Israeli leader holds historic meeting with Emirati crown prince

By Patrick Kingsley

ABU DHABI  – Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, met the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, on Monday (13) during the first official visit by an Israeli leader to the Gulf state.

The four-hour meeting, which lasted two hours longer than planned, showcased the consolidation of ties between Israel and parts of the Arab world. Israel was long ostracized by most Arab governments until last fall, when Israeli officials began to establish formal diplomatic relationships with four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

The meeting also highlighted the shifting geopolitical priorities for some Middle Eastern leaders, for whom countering the possible threat of a nuclear Iran is now a greater priority than finding an immediate resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Occurring six months after Bennett took office, his visit also highlighted how the Israeli-Emirati normalization agreement had survived the political demise of the deal’s architects, President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett’s predecessor.

By flying to Abu Dhabi, Bennett achieved a foreign-policy victory that was denied to Netanyahu, who was forced to cancel three trips last winter, partly because of coronavirus restrictions and partly because Emirati leaders balked at the prospect of bolstering his re-election campaign.

Israeli Cabinet ministers have since visited the Emirates, but never a prime minister.

Once a regional backwater, the Emirates has in recent decades used its oil revenues to become a major force in the Middle East, funding and providing military support to allies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.

For decades, only Egypt and Jordan had formal relations with Israel, with most Arab leaders preferring to delay a detente until the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Having long maintained clandestine ties, the Emirates finally announced a formal relationship with Israel in August 2020 after Israel promised to postpone its plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Deals with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan soon followed. Palestinian leaders condemned the agreements as a betrayal.

Since then, Emirati officials had said little about the Palestinians, with mutual fears over Iran’s nuclear program forming the bedrock of the Israel-Emirati relationship.

Israeli ties with Bahrain and Morocco have also continued to improve, but questions have been raised about the sustainability of the deal with Sudan. Little momentum has been created since Sudan formally signed a document praising the accords in January, after an initial announcement in October 2020. The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors, and a recent coup in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, cast doubt over the entire arrangement.

No new rapprochement has been announced since the Sudanese document in January, despite hopes that Saudi Arabia, which has close ties with the Emirates and which shares an antipathy for Iran, would become the fifth country to join the process.

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates share many foreign policy goals but do not always act in unison. In 2019, Abu Dhabi began to pull its troops from Yemen, where they had been fighting alongside Saudi-led forces in a war against an Iranian-backed militia. This year, the two countries clashed over whether to increase oil production.

Saudi officials have said that the country will not replicate the Emirati-Israeli normalization deal until the sealing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Netanyahu was reported to have met in secret in November 2020 with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but Saudi officials denied the meeting took place.

But even in the Emirates, there are signs of caution about attracting too much attention to its relationship with Israel. Bennett’s office invited dozens of Israel-based journalists to accompany him on his flight to Abu Dhabi on Sunday (12), but Emirati officials declined to organize a news conference for them or to host them at the crown prince’s palace.

The journalists were later uninvited from the mission entirely, officially because of rising concerns about the new coronavirus variant.

-New York Times



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