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Israeli model May Tager, left, covers herself with an Israeli flag next to Anastasia Bandarenka, a Dubai-based model who covers herself in a UAE flag on the set of a photo shoot in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, September 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Kamran Jebreili / AP, shows Israeli model May Tager, left, covering herself with an Israeli flag next to Anastasia Bandarenka, a Dubai-based model who covers herself in a UAE flag, on the set of a photo shoot in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, September 8, 2020.
Interview

Emiratis are ‘enthusiastic’ about peace with Israel, senior UAE official says

‘There needs to be trust’ for bilateral ties to flourish, Hend al-Otaiba says on controversial F-35 deal with US; vows Abu Dhabi’s support for Palestinians ‘will never diminish’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Main image by Kamran Jebreili / AP, shows Israeli model May Tager, left, covering herself with an Israeli flag next to Anastasia Bandarenka, a Dubai-based model who covers herself in a UAE flag, on the set of a photo shoot in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, September 8, 2020.

The people of the United Arab Emirates are full of “excitement and joy” about the normalization of ties with Israel, a senior UAE official told The Times of Israel on Sunday, two days before the two countries are set to sign a historic agreement in the White House.

In a far-ranging email interview, Hend Al Otaiba, the director of strategic communications at the Emirati Foreign Ministry, described at some length why her country is “enthusiastic” about the peace treaty with the Jewish state, citing the UAE’s commitment to religious pluralism and regional cooperation against mutual threats.

“The Emirati people feel enthusiastic about the establishment of relations with Israel,” she said.

“Levels of excitement are particularly high among younger generations — this historic move is a reflection of our country’s forward-thinking leadership and future-oriented vision for the region, and it is the youth of this region who will reap the greatest share of the economic, cultural, and scientific rewards that this cooperation will usher in over time.”

At the same time, Abu Dhabi’s abiding commitment to the Palestinian cause “will never diminish,” she stressed. “Our voting record and statements in the UN and in regional forums proves this beyond any doubt, as does our provision of humanitarian and development aid to the Palestinian people and UNRWA,” the United Nations aid organization for Palestinian refugees.

That the so-called Abraham Accord between the UAE and Israel was widely welcomed by the international community shows that the world recognizes “our aim to safeguard the two-state solution and advance regional prosperity,” she added. “It is important the Palestinians share in the benefits of commencing bilateral ties with Israel.”

UAE Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hend al-Otaiba (Twitter)

Al Otaiba, who obtained a master’s degree in security studies from the National Defense College in Abu Dhabi, also briefly discussed the controversial issue of the proposed sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to the Emirates, which is said to have been part of the normalization deal brokered by the White House. Her government’s desire to acquire the jets is six years old and unrelated to the agreement with Israel, she argued.

“Given that the UAE intends to be a partner to Israel, and already has a deep strategic partnership with the US, we are hopeful the request will be granted,” she said.

Al Otaiba, who joined the Emirati Foreign Ministry in March 2017 and quickly rose through the ranks, did not want to predict what would happen to the new Israel-UAE partnership if Israel and its allies managed to prevent the Emiratis from getting the jets. “Clearly for any bilateral relationship to flourish there needs to be trust, but I don’t want to speculate about how different scenarios may play out.”

Here’s a full transcript of our interview.

The Times of Israel: Many Israelis are very excited about Tuesday’s signing ceremony in the White House. How do the Emirati people feel about the treaty their country is about to sign?

Hend Al Otaiba: The Emirati people feel enthusiastic about the establishment of relations with Israel. Levels of excitement are particularly high among younger generations — this historic move is a reflection of our country’s forward-thinking leadership and future-oriented vision for the region, and it is the youth of this region who will reap the greatest share of the economic, cultural, and scientific rewards that this cooperation will usher in over time.

With US participation and support, two of the world’s most dynamic and advanced societies will create a linked and powerful engine of progress and opportunity, not just for the UAE and Israel, but also for the entire region.

UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of the Israel-UAE normalization talks, with the US, in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020 (El Al spokesperson’s office)

Less than two months ago, most people in Israel would not have imagined in their wildest dreams that Israel and the UAE would be establishing full diplomatic relations — with embassies and talk about close partnerships — as soon as September 2020. Were the Emirati people mentally prepared for what happened over the last few weeks, or did it come as a total surprise to them as well?

