Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrived in the United Arab Emirates for a historic visit this week. It was important from a symbolic perspective and also showcased how Israel and the UAE can embrace each other in these turbulent times.
Bennett was received on Monday in Abu Dhabi by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and the sides described the talks as warm and engaging.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Bennett said that he appreciated the hospitality and added that it was a splendid welcome.
“He noted that he was very moved to be in the UAE, on the first official visit by an Israeli leader. He said that he expected to strengthen the network of relations between the two countries.”
“The message that I wish to deliver to the UAE leaders and Emirati citizens is that mutual partnership and friendship are natural,” Bennett told Emirati state media WAM prior to the meeting with the crown prince. “We are neighbors and cousins. We are the grandchildren of Prophet Abraham.”
Bennett called relations between the countries “a precious treasure for us and the entire region,” and the countries are working better to ensure a better future.
This meeting and Bennett’s trip to the UAE are significant on several levels. First, there is the image they convey, one showcasing Israel-UAE relations and demonstrating they are moving smoothly forward to the extent that an Israeli leader can travel in the Gulf.
This is no small thing because former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who was a major mover in the efforts that resulted in the Abraham Accords, which paved the way for normalized relations between Israel and the UAE – planned and canceled trips to the UAE a number of times.
Some of those cancellations may have been related to the coronavirus pandemic, but others may have had more connection to politics. His varying excuses showed how he thought to use the UAE as part of a run-up to an election.
This is not how foreign relations are meant to take place. You can’t have relations based on a whim. They must be based on respect, honor and pragmatic planning that takes into account protocol and clarity. This is how the Gulf perceived things, and it is how Israel should learn to act. For too long Israel fumbled when it came to basic relations with its neighbors such as Jordan and Egypt. It took for granted diplomacy as a building block.
Bennett’s message has sounded the right notes. He has said that relations should remain strong, and they can build on economic aspects and other themes.
“In my opinion, cooperation in the field of health and food security will constitute a major part of the mutual cooperation,” he said. “The volume of mutual trade between us has expedited within a few months with limitless future opportunities to develop it.... Our cooperation provides unprecedented economic opportunities, not only for us but for more countries, which is another element for enhancing stability and prosperity in this region.”
Bennett also met the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi on Monday. The key meetings he held in the UAE represent the many layers of Israel’s expanding relationship with Abu Dhabi.
We are well-positioned now for both countries to build on the peace and leverage their own abilities. Of course, there will be challenges and hurdles. For instance, there are concerns about a possible deal that would see a pipeline built from southern Israel to the Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of work to do on other projects. Hooking Israel and the UAE together as part of a partnership of countries of moderation in the region can expand stability beyond our neighborhood to other friends, partners and allies further abroad, such as India, the United States, Greece, Cyprus, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. It is also important for showing a strong front against Iran.
Bennett’s landmark trip should be built upon to create lasting bonds with our friends in the Gulf.