netanyahu, Lapid told diplomats gathered at the Israeli Embassy event that the former prime minister was “the architect of the Abraham Accords” and that “this moment is his no less than it is ours.”

Undergirding UAE-Israel ties is shared concern that Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers did not go far enough to curb Tehran’s reach in the region. Reservations by both countries over the deal helped propel quiet ties long before they formally announced full diplomatic relations last year.

President 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 “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. On Sunday, Lapid was quoted as saying that, although Israel has serious reservations about the nuclear deal being discussed in Vienna, the country would make its objections privately.

President Joe Biden assured Israel that he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran as he met with outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the White House.

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On Wednesday, Lapid is to inaugurate Israel’s consulate in Dubai and visit the Israeli pavilion at the site of the six-month World Expo in Dubai, which will begin in October after a year’s delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lapid is also due to meet with members of the expatriate Jewish community residing in Dubai.

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.

“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,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said.

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.

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The Senate has fallen short of rejecting the proposed $23-billion arms sales to the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel 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.

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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 Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The site in East Jerusalem is sacred 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.

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The UAE’s tone changed in public statements, however, after Hamas began firing rockets at Israel. The UAE considers Hamas an Iranian-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 TV host in Israel.

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.


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