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Lapid inaugurates UAE embassy on 1st official visit, thanks Netanyahu and Trump

Foreign minister calls on all countries in region to ‘come talk to us’; Emirati culture minister closes her speech with Hebrew greeting

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) and Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi inaugurate the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
    Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) and Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi inaugurate the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman install a mezuzah during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
    Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman install a mezuzah during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (2L), Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi (2R) and Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman (L) at the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
    Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (2L), Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi (2R) and Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman (L) at the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
  • Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi speaks during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
    Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi speaks during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
    Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Foreign Minister Yair Lapid officially inaugurated Israel’s embassy in the UAE Tuesday afternoon, hailing the “historic moment.”

“We are standing here today because we chose peace over war, cooperation over conflict, the good of our children over the bad memories of the past,” said Lapid.

“Agreements are signed by leaders but peace is made by people.”

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 thanked former US president Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden.

“Israel wants peace with all its neighbors,” Lapid declared.

“We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home. We’re here to stay,” he said. “We call on all countries of the region to recognize that, and come talk to us.”

UAE Culture and Knowledge Development Minister Noura Al Kaabi spoke after Lapid, saying, “It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children toward a new world.”

She noted her country’s collaboration with Israel on AI, smart cities, COVID-19, trade, and tourism.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) and Emirati Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi inaugurate the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

“We underscore our enthusiasm over what we hope will be the first of many high-level visits,” she said.

Al Kaabi closed her speech with toda raba, Hebrew for “thank you very much.”

Lapid is in the United Arab Emirates for the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the Gulf state.

The trip comes nearly a year after the countries 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.

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.

During his two-day trip, Lapid will also attend the inauguration of Israel’s consulate in Dubai.

Israel’s top diplomat is being hosted by Emirati Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.

Lapid spoke with bin Zayed earlier this month. After the call, Lapid said he looked forward “to working with him to build on the warm and unique relations between our two countries for the benefit of our peoples and the entire Middle East.”

PM Netanyahu addresses the cabinet before it votes on the peace treaty with the UAE, October 12, 2020 (GPO)

Later 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.”

“The United States will continue to work with Israel and the UAE as we strengthen all aspects of our partnerships and work to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all the peoples of the Middle East,” the American diplomat said.

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 is making 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.

While in Dubai, Lapid will visit 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, and the country has unofficially hosted Israeli ministers in the past, including then-transportation minister Israel Katz and sports minister Miri Regev.

A screen shot from a Foreign Ministry video showing a preview of the Israeli pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai (courtesy MFA)

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.

On Sunday, Lapid met with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani after his discussion with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, marking the first meeting between the new Israeli government and a cabinet minister from a Gulf country.

“Peace with Bahrain should be an example of the right kind of process that needs to happen in our region,” Lapid tweeted after the meeting. “We also spoke about the challenges facing the Middle East, first and foremost Iran.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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