While the timing may have been a surprise, normalization is a reflection of Emirati values and policies in many areas, including religious tolerance, international cooperation, and economic openness. In that sense it was a logical product of our national outlook and identity.

Given the warm welcome with which the Israeli delegation was greeted in Abu Dhabi last week, Israelis feel that the UAE people want this to be a warm peace. Are they right?

Absolutely. The outpouring of excitement and joy that we saw after the announcement was a genuine display of enthusiasm for the new opportunities that now exist between the peoples of the UAE and Israel. The normalization of relations is not just the cessation of a former policy — it is also the start of a new era of friendship.

The UAE-Israel normalization was made possible by Israel’s commitment to “suspend” its plan to annex parts of the West Bank. Subsequently there has been some confusion over how the UAE would react if annexation came up again. How would Abu Dhabi react if Israel were to revive the plan to annex the Jordan Valley or some settlements after September 15 — would it sever relations again?

The UAE has received assurances from Israel and the United States that the accord takes annexation off the table. We believe we have preserved hopes for a two-state solution and prevented something that would have done substantial damage to prospects for peace.

An Emirati official stands near an El Al plane that carried a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalization accord, upon its arrival at the Abu Dhabi airport, in the first-ever direct flight from Israel to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

A sticking point in the budding Israel-UAE friendship remains the ostensible sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Emirates. Jerusalem says it objects to the sale, citing the need to preserve its qualitative military edge (QME). Does the UAE understand Israel’s insistence on the QME? Do you agree with the assessment by some in the Israeli defense establishment that the UAE having F-35s would mean the end of Israel’s military superiority?

In terms of the F35s specifically, this request is not something that emerged from the current accord. Our request for the F-35 has been in process for six years now. Given that the UAE intends to be a partner to Israel, and already has a deep strategic partnership with the US, we are hopeful the request will be granted.

A woman looks at a caricature by Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj depicting the leader of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, holding a dove with Israel’s flag on it, spitting in his face, with Arabic writing referring to Israel’s opposition to the sale of US F-35 aircraft to the UAE, on August 27, 2020. (AFP)

Would the Israel-UAE partnership crumble if Israel and its supporters succeeded in blocking the sale and your country ended up empty-handed?

Clearly for any bilateral relationship to flourish there needs to be trust, but I don’t want to speculate about how different scenarios may play out.

The UAE says it remains committed to the Palestinian cause and to the Arab Peace Initiative, which I find confusing, because the API stipulates that the Arab world will only establish diplomatic relations with Israel after a peace agreement with the Palestinians has been signed. Can you explain this apparent contradiction?

The UAE supports all good-faith efforts to find a comprehensive, just, and lasting resolution to the Palestinian cause. The Arab Peace Initiative was predicated on a two-state solution. With annexation, that two-state solution would have disappeared, most likely forever.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, in Amman, Jordan, July 9, 2009.(AP Photo/Nader Daoud)

Last week something quite amazing happened: the Arab League rejected the Palestinians’ attempt to condemn the UAE-Israel agreement. What’s your message to the Palestinian leadership, which feels abandoned by its Arab brethren?

The UAE has a longstanding commitment to supporting the Palestinian people which will never diminish. Our voting record and statements in the UN and in regional forums proves this beyond any doubt, as does our provision of humanitarian and development aid to the Palestinian people and UNRWA.

‘The Arab people are tired of conflict and are eager for a stable, functioning, and prosperous region. It is time for new approaches and new thinking to set a better path for the region’

The accord has been met with broad international support, reflecting recognition of our aim to safeguard the two-state solution and advance regional prosperity. It is important the Palestinians share in the benefits of commencing bilateral ties with Israel.

We want to see the Palestinians and Israelis work towards a just and lasting resolution to the Palestinian cause with the support of the international community. That can only happen through good-faith engagement by all parties.

Let’s talk about Tuesday’s ceremony in the White House. What exactly will the leaders be signing? Is it a formal treaty that will establish diplomatic relations, or merely some sort of symbolic statement about the intention to normalize relations in the near future?

The signing ceremony will formalize the normalization effort that was announced on August 13, paving the way for additional cooperation between our two countries. Five senior UAE ministers will attend, indicating the seriousness with which we view this accord. Agreements have already been reached in a number of areas including banking and technology, and others are forthcoming.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, June 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan will represent the UAE at the event, despite being ranked lower, diplomatically speaking, than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why isn’t the country’s de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, planning to attend the event?

