New Israeli foreign minister in the UAE on 1st state visit

In this photo made available by the Israeli Government Press Office, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center left, arrives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. Israel’s new foreign minister is in the UAE on the first high-level trip by an Israeli official to the Gulf Arab state since the two countries normalized relations last year. (Shlomi Amsalem/Government Press Office via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Israel’s foreign minister kicked off the highest-level visit by an Israeli official to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, nine months after the two countries established relations in a deal brokered by the United States.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met the UAE’s foreign minister in Abu Dhabi and inaugurated Israel’s first embassy in the Gulf.

Although the visit is historic, it received little fanfare across local media. Lapid was not greeted on the airport tarmac by Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, but by a lower-ranking minister of state. Even press access for Lapid’s various appearances in Abu Dhabi was strictly limited to Emirati media and select Israeli outlets traveling with him.

The toned-down atmosphere surrounding his visit belies the UAE’s open-arm embrace of its newfound ties with Israel. In recent months, the two countries have rapidly expanded bilateral trade and signed investment deals, including in gas, technology and other sectors. 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 is open to tourists.

Lapid’s visit, however, comes just weeks after a new government in Israel was formed in a power-sharing deal that named the ideologically hawkish, right-wing Naftali Bennett as Israel’s prime minister.

His visit also comes less than six week after emotions ran high across the Middle East amid Israel’s 11-day war in the Gaza Strip that killed 254 Palestinians, including dozens of children. In Israel, 13 people died as a result of the conflict.

Lapid told diplomats gathered at the official opening 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.

The Gaza war and tensions in Jerusalem, however, have interrupted U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts to encourage more Arab states to sign normalization deals with Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Lapid’s visit as “significant for Israel, the UAE, and the broader region.” In a statement, he said the U.S. will work with Israel and the UAE to strengthen the partnership.

The Trump administration brokered the so-called “Abraham Accords” agreement that established ties between the UAE and Israel. It was hailed at the time by 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 had repeatedly tried to score a lightning trip to Abu Dhabi to boost his re-election campaign.

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

Underpinning UAE-Israel ties is a shared concern that Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers did not go far enough to curb Tehran’s reach in the region. Their reservations about the deal helped propel quiet ties, long before they formally announced full diplomatic relations last year.

President Joe Biden is pushing to revive and expand the nuclear accord, which Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018. Earlier this week, 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. It’s expected that Lapid’s conversation with his Emirati counterpart included talk of Iran.

“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,” said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat.

On Wednesday, Lapid will inaugurate Israel’s consulate in Dubai and visit the site of the World Fair’s Expo in Dubai, which will open in October. Lapid is also due to meet with members of the expatriate Jewish community residing in Dubai.

The UAE’s move to formalize ties with Israel marked the first time in over two decades that an Arab state had normalized relations with Israel. It paved the path for a similar announcement by Bahrain, and later by Sudan and Morocco in rapid succession.

Soon after its pact with Israel, the UAE scored U.S. authorization for the sale of 50 advanced F-35 fighter jets, which would make it only the second country in the Middle East, after Israel, to acquire them.

Meanwhile, Palestinians across the political spectrum have slammed the UAE’s ties with Israel in the absence of peace talks or concessions toward a two-state solution.

In May, tensions flared in east Jerusalem when Israeli forces clashed with Palestinian protesters and worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque 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. The UAE’s public statements, however, changed in tone after Hamas militants in Gaza began firing rockets at Israel. The UAE considers Hamas as an Iran-backed militant group and an offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.