There are a lot of images that make up the mosaic of life in Israel, and every year presents its own select group of photos.
In 5782 we saw President Joe Biden landing in Israel; the Iron Dome intercepting rockets over Tel Aviv; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the refugee crisis that erupted in its wake; and former prime minister Naftali Bennett rushing to visit Russia on a Shabbat.
But there is one image that in my view best tells the story of 5782: the one above, of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan – foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of the royal family – laying a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem.
The importance of an Arab royal at the Holocaust memorial
ABZ, as he is known, is the innovative son of Sheikh Zayed, founder of the modern United Arab Emirates. His older brother is Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ), the powerful ruler of Abu Dhabi and the current president of the UAE.
Seeing an Arab royal and dignitary standing in memory of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust before the State of Israel was formed is to understand the change that has overcome our region, as well as the amazing potential that lies ahead.
That photograph above should fill us with the hope that there are better days to come, since it shows a recognition that bin Zayed’s country stands today with the Jewish state in the battle against antisemitism in all its different forms.
“My presence here today reminds us of the lessons that history teaches us, and the great responsibility we have to practice tolerance for the sake of building our communities and societies,” the UAE royal wrote in the Yad Vashem guestbook. “We must take brave steps to build a bridge of real peace for future generations.”
Three days after Sheikh Abdullah’s visit to Yad Vashem, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi questioned the Holocaust in his 60 Minutes interview on CBS. And there we saw the other side of the Muslim world, and what happens when someone decides to embrace lies and destruction.
תודה ישראל pic.twitter.com/KHQcYF4Ky0— عبدالله بن زايد (@ABZayed) September 19, 2022
Here were two leaders who represented such a stark and different image of what it means to not only be a Muslim, but also to respect the State of Israel. On one side stood Sheikh Abdullah, who showered Israel with affection; on the other, there was Raisi, whose denial of the Holocaust continues to lead his people down a path of ignorance, falsehoods, and violence.
The most important diplomatic visit to Israel in the past Jewish year
Beyond the magnitude of the image, Sheikh Abdullah’s entire trip was something that Israelis had never seen before (and strangely, it did not garner as much media attention as it deserved). I would go as far as saying that it was the most important diplomatic visit to Israel in the past Jewish year, more significant than Biden’s visit two months earlier.
First, Sheikh Abdullah spent five days in Israel. Usually, a foreign minister comes for maybe one night and one day, takes part in the scheduled meetings and hops back on a plane. Five days on a foreign visit to one country is almost unheard of.
During his time here, the sheikh met with Yair Lapid, Isaac Herzog, Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, Ayelet Shaked, Avigdor Liberman, Merav Michaeli, and even Moshe Gafni of the haredi United Torah Judaism party. Sheikh Abdullah wanted to get a full taste of Israeli politics and spent the time to do so.
He visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Peres Center for Peace, the Technion, the Tel Aviv Port, and of course Yad Vashem. This was not just a diplomatic visit but a mini tour of the country during which the Emirati royal worked to learn as much as he could about the State of Israel, its people, and its challenges.
And they exist: from Iran (the UAE shares many of Israel’s concerns) to the ongoing political instability and the upcoming election, as well as rising inflation, Israel has its hands full.
Do not take the Israel-UAE alliance for granted
But we also must continue to cherish this amazing and still new alliance that Israel shares with the UAE. It cannot be taken for granted. And though Israelis tend to think that everything can be summed up by how it affects travel – there are six(!) daily flights from Israel to the UAE – there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
Here are two examples:
In November, Israel and Jordan signed the largest energy project between the two countries in nearly three decades. Known as the Green Blue Project, the idea was easy to envision.
Under the agreement, Jordan was to allocate land on which the United Arab Emirates would fund the construction of a solar field that will produce clean energy for Israel. In exchange, Israel was to allocate land along the Mediterranean coastline to construct a desalination plant that will be used to provide 200 million cubic meters of water to Jordan.
A year has passed, Jordan has allocated the land, and the UAE committed the funds. And Israel? Not so fast. Land has not yet been designated for the desalination plant – there is now talk of constructing an artificial island – but even if land is put aside today, it will take years before ground is broken.
Notorious red tape and constant elections do not help. For a project like this to move along, someone needs to take it by the reins. That someone has yet to be found.
And then there was an incident in August when two Emirati tourists were thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and arrested by police after an attempted mafia hit in Tel Aviv. The two happened to be nearby, and because they were Arab, the police detained them.
A video of the arrest, which went viral, was not well-received in the UAE, to say the least, raising accusations that Israel racially profiled the tourists, and arrested them because they were Arabs.
The point of these two stories is to remember that even after visits like the one by ABZ, we cannot take anything for granted. In the two years that have passed since normalization, no other Gulf state has come forward, and while some might have thought that the UAE, standing alone, would as a result slow things down, Sheikh Abdullah’s trip showed that the Emiratis want the opposite: to grow and strengthen this relationship.
ABZ made a historic and important visit to Israel. Now it is on our country to do the hard work that is needed to foster those relations. Assuming everything will be fine on its own is not going to work.
On Sunday, President Isaac Herzog flew to London to represent Israel at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. On Monday night, Prime Minister Yair Lapid flew to New York for a round of diplomatic meetings and to speak at the United Nations.
Both traveled on commercial jets leased for the occasion, flying to their destinations and back on airplanes that belong to private companies.
While they were out of the country, a plane called “Wing of Zion” – built for the exact purpose of flying the nation’s leaders – was pictured sitting in a desolate part of an Air Force base down south (the photo was tweeted by Haaretz columnist Uri Misgav).
Wing of Zion is supposed to be Israel’s version of Air Force One, costing over NIS 700 million to purchase, upgrade and outfit. But it sits unused because our heads of state and government refuse to use it. Why? Because the plane is associated with Netanyahu, who initiated it, and so they want nothing to do with it.
That is ridiculous. As Lapid said in his speech before the General Assembly on Thursday night, Israel is a strong country – both militarily and economically. He is right. But where he is wrong is not using Wing of Zion. It is time for that to change.