Dermer makes secret trip to UAE to nail down Netanyahu visit

Strategic affairs minister reportedly tries to allay concerns over far-right’s role in new government, particularly after diplomatic storm sparked by Ben Gvir’s Temple Mount visit

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer secretly visited the United Arab Emirates on Sunday to discuss a possible visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an official familiar with the matter confirmed to The Times of Israel.

Dermer, who was instrumental in negotiating the Abraham Accords deal that saw Israel normalize ties with Abu Dhabi when he was ambassador to the United States, was the first Israeli minister to visit the UAE since the establishment of the new government.

Dermer’s visit was also aimed at reassuring Abu Dhabi regarding some of the far-right members of the new government, in particular after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir made a controversial visit to the flashpoint Temple Mount site earlier in January, according to the Walla news site, which first reported Dermer’s visit.

National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi also accompanied Dermer on the trip, Walla said.

Netanyahu was set to make his first official visit to the Gulf state several times before leaving power in 2021, but ultimately did not make the trip. He was also set to visit in January, but it was canceled in the wake of Abu Dhabi’s harsh criticism of Ben Gvir’s visit.

The move, also condemned by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, drew calls for calm and for protecting the sensitive status quo from the United States, France, and the European Union, and was met with threats by the Gaza-based Hamas terrorist group.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

Associates of Netanyahu told the Ynet news site at the time that there was no connection between the incidents, and that the visit had been postponed due to logistical considerations.

The Temple Mount is revered by Jews as the historic location of the two Jewish Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. It is also the third-holiest site for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

The unwritten policy governing the compound allows Muslims to pray and enter with few restrictions, while Jews can visit only during limited time slots via a single gate and walk on a predetermined route, closely accompanied by police, and cannot openly pray.

The official familiar with the matter said Sunday that Netanyahu still intends for the UAE to be the destination of his first trip abroad, despite the delay.

Although some signs pointed to weakness in the Abraham Accords — such as the lack of Emirati and Bahraini tourists in Israel over the past two years — the official ties between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi appear strong, even weathering concerns that relations could be impacted by the election of Netanyahu’s hardline government.

UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan called Netanyahu to congratulate him after the swearing-in of the government. Separately, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan called to congratulate his newly inaugurated Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen.

Religious Zionism chief MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) meets with UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 7, 2022. (Courtesy)

Last month, UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja met with the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich and was photographed warmly greeting Ben Gvir.

Smotrich has long advocated for massively expanding settlements and for annexing large parts of the West Bank without granting equal rights to Palestinians in those areas.

The UAE jumpstarted the Abraham Accords in return for a promise by Netanyahu’s then-government not to move ahead with the planned annexation of swaths of the West Bank.

Tobias Siegal and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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