The Jerusalem Post

New government in Jerusalem, same enthusiasm for the Emirates

Changes bring uncertaint­y, but Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was determined to show on his trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai that he is all in on the new relations with the UAE

- By LAHAV HARKOV

Anew government, especially one with a new prime minister for the first time in 12 years, brings with it uncertaint­y in a wide range of areas, from policing to COVID-19 restrictio­ns to unpaid leave restrictio­ns, and foreign policy is no exception.

On that front, what has seemed most certain from the outset, when this government came into office nearly three weeks ago, was that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, as his Yesh Atid Party’s slogan goes, “came to make a change.” Lapid plans to be a full-time foreign minister and take the lead on most foreign policy matters, in consultati­on with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and with his blessing. He intends to have a transforma­tive effect on the country’s foreign policy – and the fact that he has any foreign policy intentions at all is a big change.

After all, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu completely dominated Israel’s internatio­nal relations for more than a decade, with his confidants in the National Security Council or even former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen doing a lot of the work for him, while using the Foreign Ministry minimally and starving it of much-needed budgets.

It’s undeniable Netanyahu had many successes on the internatio­nal front, despite his very centralize­d and often chaotic management style, relying on his formidable personal smarts and skills rather than the many foreign policy profession­als in the Foreign Ministry. However, one of his weaknesses – which is the obvious consequenc­e of having so many things revolve around one person – was the follow-through after he reached a goal.

One example of that was the Abraham Accords, the peace and normalizat­ion agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

The agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were signed with great fanfare on the White House’s South Lawn in September. Nine months later, the only minister to visit any of the four Abraham Accords countries was former intelligen­ce minister Eli Cohen in Sudan. No one had visited the UAE, which was the linchpin of the Abraham Accords.

The reason was that Netanyahu wanted to go first. Multiple ministers were invited to conference­s or to sign agreements, and Netanyahu blocked them all. He tried to visit five times and was thwarted each time, three times by rising COVID restrictio­ns, once by it being a national holiday in the UAE. The Emiratis called off his final attempt to visit because it was just days before this year’s election and Netanyahu saying the Abraham Accords and UAE investment­s were an expression of Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed’s confidence in Netanyahu, specifical­ly.

Despite the feeling in Abu Dhabi that Netanyahu’s remarks were intemperat­e, he was, as Lapid said this week, the “architect” of the Abraham Accords, and it was clear that the Emiratis were unsure where things stood between the yet-another Israeli election and Bennett taking the helm.

“I was concerned Israelis are going to go through a phase of looking inwards and wasting the current momentum,” UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed said in an interview with Walla and Axios this week.

“But,” he added, “I think Lapid’s first call to anyone was to me .... Having a new Israeli government which is equally excited tells me that this is a much broader political belief and willingnes­s to invest in the relationsh­ip.”

When Lapid took off for Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, one of his goals was to reassure the officials he met that, despite all the changes in people, personalit­y, management style and policies, he is enthusiast­ic about shepherdin­g Netanyahu’s achievemen­t of the Abraham Accords into its next stage.

On Thursday, Lapid wrote in a newsletter to Yesh Atid supporters: “It’s customary to say that people ‘hid their excitement,’ but we actually made an effort not to hide it. The historic moments came one after the other at a dizzying pace... this is what peace looks like, not like an emotional speech, but like something practical that happens in real life.”

In the same newsletter, Lapid wrote that the UAE’s energy minister told him that “for us, everything is based on a personal touch.” Lapid said the same is true for Israelis, and called Energy Minister Karin Alharrar on the spot, so the two could plan to meet.

And speaking of a personal touch, Lapid and Bin Zayed’s meeting was at the same time as the England-Germany game in Euro 2020, and Bin Zayed’s bodyguards updated them on how the game progressed. Lapid was rooting for England, and so was bin Zayed, whose brother Mansour bin Zayed, the UAE’s deputy prime minister, owns the Manchester City team. For those not paying attention to soccer, England won 2-0.

LAPID was fully aligned with how the UAE sought to present the relationsh­ip moving forward. In sharp contrast from Netanyahu, who often presented Israeli ties with Sunni states as an alliance against Iran, any talk about the Islamic Republic was jettisoned. Israelis are used to constantly hearing about defense and security issues from their leaders, but this was different.

Instead, Lapid’s public remarks focused on the future of bilateral ties – namely, the opportunit­ies for economic and scientific cooperatio­n between Israel and the UAE – how groundbrea­king the relations between the countries are, and how they should serve as a model for more countries in the region.

“Israel wants peace with all of its neighbors,” Lapid said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi. “We are standing here today because we chose peace over war, cooperatio­n over conflict .... Agreements are signed by leaders, but peace is made by people.”

In that vein, the next day, dedicating the Israeli Consulate in Dubai, Lapid said it will be a place “of dialogue between two talented peoples who can and who want to contribute to one another .... A place that symbolizes our ability to think together, to develop together, to change the world together. We don’t accept reality, we

create reality. Our two nations created the incredible.”

And those were the exact same messages that Emirati officials relayed, publicly and behind closed doors. This isn’t the time to talk about problems with other countries; it’s about the potential of Israel and the UAE working together to help their own people, they said.

UAE Culture and Youth Minister Noura Al Kaabi said her country and Israel “have inspired others in the region to prioritize peace and stability on the path to a brighter future... and work toward a region that embraces human dignity for all and inclusiven­ess and tolerance to prepare our children for a brighter future.”

UAE Minister of State for Artificial Intelligen­ce Omar Al Olama said “ultimately, the warm ties between Israel and the UAE are slated to grow in many areas .... We will usher in a next phase of bilateral cooperatio­n that will be a model to many countries.”

Lapid ended his battery of meetings in the two biggest emirates by giving an impression that the UAE and Israel are perfectly in sync and working together for a better future. He also charmed the local press, which breathless­ly noted that he is a “media celebrity” with a famous family, focusing on business and mentioning that trade between the countries has topped NIS 2.2 billion ($675.22m.) since September.

The foreign minister’s trip is the opening salvo in what is expected to be a rapid advancemen­t of the relations, just as the UAE had visualized when diplomatic ties were first made public last year. A long line of Israeli ministers is expected in the Gulf state, each set to sign bilateral agreements in their areas, from agricultur­e to science to tourism. Bennett is considerin­g a visit to the opening of Expo 2020 in Dubai, where Israel is constructi­ng a pavilion.

When it comes to the Abraham Accords, the concerns about change in Israel seem to be unwarrante­d, with the new government ready to push them to their maximum potential. Or as Lapid said at the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi this week: “What we are doing here today is not the end of the road; it’s the beginning.”

 ?? (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO) ?? FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid and Omar Sultan Al Olama, UAE minister of state for artificial intelligen­ce, cut a ribbon during the inaugurati­on ceremony of Israel’s consulate in Dubai, on Wednesday.
(Shlomi Amsalem/GPO) FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid and Omar Sultan Al Olama, UAE minister of state for artificial intelligen­ce, cut a ribbon during the inaugurati­on ceremony of Israel’s consulate in Dubai, on Wednesday.

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