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Israeli Prime Minister Deals With COVID-19 and Iraq

- BY TOM O’CONNOR @Shaolintom

Israeli Prime minister naftali Bennett is seeking to build upon a series of peace deals with Arab countries by fortifying ties with the United Arab Emirates, even as he wages war on a particular­ly contagious strain of COVID-19 at home.

Bennett’s historic December trip to Abu Dhabi marked the first by an Israeli leader to one of the five nations that signed the Abraham Accords, through which four countries—the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—defied a decades-long Arab boycott to normalize relations with Israel. The four are the first to do so since Egypt and Jordan did decades ago.

Bennett’s reception by an honor guard at Abu Dhabi Internatio­nal Airport emphasized the level of relations being built by the two countries. “It was a meeting that would have been unimaginab­le a few years ago, and I think that understand­ing was felt on both sides,” a senior Israeli official who was part of Bennett’s delegation told Newsweek.

On his arrival, Bennett met with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and later went on to hold a four-hour meeting with Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. “Straight from the beginning,” the senior Israeli official said, “the Prime Minister was greeted with open arms and immense warmth. There was an instant connection.”

The visit came at a time of dueling talks and tensions across the Middle East, where Iran, Israel’s top rival, was also building diplomatic inroads into the Arabian Peninsula. About a week before Bennett’s trip, UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan traveled to Tehran to sit down with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Iran and the United States have yet to come to a resolution alongside

other major powers in an effort to revive the two nations’ full compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018. Israel has protested the effort by the U.S. to return to the agreement, but President Joe Biden has pressed on with negotiatio­ns.

Concerns about direct escalation between Iran and Israel loom over the region, but just as nearly every other country in the world, Israel is already at war with a different kind of enemy: COVID-19. Bennett takes the war analogy seriously.

“Israel has spent 73 years fighting for its survival, and that’s something that made the Israeli people more resilient and more agile,” Bennett told Newsweek via a spokespers­on on Whatsapp. “When faced by this invisible enemy, the Israeli fighting spirit kicked in and made Israel’s vaccine campaigns one of the most successful in the world.”

“We’ll do what we can to protect lives in the fight against COVID and in the face of the threats posed to our people,” he added.

In November, Bennett summoned top officials to hold a war game against what was then a hypothetic­al vaccine-resistant variant of the disease. “The purpose of the war game was to prepare us for the next war and not for the previous war, and it certainly did,” Bennett said. “When Omicron was discovered, we found ourselves in a much better situation than we could have been, largely thanks to the war game.” The exercise was launched on November 11, less than two weeks before the first case of what the World Health Organizati­on would later call Omicron was reported in South Africa.

“At the first stage of the drill we decided to keep Israel’s borders open to tourists,” Bennett said, “only to find that by the later stages of the drill, the country’s hospitals were overwhelme­d with patients. We concluded that it would have been better if we had limited entry of tourists into Israel’s borders at an early stage. This is just one of the many insights we gained from the drill that influenced our decision-making process when Omicron was discovered.”

“The more prepared we are, the greater chances we’ll have at winning the war against COVID,” he added. “We must move fast, hard and strong.”

Among the experts tasked by Bennett with organizing the exercise was retired Israeli Major General Yaacov Ayish, who previously led the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff Operations Branch and served as Ground Forces Chief of Staff during the country’s second war with Lebanon in 2006. “In Israel, we faced four waves in this war against COVID in the last nearly two years,” Ayish told Newsweek. “And right after the fourth wave, under the leadership of Prime Minister Bennett, he decided that, although we faced it very successful­ly with the vaccines etcetera, instead of moving on and dealing with that and the other challenges that Israel has, to prepare the whole government­al system, the relevant agencies and the relevant ministries for the fifth wave.”

“As Prime Minister of Israel, I am committed to protecting Israel both from Iran and any other threat, including COVID-19. One does not come at the expense of the other.”

Ayish said Bennett and his command assembled in a deep undergroun­d bunker designed for officials in times of crisis, to create “something as close as we can to reality.”

For added effect, Israeli news media was brought in to simulate the informatio­n front of the fight, Ayish said, “You could see in certain stages that [troops and officials are] really under pressure when they are watching the TV channels and hearing the commentato­rs talking about the implicatio­ns of this variant, and the fact that it’s lethal, and the fact that it can bypass the vaccine, and the fact that the PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests are not as effective as we expected them to be, and therefore we don’t identify those who are infected.”

Competing narratives over the disease and how best to tackle it were also simulated. As in many other countries, skepticism and resistance to vaccines in Israel has not only helped to fuel the pandemic, but has also torn the fabric of society, creating added tensions at a time of great stress for the system.

All the while, Ayish said Bennett sat at the head of the operations table, “asking what is going on, what is the situation report, what can we do, what are our capabiliti­es in different channels, what type of implicatio­ns is this going to have on the education system, on the judiciary system, on the Israeli economy, on the other agencies and ministries.”

