Israeli and Emirati firms sign ‘historic agreement’ to jointly combat COVID-19
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Israeli and Emirati firms sign ‘historic agreement’ to jointly combat COVID-19

Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael ink deal with UAE’s Group 42 in commercial breakthrough between countries that do not share diplomatic ties

Illustrative: Technicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at a Meuhedet Health Services branch in Lod, July 2, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: Technicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at a Meuhedet Health Services branch in Lod, July 2, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Companies from Israel and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday signed an agreement to join forces to research and development technology in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Group 42, an Abu Dhabi-based technology company, signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, according to the Emirati state news agency WAM.

Israel and the UAE do not have official diplomatic ties, but have been gradually warming relations.

Representatives from the companies held a signing ceremony for the agreement via video conference.

“At G42, we embrace international cooperation as a way to develop new and innovative technological solutions for the public good,” Group 42 said in a statement, according to WAM. “Our company is privileged to follow the lead and share resources and expertise with Rafael and IAI for such a significant cause.”

Israel Aerospace Industries confirmed the deal in a statement, saying, “Israel Aerospace Industries signed a historic cooperation agreement with the company Group 42 from Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the UAE.”

“The coronavirus crosses continents, nations and religions, and we see the utmost importance in cooperating for breakthrough solutions,” the company said. “We’re proud to join with the company Group 42 from the UAE and hope it will lead to future cooperation between the two countries.”

The statements did not provide any details about the joint projects, or how the partnership would go forward.

According to the Abu Dhabi company’s website, Group 42, also known as G42, specializes in artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

The firm was linked to the ToTok video and voice calling app, which earlier this year was suspected of spying on users in the UAE.

Worshipers practicing social distancing at a mosque in the emirate of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, July 1, 2020. (Karim Sahib/AFP)

Reports at the time listed Group 42’s CEO as Peng Xiao, who for years ran Pegasus, a subsidiary of DarkMatter, an Emirati security firm under scrutiny for hiring former CIA and NSA staffers, as well as others from Israel. Group 42 at the time denied any connections to DarkMatter.

WAM’s Thursday report on the new partnership included a picture of what appeared to be Peng, but he was not named in the release.

Rafael is one of Israel’s largest defense companies. The firm develops and manufactures systems for the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment, as well as for customers around the world.

Israel Aerospace industries is the nation’s largest aerospace and defense firm. The company makes unmanned aerial systems, radars and communication satellites among other products, and has worked with the Defense Ministry on tackling the coronavirus pandemic. The agreement with Group 42 was signed with IAI’s Elta Divison.

Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi have no formal diplomatic ties, but have been cooperating increasingly openly after years of rumored back-channel discussions between them over their mutual enmity of Iran.

Tensions between Israel and its neighbors have climbed in recent weeks, however, due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to begin annexing sections of the West Bank from July 1.

Netanyahu announced a partnership between Israel and the UAE late last month, claiming in a speech that an announcement from the two governments’ health ministries was imminent.

A Magen David Adom worker arrives to test a patient with symptoms of coronavirus in Jerusalem on June 23, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The UAE then confirmed a joint project between private companies, but notably did not mention the government collaboration announced by Netanyahu.

While not acknowledging Israel diplomatically, Emirati officials have in recent years allowed Israeli officials to visit, and the Israeli national anthem was played after an athlete won gold in an Abu Dhabi judo tournament. Israel also has a small mission representing its interests at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.

In May and June, the UAE’s Etihad Airlines landed its first two direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Israel, carrying shipments of medical supplies to assist the Palestinians in coping with the coronavirus pandemic. The Palestinian Authority rejected the aid, saying it was an excuse for a step toward the normalization of ties between Israel and the Gulf states.

Last month, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash called for increased cooperation with Israel. He said there was no reason not to cooperate with Israel on efforts to bring medical aid to Palestinians suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.

In May, a senior official at one of the country’s leading hospitals said several states in the Arab Gulf were actively engaged in cooperation with Israel’s health system.

An Emirati man and woman ride an escalator at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as the country loosens its coronavirus restrictions, May 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Top representatives from Bahrain and the UAE have been in regular touch with the Sheba Medical Center since before the current health crisis, said Yoel Hareven, who heads the hospital’s international division. In March, a high-ranking member of the Emirati royal family privately visited the hospital in Ramat Gan and has since remained in weekly contact, Hareven said.

The Gulf states recognize how powerful and innovative Israel’s health sector is and are increasingly willing to say so openly, Hareven added, calling it “the beginning of a very fascinating journey — for the entire Israeli public, not only for the medical field or Sheba Medical Center.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who has extensive ties in the Gulf and helped establish the connection between Sheba and the Bahraini government, said many decision-makers in the Gulf envision a partnership that would marry the Arab countries’ economic wherewithal with Israel’s brain trust, he said.

Last month, UAE Minister of State Yousef Al-Otaiba, who is also the country’s ambassador to the US, wrote a first-ever op-ed for an Israeli newspaper by a Gulf diplomat, in which he acknowledged that Israel and much of the Arab world have grown closer in recent years and expressed hope that such cooperation in a wide range of areas would deepen in the future.

But he warned Jerusalem against its plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, saying such a move would destroy any hopes for further rapprochement between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

Al-Otaiba noted that much of the Arab world “would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties. Israel’s decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal of whether it sees it the same way.”

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