WASHINGTON — A senior Emirati diplomat pushed back Monday against Palestinian claims that his country’s normalization with Israel would come at Ramallah’s expense.
“They need to want to help themselves as well, and perhaps instead of using the traditional criticisms and curses, they actually look at what we are trying to do,” said Assistant Minister for Cultural and Public Diplomacy Omar Saif Ghobash in an interview.
Ghobash argued that the “connectivity” that the UAE-Israel normalization agreement fosters “is going to help rather than hinder” the Palestinian cause.
He spoke to The Times of Israel from his hotel outside DC where he was preparing for Tuesday’s signing ceremony, along with other Emirati diplomats — led by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan — and a Bahraini delegation at the White House.
Highlighting Abu Dhabi’s ability to extract a major concession from Israel during its normalization negotiations in the form of a long-term suspension of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans, Ghobash encouraged the Palestinian Authority to reengage with Jerusalem.
“Using what we managed to achieve, we encourage the Palestinians to reach out to the Israelis and the US authorities and to rethink what might be possible,” he said.
He insisted that his country has evolved over the years, leading to new interests, “apart from the traditional Arab-Islamic ones,” that ultimately led to last month’s decision to normalize relations with Israel.
“While we discovered that we have new interests, that doesn’t mean that we give up on our traditional loyalties,” he said.
Ghobash asserted that the “new interests” and “old loyalties” are able to coexist in the UAE’s new policy on Israel, which will allow Abu Dhabi to more effectively advocate for the Palestinian cause “by speak[ing directly] to our Israeli friends and partners about some of the issues that concern [us].”
“We are not going to negotiate on their behalf, but we are saying that there is space [to move forward], and we believe that we have created that space [with this agreement],” he added.
Ghobash spoke excitedly of the brewing agreement, insisting that it would quickly be distinguishable from the deals Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan, which are often characterized as having achieved a “cold peace.”
“One of the key [ideas] we agreed to was that this would be a warm peace, and we expect there to be a lot of people-to-people interaction in a way that other forms of peace in the region haven’t been,” he said of his talks with Israeli counterparts.
Asked to explain why the agreement will be more likely to trickle down to the grassroots level, Ghobash credited the Emirati people’s trust in their leadership.
“When leadership decides that this is the direction that we are going to go in, [the people] see that as a green light, as opposed to a taboo that can’t be broken,” he said.
Ghobash, who has completed stints as ambassador to Russia and France, also pointed out that the Arab world more broadly is in a different place than it was 26 years ago when the last peace agreement was signed (between Israel and Jordan). He said the Emirati population is relatively younger than others in the region and also more globally connected.
“There’s already been a lot of interest and curiosity about kosher food, about the Hebrew language, about the lifestyle and about what Israelis are really like,” he said.
“You know, a lot of Emiratis are watching ‘Fauda’… so an image is building up,” he said, smiling, of the hit Israeli Netflix drama. “A lot of young Emiratis have already told me they want to go to Tel Aviv and other places in Israel, and they’re really interested in interacting with their own age group.”
Ghobash even jumped at the idea of a Birthright-model for bringing young Emiratis to Israel on organized trips. “That would be a fantastic idea. Obviously it wouldn’t be Birthright, but maybe ‘visit-and-discover-right,'” he said, chuckling.
He went on to address Israeli concerns regarding UAE efforts to purchase F-35 fighter jets from the US — advanced technology that Jerusalem warns may put the Jewish state’s “qualitative military edge” in the region at risk.
Ghobash downplayed the significance of the sale, saying it was “minor in comparison with the sea-changing relationship that we are putting forward.”
“The real gain here is not some weapon system, but it is actually a different kind of Middle East where we agree to disagree,” he said.
Following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity.
The Times of Israel: Are there any cultural initiatives that you are looking to advance with Israel as a result of this agreement?
Omar Saif Ghobash: My office has spoken with the public diplomacy department in the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry. We’ve exchanged ideas on a whole bunch of different issues. One of the key ideas we agreed to, was that this would be a warm peace, and we expect there to be a lot of people-to-people interaction in a way that other forms of peace in the region haven’t been.
Why do you think that is?
