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After warmly greeting Ben Gvir, UAE ambassador meets with Smotrich

Emirati envoy continues engagement with senior, far-right members of next coalition months after his foreign minister warned Netanyahu against partnering with Smotrich, Ben Gvir

UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja (L) meets with Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich at the latter's Knesset office on December 7, 2022. (Courtesy)
UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja (L) meets with Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich at the latter's Knesset office on December 7, 2022. (Courtesy)

UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja met Wednesday with Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right lawmaker slated to become finance minister, less than a week after he was photographed warmly greeting Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, another far-right lawmaker who was tapped to become national security minister.

Before last month’s Knesset election, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu against including Ben Gvir and Smotrich in his government, a senior official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

The message was passed along during a meeting that took place in September when bin Zayed was visiting Israel. The Emirati foreign minister warned that the inclusion of such extremist lawmakers in Netanyahu’s government risked upending ties with the UAE in addition to the Abraham Accords more broadly, the official said.

But Abu Dhabi has ostensibly opted to change tunes since the right-wing, religious bloc won a majority in the November 1 vote and is slated to finalize a government in the coming days.

In their Wednesday’s meeting at Smotrich’s Knesset office, the Religious Zionism leader and Emirati ambassador “discussed Israel-UAE ties and the promotion of peace and normalization with other countries with other countries in the region,” according to an Israeli readout.

“Israel should deepen its economic ties with the UAE,” Smotrich said in a statement. “The economic cooperation between our two countries offers tremendous potential for both sides and the entire region.”

Last week, Al Khaja hosted an event at the Emirati embassy to celebrate the 51st anniversary of the UAE’s unification. He invited various members of the next likely Israeli government, including Ben Gvir. The latter tweeted out a photo afterward of the two shaking hands. “This is what real peace looks like,” he wrote in the post.

“The event today teaches that it’s possible to make true peace without giving up territory and without surrendering to terror, just making peace between people who like each other, without making concessions,” the Ynet news site quoted Ben Gvir as having said at the reception itself.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on terror charges, though he insists he has moderated in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder.

Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading: “Expel the Arab enemy.”

Until it began to harm him politically, he kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein on a wall of his Hebron home. Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Recently, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

Smotrich is the chairman of Religious Zionism and was seen as one of Israel’s most extremist lawmakers before Ben Gvir entered politics last year.

Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich first made national headlines for organizing a so-called “Beast Parade,” to protest the gay pride march in Jerusalem in 2006. More than a decade later, he called himself a “proud homophobe” before eventually toning down and even apologizing for some of his remarks on the matter.

Smotrich also has a long history of remarks against Arab Israelis and Palestinians, calling it “natural” for his wife not to want to deliver a baby in the same hospital ward as an Arab woman.

Last year, he lamented that Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion didn’t “finish the job” and kick all Arabs out of the country when it was founded.

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