Israel-UAE: Putting cynicism aside for peace

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: when I think about my "rah rah" days – and that I am now on the first direct flight to Abu Dhabi, symbolizing so many opportunities for Israel – it’s hard to stay cynical.

The Jerusalem Post's diplomatic correspondent Lahav Harkov pictured on the historic flight, with Jared Kushner in the background. (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
The Jerusalem Post's diplomatic correspondent Lahav Harkov pictured on the historic flight, with Jared Kushner in the background.
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
ABU DHABI - Journalists are a cynical bunch, and when we waited on the tarmac in the sweltering Israeli summer heat for the senior members of the US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi to arrive, a couple of them pointed out that just about every trip we cover for our work is called historic.
But I was still very excited, I admit. So much so, that I did something almost embarrassingly earnest.
Once we were on the plane, I settled into a seat bearing my name. We started taxiing, with pilot Tal Becker announced flight “nisa saba wachad” (971 in Arabic) to Abu Dhabi – and, of course, that this was a historic occasion, the first El Al flight to fly over Saudi Arabia and to land in the United Arab Emirates. When he wished us all “salam, shalom, peace,” it sparked something in me.
I queued up a song on my phone: “Salam” by the Israeli band Sheva, a 1997 hit and perennial favorite of Zionist schools and summer camps around the world, whose title means “peace” in Arabic.
“Peace will come to us and to the whole world,” I bobbed my head as Mosh Ben-Ari sang. “Salam, to us and the whole world.”
Back when I was dancing to that song in circles with other teenage girls at some of those schools and camps, I was the “rah rah Israel” kid who had Israeli bumper stickers calling for peace on her binder and who would badger the others to attend rallies, write letters to the editor and sign petitions of support for Israel during the Second Intifada.
And when I think about that, and then the fact that I am on the first-ever direct flight to Abu Dhabi, with a message of peace emblazoned on the plane – symbolizing so many opportunities for Israel – it’s hard for me to stay cynical. I’m awed and humbled by the magnitude of this event.
Early Monday morning, when I arrived at the airport, it was eerily empty, because of coronavirus. It felt like I was in “Vanilla Sky,” the movie where Tom Cruise runs through a totally empty Times Square in a dream sequence. I breezed right through security and passport control. Even Aroma, my traditional pre-flight stop, was closed.
The delegation gathered in a lounge, where we journalists nibbled croissants and sipped coffee while comparing notes about who was going to be there and what we were interested in seeing – and who had a new book coming out and who had baby photos to show off.
We tried to convince government officials we had never met before – because we’re diplomatic reporters and not science or tech reporters – to share details of who they’re meeting and what cooperation is planned. And all the while, we were sending updates and quotes to our newsrooms, and taking photos and tweeting.
I was sent on a mission by my grandmother to find a distant relative and senior government official who I had never met before but had heard much about over the years. I found him when I asked a fellow reporter if he knew what the official looked like, and then the man standing behind me said “that’s me.” After explaining to him how we’re related, we took a selfie as proof of contact for my Savta.
And then we were on our way, taking a bus to the plane like in the old days. The next hour was not so different from any other diplomatic trip. We journalists dropped our bags off on the plane and then stood outside, battling the elements, while waiting for the officials to arrive. The writers who didn’t need to catch the perfect spot for a photo looked for any way to beat the heat, standing in the shadow of the wing of the plane, until we were shooed away for ruining the photos. Then we waited inside one of the buses we had taken to the tarmac.
White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat arrived with a flurry of flashbulbs, made brief remarks that I sent in real time as instant messages to The Jerusalem Post news desk, and then we were all rushed up the stairs and onto the plane.
We were off to Abu Dhabi, and I finally had some time to really think about what was happening. I put my earbuds in to listen to “Salam.”
Less than an hour into the flight, the pilot announced that we are crossing into Saudi Arabia. As I looked at the map on the screen in front of me, I thought about how this is not only about Israel and the UAE: This opens the door to the possibility for more open ties between Israel and Arab states, whose leaders may now have the courage to make peace with Israel, simply because Israel is a country with which it is worthwhile to have relations.
I thought to myself of the verse from Psalms that religious schools and camps often sing to the tune of the original “Salam” song: “May God give his people strength; may God bless his people with peace.”
That, in a nutshell, is the message of this trip. After 72 years, the Jewish state has grown strong enough and indispensable enough that an Arab country wanted to make peace with Israel, because of Israel. The Israeli officials on this trip are experts in health, innovation, cybersecurity and tourism, who have a lot to contribute to Israel and the UAE.
I’m aware of the position that this isn’t peace, it’s just normalization. And since there was never a war between Israel and the Emirates, it’s an analysis that, in some ways, makes sense.
And yet, I see this as the harbinger of a new, peaceful chapter in our part of the world – and I can’t help but be excited.