Israel to sign visa exemption agreement with UAE, its first with an Arab state

Netanyahu, Ashkenazi set to welcome first senior Emirati delegation to Israel, headed by country’s finance and economy ministers; sides will sign several bilateral agreements

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The crew of an Etihad Airlines flight wave Israeli flags after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, October 19, 2020 (Sivan Farag)
The crew of an Etihad Airlines flight wave Israeli flags after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, October 19, 2020 (Sivan Farag)

Israel and the United Arab Emirates are set to sign a visa exemption treaty Tuesday, in what will be the Jewish state’s first such agreement with an Arab country, according to Israeli officials.

The treaty will be signed during high-level meetings and a ceremony in Tel Aviv attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and two senior UAE ministers — part of the first high-level delegation from the Gulf nation to visit Israel.

The Israel-UAE visa exemption agreement will mean that citizens from both countries will be allowed to enter each other’s countries without having to go through the hassle of applying for a visa first. However, it will enter into force only after it is ratified by both countries, a process that will require a vote in the Knesset.

Israel currently has normalization agreements with four Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE — but so far only the latter has agreed to allow Israelis to visit without a visa. Notably, even Israel’s closest ally, the US, has so far refused to sign a visa exemption agreement with the Jewish state.

In addition to the visa waiver, bilateral agreements in the areas of aviation, investment protection, science and technology are all expected to be signed at Tuesday’s ceremony, which will take place at Ben-Gurion Airport.

The visit is set to take place a day after both the UAE and Bahrain on Monday gave parliamentary approval to their respective normalization agreements with Israel.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and other Bahraini and Israeli officials participate in the signing ceremony of a peace agreement between Israel and Bahrain, in Manama on October 18, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

The senior delegation from the UAE, which will be headed by its finance and economy ministers, is expected to arrive in Israel at noon Tuesday for a five-hour visit that will include bilateral talks geared at implementing the normalization agreement signed in Washington last month.

It will be the first time UAE ministers visit the Jewish state publicly since the two countries announced the normalization of ties on August 13.

UAE Economy Minister Abdulla Bin Touq Al Marri and Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid Al Tayer will be welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport by Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who is said to have been instrumental in finalizing the deal.

The brief welcoming ceremony is set to be followed by speeches from Netanyahu, Mnuchin, Al Tayer and US International Development Finance Corporation CEO Adam S. Boehler.

The UAE delegation, which will also include several high-level officials from the country’s Foreign Ministry, will then sit down for a trilateral meeting with the Israelis and a US delegation. Avi Berkowitz, the US administration’s envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, will also attend the meeting.

That will then be followed by a bilateral meeting, also at the airport, with just the Israeli and UAE teams — the first-ever direct bilateral meeting between ministers from the two countries.

Before leaving Israel for a 5 p.m. flight back to Abu Dhabi, the UAE delegation will be treated to an exhibition on Israeli innovation in space technology hosted by Ashkenazi.

Due to coronavirus limitations, no press will be present at any of the planned events, some of which are set to be broadcast by the Government Press Office.

PM Netanyahu visits Haifa port, October 19, 2020 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On Monday, Netanyahu visited a cargo ship that brought electric goods from the UAE to Haifa port, hailing the economic benefits Israel expects to reap from the normalization of ties with the Emirates.

“Everything that arrives here simply lowers the cost of living and every citizen of Israel will feel the impact of it,” he said.

“These are the fruits of peace that you, the citizens of Israel, are now enjoying. Not later, not in the future — now, because this is a warm peace. This is peace for peace, economics for economics.”

Israel is becoming “a main hub, both maritime and in the air,” the prime minister went on.

Earlier in the day, Etihad Airways Flight EY9607 — lauded as the first commercial shuttle from the UAE to Israel — landed at Ben-Gurion. That flight came a day after the two nations agreed to enable 28 weekly direct flights between their territories. The flight arrived without passengers but later ferried an Israeli travel and tourism delegation to Abu Dhabi.

Etihad Airlines plane lands at Ben Gurion Airport, October 19, 2020 (Sivan Farag)

On Thursday, the Knesset approved Israel’s normalization deal with the UAE by an overwhelming majority, all but ensuring that it will be ratified in the near future.

Eighty lawmakers voted in favor of the agreement, including many from the opposition. Only 13 parliamentarians — all from the Arab-majority Joint List — voted against the deal, criticizing it as a scheme to undermine the Palestinian people.

Now approved by the Knesset, the so-called Abraham Accords will return to the desks of ministers, who will vote on them once more.

UAE members of an unofficial agricultural delegation meet with Israelis to discuss advancing economic cooperation between the two countries (Screenshot: WAM)

Tuesday’s delegation is set to come days after an unofficial economic delegation of citizens from the Gulf nation visited Israel. It included officials from Al-Dahra Agriculture, a major exporter of animal feed and other essential food commodities, such as flour and rice.

Even though Al-Dahra is a state-linked enterprise, the Emirati group that arrived in Jerusalem was not an official government-to-government delegation. Rather, Al-Dar’i and his team arrived at the invitation of Netafim, a major Israeli irrigation technology firm.

On Thursday night, the delegation took advantage of their time in Israel to visit the the Temple Mount’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Videos of the delegation’s arrival at the mosque were circulated widely on Palestinian social media. Some Palestinians at the scene called out insults at the Emiratis.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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