Ayish added, “The biggest challenge is it also affected children in the exercise. Think about the psychologi­cal impact on those who are exercising. Suddenly, children are affected and you’re sending them to school, so, suddenly, other kids are affected and some of them in the war game died due to that, so it was

pretty intense, and highly effective.”

Like Bennett, Ayish said decision-makers initially adopted a course that only encouraged the spread of the simulated virus. “I must admit that at the beginning the solutions were going in a certain direction,” Ayish said, “and solutions were to allow the Israeli economy and Israeli society to live their life as much as they can.” But as the exercise evolved, the awareness grew among the participan­ts that things had to change quickly: “It led the prime minister to the understand­ing that we have to close all the entrances into Israel.”

Ayish also said an important lesson for war game participan­ts is that there are different types of PCR tests with varying degrees of accuracy. Millions of PCR tests were later ordered to accommodat­e the gaps in the system.

Findings from the war game, Ayish added, were not only shared within Israel, but also with other countries around the world in the weeks that followed, including in the Persian Gulf region, where partnershi­ps with countries like the UAE continue to develop. In the span of just one week as Omicron arrived in December, the UAE saw daily cases of COVID-19 spike from an average of 50 to 452 among a population where more than 90 percent of eligible citizens are fully vaccinated.

The common threat posed by COVID-19 was discussed in a phone call in December between Bennett and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The conversati­on also touched upon the ongoing Iran nuclear deal talks in Vienna. Defense Minister Benny Gantz also discussed the Iran deal in later talks with Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a trip to Washington, D.C.

The U.S. and Israel reportedly discussed potential alternativ­es to diplomacy, including military options to target an Iranian nuclear program that Tehran repeatedly argued was never intended to produce a weapon.

“The threat from Iran is in a category by itself, one which threatens the very existence of our country,” Bennett told Newsweek. “As Prime Minister of Israel, I am committed to protecting Israel both from Iran and any other threat, including COVID-19. One does not come at the expense of the other. Neither of them will triumph over us.”

An IDF official confirmed to Newsweek in December that the Israeli military was actively training for operations abroad in response to developmen­ts concerning Iran.

“The Chief of the General Staff instructed the IDF, in accordance with the decision of the political echelon, to prepare the IDF for operations in distant arenas,” the IDF official said via Whatsapp. “The IDF is constantly training for a number of scenarios in all regions and arenas.” Next spring, the IDF is set to hold a

large-scale series of exercises hundreds of miles away across the Mediterran­ean Sea, roughly the same distance that would be needed to strike targets in Iran.

“Preparatio­ns to deal with the Iranian challenge also included the establishm­ent of a new directorat­e that is dealing, among other things, with the Iranian military nuclear program, Iranian regional entrenchme­nt and weapons proliferat­ion,” the official added.

Such moves have drawn the ire of Iran. “This is not the first time that the language of threat against Iran’s peaceful nuclear program is being used by the US and the Israeli regime,” Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations said in a statement.

The mission said this peaceful nature has been affirmed by “numerous”

“When Omicron was discovered, we found ourselves in a much better situation than we could have been, largely thanks to the war game.”

reports of the Internatio­nal Atomic Energy Agency, which is barred from inspecting Israel’s own widely suspected nuclear arsenal.

“Unlike the Israeli regime, who possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads, and the U.S., who constantly upgrades its nuclear arsenal in contravent­ion of its [Non-proliferat­ion Treaty] obligation­s, nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s defensive doctrine,” the Iranian mission said, adding, “However, we’ll continue our peaceful nuclear program and exercise our right of self-defense in the face of any act of aggression against our territory.”

The Iranian mission also urged the U.S. to reverse the Trump-era return to sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and warned Israel against pursuing any threats.

Further U.s.-israel consultati­ons ensued, as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert traveled to Israel and to the Palestinia­n territorie­s of the West Bank.

A senior Biden administra­tion official declined to discuss if Israel factored into the so-called “Plan B” if nuclear deal talks failed to reach a resolution in Vienna, but said Israel’s peace efforts, including with the UAE, would be the center of attention.

“I think the focus on Israel, where we’re heading, the integratio­n and building on the Abraham Accords has been a central focus of ours,” the senior Biden administra­tion official said. “And that will be an important topic of conversati­on.”

But amid these U.S. official visits, Israel’s borders were closed as the war on COVID-19 rages in a country accustomed to adversity.

“We are very flexible, very agile, and, for us, at the end of the day, when we are facing a crisis, it’s like, okay, it’s another crisis,” Ayish said. “We’ve been there, we will adapt, and we will react.”

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 ?? ?? TAKING ACTION Clockwise from top: Bennett with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan; a woman receiving a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel; and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.
TAKING ACTION Clockwise from top: Bennett with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan; a woman receiving a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel; and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.
 ?? ?? A COMMON FOE Bennett discussed Iran with Biden at their first face-toface meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 27, 2021.
A COMMON FOE Bennett discussed Iran with Biden at their first face-toface meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 27, 2021.

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