His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan is leading the delegation to represent the President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was unable to travel and requested that the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation go in his place for this historic visit.

Bahrain on Friday followed your lead. Which countries do you think will be next in line to formalize ties with Israel?

We cannot speculate on what the reaction of other Gulf states may be, but as we have noted before we hope our accord with Israel has a positive effect on the climate for peace and cooperation regionally.

The UAE used the suspension of Israel’s looming annexation as a trigger to establish ties with Israel. What “excuse” will other countries have to follow your example?

The Arab people are tired of conflict and are eager for a stable, functioning, and prosperous region. It is time for new approaches and new thinking to set a better path for the region. We must work together to expand the “Community of Peaceful Co-existence” through broader regional dialogue, de-escalation, and engagement.

The region currently experiences serious economic, political and environmental challenges, all of which require a great degree of cooperation and coordination. Sixty-five percent of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 30; the number of young people is growing, so the number of jobs needs to keep pace. We cannot hope to solve these challenges and prosper if we are divided and lagging behind in terms of productivity and technology.

‘The government does formally work with and recognize the Jewish community in the UAE. They are part of our vibrant interfaith community’

Once the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, many Israel will want to travel to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Do you have any indications of how many Emiratis are eager to visit Israel? Which sites do you think will interest them the most?

Discussions are underway to develop air links between the UAE and Israel. We are confident that many Emiratis will be interested in visiting Israel, and Israeli citizens will be able to obtain visas to enter the UAE. We hope to see many next year for Expo 2020 Dubai, where Israel already confirmed its participation in 2019.

Emiratis will travel to Israel for business as we expect many opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. But we will also visit as tourists to see historic religious sites and museums, natural attractions and urban centers. We are eager to learn about and explore the country.

Downtown Dubai through the clouds at sunset (iStock)

Abu Dhabi last week instructed all its hotels to offer kosher food options. That’s quite amazing — as far as I know, no other city in the world has a similar policy, not even Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. What’s behind this policy?

The UAE Government is committed to ensuring that members of the Jewish community — whether they keep kosher or not — have the option to do so. This comes as part of efforts to promote an environment of interfaith cooperation and respect for all traditions.

How many Jewish visitors do you expect to come to the UAE after the peace treaty is signed?

We are sure that many Jewish visitors will come to the UAE. It is worth noting that a vibrant Jewish community already resides in the UAE and practices freely, with the first chief rabbi appointed in 2019.

Moreover, the Abrahamic Family House, which will host a synagogue, church, and mosque on its premises, is slated to be completed in 2022 and will offer a space for prayer and reflection for the country’s Jewish community.

The Jewish community in the UAE is very small in numbers, but still managed to split into different rival groups. There are two people who consider themselves the president of the local Jewish community. Does the UAE government take a position on this? Do you have plans to formally recognize the Jewish community?

The government does formally work with and recognize the Jewish community in the UAE. They are part of our vibrant interfaith community which includes members of Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions.

This past May, our embassy in Washington hosted a virtual iftar dinner which celebrated religious diversity, pluralism, and tolerance with UAE leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Sikh faiths. The Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Noura Al Kaabi, emphasized the UAE belief in inclusion and praised the inauguration of the UAE’s first synagogue.

Alex Peterfreund, a co-founder of Dubai’s Jewish community and its cantor, with a Torah scroll in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, August 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

The Emirati government has been very friendly and forthcoming to Jews in the country, which is of course very rare for an Arab state. Why makes the UAE different from other countries in the Middle East, and what’s your message to Muslim nations who still demonize Jews and the Jewish state?

In the UAE, tolerance is part of the national identity and a key pillar of government policy. Our success is built on openness, inclusiveness and diversity, and our record on tolerance speaks for itself: the UAE is proud to lead region-wide indices on tolerance towards foreigners.

With more than 200 nationalities living together, the UAE is one of the most diverse countries in the world. As for those in positions of power who continue to promote intolerance and hateful ideologies — we expected them to disapprove of this accord, but we urge them to listen to what the younger generations in our region are demanding, and recognize that they have a responsibility to support these aspirations.

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