Israel’s national anthem was played at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi on Sunday for the first time, after one of its athletes won gold.
A visibly moved Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who was at the contest to support the Israeli team, presented the medals and hung the gold medallion around the neck of judoka Sagi Muki.
The playing of the Israeli national anthem and Regev’s attendance at the tournament were the latest milestones in Israel’s gradual rapprochement with some Arab states.
Muki beat Belgian competitor Matthias Casse to take first place in the under-81 kilogram category at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam.
Following the medal distribution, the tournament presenter announced, in English, “Ladies and gentleman, please rise for the national anthem of Israel” after which the “Hatikva” melody began playing.
Muki, on the victor’s podium, and Regev, standing to one side with tournament officials, could be seen mouthing the words, with the Likud minister bursting into tears.
Regev’s presence in the United Arab Emirates capital marked the first time a minister from Israel attended a sports event in the Gulf, Israeli officials said.
It was also the first time an Israeli delegation participated there under its national flag, after the International Judo Federation warned UAE organizers the competition would be canceled unless all athletes were allowed to participate on an equal footing.
“It was a moment I will never forget,” Muki said after the medal ceremony. “I am very happy that I managed to finish with a gold medal and to have the anthem played in Abu Dhabi.”
“It is a moving moment in my career,” he added.
“It is a dream come true,” Regev said after the ceremony. “For two years we had talks in order to reach this moment and it was hard to stop the tears. I want to thank the authorities in Abu Dhabi and our hosts here who received us in an exemplary manner.”
Israeli officials cheered the victory with messages of pride and congratulations posted to their Twitter accounts.
“Warm congratulations to ambassador Muki, it is moving to see a gold medal in Abu Dhabi. We are all proud of you,” wrote Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely on Twitter.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, referring to the previous day’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in which 11 worshipers were shot dead by a gunman, wrote “the heart still hurts, but is filled with pride.”
“Sagi Muki you are a champion,” enthused Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. “Great excitement to hear our anthem, Hatikva, proudly played for the first time in Abu Dhabi. Sagi, we salute you. You brought great honor to Israel.”
Earlier in the day, before the contest, Regev had posted to her Facebook page, “I hope we win a gold medal and experience the thrilling moment of playing Hatikva in the Abu Dhabi arena.”
“I’m very proud to be here in Abu Dhabi representing Israel along with the judo team and our flag,” she wrote.
Last year, tournament organizers in Abu Dhabi banned the Israel’s flag and national anthem — a policy directed only at Israeli participants. Tal Flicker won a gold at the tournament, but the anthem was not played, so he sang it himself.
Three Israeli judokas won bronze medals on Saturday, the first day of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, with Regev given the honor of awarding the medals for one of the categories.
Gili Cohen, Baruch Shmailov, and Timna Nelson Levy all finished third in their weight classes.
Athletes from 62 countries are participating in the competition, which runs until Tuesday, with Israel represented by six male and five female competitors.
Israeli athletes competing in international tournaments hosted by Arab countries have generally not been allowed to compete under their national flag, display national symbols on their uniforms or have their anthem played, despite protestations by Israel and international officials.
Regev’s trip to the UAE, which began on Thursday, coincided with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to neighboring Oman, the first for an Israeli leader since 1996.
On the same day, an Israeli gymnastics delegation was in Qatar for the beginning of the world championships being held in Doha.
And on Monday, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was to travel to Dubai to represent Israel at an international internet security conference, his office said.
Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan.
Netanyahu has long sought a rapprochement with other Arab states.
Israel’s control of the West Bank, however, remains a major obstacle to official recognition from Arab countries.
Speaking of his Oman visit at a cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu said it was thanks to his “diplomatic efforts” in the Arab world, adding: “There will be more.”