ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Foreign Minister Yair Lapid officially inaugurated Israel’s consulate in Dubai on Wednesday, calling it a center of dialogue and cooperation.
“What we are opening today is not only a consulate, but also the center of our cooperation,” he said. “This place symbolizes our ability to think together, to develop together, to change the world together.”
Lapid emphasized that the peace between the UAE and Israel “is not between governments and leaders, but between people and nations.”
“It is not my peace, or that of my friends standing here, but of our children,” he said.
Lapid opened Israel’s embassy in Abu Dhabi the day before, hailing the “historic moment” as a time “we chose peace over war.”
While in Abu Dhabi, Lapid went out of his way to thank former prime minister and political rival Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he called “the architect of the Abraham Accords and who worked tirelessly to bring them about.” He also expressed his gratitude to former US president Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden.
The UAE was represented at the Dubai ceremony by Emirati Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence Omar Sultan Al Olama.
The ties between the countries “will foster a more stable and secure region,” said Olama.
“The UAE and Israel are creating a new paradigm of cooperation in the entire region,” he added, highlighting joint efforts on COVID-19 and technological innovation.
Olama said that the ties between the partners “are slated to grow.”
“Our two countries will usher in a next phase that will be a model for countries everywhere,” he said.
The ceremony was attended by Emirati Ambassador to Israel Mohammad al Khaja, Israel’s envoy to the UAE Eitan Na’eh, and local Chabad Rabbi Levi Duchman.
The opening of the consulate came after Lapid visited Israel’s pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 trade fair.
The world fair, a milestone for Dubai, which has splashed out $8.2 billion on the eye-popping venue in the hope of boosting its soft power and resetting the economy, will open its doors in October. The original opening scheduled for October 2020 was put off due to the pandemic.
Designed to reflect Israel’s sense of belonging to the region as well as the openness the Jewish state seeks to broadcast to its Arab neighbors, “the pavilion is… an open space – a living room to host the expo visitors,” according to the architect behind it. Israel’s presence at the expo had been planned before the normalization deal took shape.
Lapid is in the United Arab Emirates for the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the Gulf state, although the country has unofficially hosted Israeli ministers in the past, including then-transportation minister Israel Katz and sports minister Miri Regev.
Lapid’s visit was clearly of great importance to the Emiratis. The country’s major print newspapers in both English and in Arabic led with a picture of the foreign minister above the fold, an indication of government priorities.
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, intervened to ensure the Israeli delegation had catered kosher meals at the hotel instead of the pre-packaged kosher meals that had been ordered.
And at every engagement, the hosts emphasized their confidence that ties would expand dramatically and that the change of government in Israel and recent conflict in Gaza would have no effect on that trend.
The trip comes nearly a year after Israel and the UAE announced they would normalize ties, and after months during which planned visits by Israeli officials were stymied by a series of issues, ranging from health crises to diplomatic scuffles.
Lapid is being hosted by Emirati Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu tweeted “good luck to Israel’s new embassy in Abu Dhabi” without mentioning Lapid or the new government that saw him replaced as prime minister.
The opening of the embassy in Abu Dhabi was cheered by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Sunday with Lapid in Rome. Blinken said in a statement that the establishment of the diplomatic mission and Lapid’s visit to the UAE marking the occasion “are significant for Israel, the UAE, and the broader region.”
Israel and the Emirates announced in August that they would normalize diplomatic relations, bringing over a decade of covert ties into the open. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco later also joined the US-brokered Abraham Accords, and other countries were also rumored to be in talks, though none have come to fruition.
Netanyahu reportedly made the deal, which included Israel’s agreement not to hold up a US sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, behind the backs of his foreign and defense ministers.
Netanyahu repeatedly sought to fly to the UAE to celebrate the deal, the first agreement by an Arab state to have open ties with Israel in decades, but was repeatedly delayed by coronavirus travel restrictions, scheduling issues and internal political battles, as well as a spat with Jordan in March that kept his plane grounded. According to reports, he sought to prevent former foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi from making an official visit there to keep him from stealing the spotlight ahead of March’s elections.
Instead, Netanyahu’s rival Lapid made the trip, less than a month after he managed to cobble together a unity coalition led by Yamina’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that pushed Netanyahu into the opposition.
Lapid’s trip comes despite the Health Ministry recently adding the UAE to a list of locations Israeli are strongly encouraged to avoid due to coronavirus outbreaks, and warning that travel there could be banned. The country has seen numbers rise to over 2,000 new cases a day recently.
The Jewish community in the Emirates expressed excitement at Lapid’s visit.
“We are honored to welcome Foreign Minister Lapid,” said Chief Rabbi Yehuda Sarna. “The Jewish community in the UAE is thrilled by what this trip represents: a growing bond between the UAE and Israel.”
“We hope that the foreign minister’s visit will be a harbinger for further religious, business and cultural exchange and opportunities between our two nations,” added Rabbi Elie Abadie.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.