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Fearing rift, Foreign Ministry said to veto declaration of UAE as virus hotspot

Health Ministry says Emirati infection levels do not justify quarantining returnees, and Foreign Ministry denies report that diplomats intervened to protect burgeoning ties

An airplane of budget airline Flydubai lands at Israel's Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on November 26, 2020, on the first scheduled commercial service between the two cities, following the normalization of ties between the UAE and Israel. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
An airplane of budget airline Flydubai lands at Israel's Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on November 26, 2020, on the first scheduled commercial service between the two cities, following the normalization of ties between the UAE and Israel. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Foreign Ministry reportedly intervened to prevent the designation of the United Arab Emirates as a high coronavirus infection area, which would have forced those arriving from the Gulf kingdom to quarantine for two weeks.

The ministry decision came amid fears that such a designation would cause a diplomatic rift with Abu Dhabi just as bilateral trade and tourism ties begin to take off, the Walla news site reported.

Israel requires those coming from so-called red countries, places designated by the Health Ministry as having a high rate of infection, to self-isolate, and is reportedly mulling drastically expanding the list as the coronavirus wreaks havoc across swaths of Europe, Asia and the US.

Israel and the UAE agreed to establish diplomatic ties earlier this year and last week the Emirates began accepting Israeli tourist visas, adding to a robust and growing business relationship.

The Foreign Ministry denied the report, saying the final decision on the designation rests with the Health Ministry.

In a statement, the Health Ministry said it had run a regular check of the country, as it does every two weeks, and found it to be “green,” meaning infection levels are not at a point where quarantine would be required. It said it would carry out another check in two weeks, including among those returning from there.

According to Walla, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein discussed the issue on Wednesday and agreed the designation would only be granted with the Foreign Ministry’s approval, given the sensitive diplomatic situation.

Israelis prepare to fly to Dubai at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Dec. 3, 2020 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Unnamed sources at the Health Ministry reportedly said the concerns were less about the rates of infection in the UAE, and more about the large gatherings of Israelis taking place there.

Recent reports have indicated that ultra-Orthodox Jews have begun traveling there for weddings and other events, to get around strict rules against gatherings in Israel and New York.

Health officials were said to be concerned the virus could be “imported” by returning tourists and cause a similar spike in cases in Israel as travelers from countries such as Turkey were believed to have caused.

Unnamed Emirati officials protested the intention to declare the Gulf nation a “red” state requiring quarantine upon return, and said that the morbidity data did not justify such a decision. Furthermore, the officials from the UAE reportedly told their Israeli counterparts that such a decision could harm conferences that were scheduled to take place in the near future.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the UAE has diagnosed over 178,000 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic. There have been 596 reported fatalities and the nation found 1,260 new cases in the past day.

In this June 10, 2020, photo, a passenger wearing a mask due to the coronavirus pandemic passes through a temperature screening at Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Israel has diagnosed over 340,000 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic. There have been 2,932 reported fatalities and 1,719 new cases were diagnosed on Tuesday.

With their economies hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE and Israel are hoping for rapid dividends from the US-brokered normalization deal signed in September.

Direct flights between Israel and Dubai kicked off late last month with trips by UAE’s state-owned FlyDubai, followed by Israeli airlines.

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