Tunisia team, but not Iran or Iraq, refuses Israeli swag

Netanyahu hails Israeli robotics team for groundbreaking trip to Dubai

PM says teen delegation visiting UAE to compete in ‘Robotics Olympics’ points to increasingly ‘above water’ relations with Gulf states

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center right) and Science Minister Ofir Akunis greet the Israeli teen delegation upon their return from the unofficial 'Robotics Olympics' in Dubai. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center right) and Science Minister Ofir Akunis greet the Israeli teen delegation upon their return from the unofficial 'Robotics Olympics' in Dubai. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday greeted Israel’s triumphant teen delegation’s return from the unofficial “Robotics Olympics” in a groundbreaking visit to Dubai.

The team’s second place finish at the FIRST Global Challenge and the warm welcome it received from its Emirati hosts highlighted the growing, and increasingly open, relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab state.

The countries have long had back-channel security and cyber ties, mostly based on a shared enmity for regional foe Iran. Israeli businessmen and tourists have also made clandestine visits to the oil-rich federation of sheikhdoms.

But issuing formal travel visas to the Israeli robotics team and openly welcoming them added a layer of formality to the warming ties.

Netanyahu told the team at his office Wednesday that their visit pointed to the increasingly “above water” relations between Israel and the Gulf states.

In this Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 photo, a team from Cameroon, on the right, compete with Luxembourg during the First Global Challenge, a robotics and artificial intelligence competition in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

“You went there with robotics and technology but the reason why the State of Israel has forged ties with many countries in the first place is because we have technologies and capabilities against a common enemy in both the security and civilian spheres,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office.

The team — made up of students from the Megiddo Regional High School in northern Israel — showed Netanyahu and Science Minister Ofir Akunis their second-place winning robot.

Last week, Dubai hosted the largest-ever international robotics contest, challenging young people from 190 countries to find solutions to global ocean pollution.

The unofficial “Robotics Olympics” seeks to encourage young people to pursue subjects known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teams of four to five students, aged 14-18, each received a kit of rods, wheels, wires and other raw materials with which to assemble their roving robots. Their task: Collect orange balls of various sizes from a playing field, which represented human-created pollutants in the ocean. Some devised robots for scooping, while others snatched up and fired the balls through the air into the receptacles.

The teams then formed “alliances,” each with up of four nations, to battle their way to the final round. Overall, 1,500 students took part.

A team captained by Belarus, and including Syrian refugees, eventually won the gold medal, edging out the Israeli team in a dramatic final match. But organizers stressed a message of unity, not conflict.

“The kids get it. To them this isn’t a competition; this is a ‘coop-etition.’ This is a celebration of technology,” said FIRST Global Challenge founder Dean Kamen.

“The whole time we were wearing these two caps, also as a robotics team and also as ambassadors,” said Osnat Duman, the Israeli delegation manager. “We got real VIP treatment and everyone welcomed us nicely.”

The team exchanged souvenirs with the other delegations, handing out Israeli snacks and rubber bands and distributing an Arabic and Hebrew phrasebook with relevant terms for the tournament. The teams’ pits were arranged alphabetically, so the Israelis found themselves adjacent to participants from Iran and Iraq. Duman said only the Tunisian team refused to accept the Israeli handouts. The main reminder of their unusual participation was the presence of a tough-looking additional technical “mentor” for the team, who was in fact a Shin Bet security guard dispatched to keep an eye on them.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about us arriving and there were some security concerns,” Duman said. “But at the end of the day we were just dealing with people, not countries.”

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