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Nearly year after ties normalized, top Israeli diplomat finally visits UAE

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to meet with Emirati counterpart, open new embassy in Abu Dhabi, clinching visit that Netanyahu reportedly coveted for himself

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset, on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset, on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid landed in the United Arab Emirates late Tuesday morning for the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the Gulf state.

The trip comes nearly a year after the countries announced they would normalize ties, and after months of planned visits by Israeli officials were stymied by an embarrassment of issues, ranging from health crises to diplomatic scuffles.

During the two-day trip, Lapid will attend the inauguration of Israel’s Abu Dhabi embassy and Dubai consulate.

Israel’s top diplomat will be hosted by Emirati Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.

Lapid spoke with bin Zayed earlier this month. After the call, Lapid said he looked forward “to working with him to build on the warm and unique relations between our two countries for the benefit of our peoples and the entire Middle East.”

Israel and the Emirates announced in August that they would normalize diplomatic relations, bringing over a decade of covert ties into the open. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco later also joined the US-brokered Abraham Accords, and other countries were also rumored to be in talks, though none have come to fruition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly made the deal, which included Israel’s agreement not to hold up a US sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, behind the backs of his foreign and defense ministers.

PM Netanyahu addresses the cabinet before it votes on the peace treaty with the UAE, October 12, 2020 (GPO)

Netanyahu reportedly sought to celebrate the deal, the first agreement by an Arab state to have open ties with Israel in decades, but was repeatedly delayed by coronavirus travel restrictions, scheduling issues and internal political battles, as well as a spat with Amman in March that kept his place grounded. According to reports, he sought to keep former foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi from making an official visit there to keep him from stealing the spotlight ahead of March’s elections.

Instead, Netanyahu’s rival Lapid will make the trip, less than a month after he managed to cobble together a unity coalition that pushed Netanyahu into the opposition.

Lapid’s trip comes despite the Health Ministry adding the country to a list of locations Israeli are strongly encouraged to avoid due to coronavirus outbreaks, and warning that travel there could be banned. The country has seen numbers rise to over 2,000 new cases a day recently.

While in Dubai, Lapid will visit Israel’s pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 trade fair. The world fair, a milestone for Dubai, which has splashed out $8.2 billion on the eye-popping venue in the hope of boosting its soft power and resetting the economy, will now open its doors in October 2021.

The original opening scheduled for October 2020 was put off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A screen shot from a Foreign Ministry video showing a preview of the Israeli pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai (courtesy MFA)

Designed to reflect Israel’s sense of belonging to the region as well as the openness the Jewish state seeks to broadcast to its Arab neighbors, “the pavilion is therefore an open space -– a living room to host the expo visitors,” according to the architect behind Israel’s pavilion.

Israel’s presence at the expo had been planned before the normalization deal took shape, and the country has hosted Israeli minister in the past, including then transportation minister Israel Katz and then sports minister Miri Regev.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, middle, shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha’loob Al Derai, President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation, after one Israeli player won the bronze medal during the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

The Jewish community in the Emirates expressed excitement at Lapid’s visit.

“We are honored to welcome Foreign Minister Lapid,” said Chief Rabbi Yehuda Sarna. “The Jewish community in the UAE is thrilled by what this trip represents: a growing bond between the UAE and Israel.”

“We hope that the Foreign Minister’s visit will be a harbinger for further religious, business and cultural exchange and opportunities between our two nations,” added Rabbi Elie Abadie.

United Arab Emirates Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

On Sunday, Lapid met with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani after his discussion with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, marking the first meeting between the new Israeli government and a cabinet minister from the Gulf countries.

“Peace with Bahrain should be an example of the right kind of process that needs to happen in our region,” Lapid tweeted after the meeting. “We also spoke about the challenges facing the Middle East, first and foremost Iran.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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