I think that the leadership has a different relationship with the population than in Egypt and Jordan, which have had peace deals with Israel for decades. We are much more closely involved with the leadership. We look up to them. Our relationship to the leadership is possibly deeper and more historic.
When leadership decides that this is the direction that we are going to go in, we see that as a green light, as opposed to a taboo that can’t be broken.
I also think that we’re making peace 26 years after the last country that made peace with Israel. We have a much younger population that is much more connected and global than than those Arab populations 26 years ago.
So there’s already been a lot of interest and curiosity about kosher food, about the Hebrew language, about the lifestyle and about what Israelis are really like. There is much more readiness to interact with people that we don’t know, so that’s part of what makes the job exciting and much easier than what my counterparts experienced 26 years ago.
So the issue of Israel is not taboo at all in the UAE?
Well I think over the last few months or even over the last few years, there have been these clear signals that there was a lot movement on the issue. For example, you had Israel attending the International Renewable Energy Agency conference in Abu Dhabi in 2015, all of the sporting events here where Israelis were welcomed and even had their national anthem played.
The leadership has signaled very clearly to us for a long time that there should no longer be a taboo.
If you are going to be integrated into the global community and you want to be a global player and you want to host global events, then you have to play by those rules.
That sense of normalization for Israelis coming to the UAE or for those of the Jewish faith already living here — that’s already happened. So, I think that the traditional Arab-Islamic taboo about Israel has, at least from the way I can see it, crumbled.
This is an interesting and a good thing, to be honest, because it allows us to now think outside of all these restraints and restrictions, and I think it is going to be really exciting on the people-to-people level in the coming few months and years.
Are there certain things that Israelis could learn from Emirati culture and experience?
I think we are actually a very multicultural society in the sense that 90 percent of our population is foreign, and yet we manage to hold onto some very traditional perspectives and traditional values. So it will be interesting for Israelis to see how we continue to maintain our identity, in which we hold onto the past but, at the same time, are very much focused on the present and the future.
I’m assuming that Israelis have certain fixed ideas about what Arabs are like. They’ll find that opinions here are very diverse, and will be pleasantly surprised by the way in which we manage these differing opinions and coexist in the Emirates.
How about the other way around? Do you think that Emiratis could learn from Israeli culture and Israeli experience?
You know, a lot of Emiratis are watching “Fauda” and “Unorthodox” on Netflix, so an image is building up. A lot of young Emiratis have already told me they want to go to Tel Aviv and other places in Israel, and they’re really interested in interacting with their own age group.
That is something that we are going to be working on as well — student-to-student exchanges, academic exchanges, in addition to exchanges among younger entrepreneurs. It will be very exciting.
Any other specific initiatives in the works?
It’s a little early to go into specific initiatives, because our focus at the moment is getting the signatures down. We are collecting suggestions both from our Israeli friends and also internally. For example, there are art galleries in Dubai that have had very good sales over the years to Israeli citizens, but those have had to happen indirectly because of the lack of financial ties. But now, there’s going to be some great crossover in the cultural field.
I’m very aware of the interest of certain diplomats to get the deal done as soon as possible. Our function in the Foreign Ministry’s Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy is the long-run function of developing those people-to-people ties. We are going to need to build up stamina for the long run to make sure that we keep that people-to-people energy going. That’s partly what I see myself involved in.
We’re going to continually look for partners within Israel to see what we can do together. Whether it is in music, education, one-off visits, lecture series. There are so many different topics.
For Jews around the world, there is a program called Birthright, which brings them to Israel on a 10-day organized trips to get a taste of the country. Is that an example of an idea that you could see happening?
Absolutely. That would be a fantastic idea. Obviously it wouldn’t be Birthright laughing, but maybe “visit-and-discover-right.”
What do you think this deal will mean for the Jewish community that already exists in the UAE?
I am very friendly with the Jewish community in the Emirates, and it’s always been a point of pride for me to have played, even a very small role, but a role nevertheless in bringing them to the surface, showing them that whatever fears they may have had [about exposure] were unwarranted and to provide a set of guarantees as they emerge from the shadows.
With that “taboo” about Israel now broken, as you say, and with the UAE now getting closer to Israel, do you still see an opportunity to advance the Palestinian cause? Is it seen as a zero-sum game?
Perhaps the traditionalists would see it as a zero-sum game, but we are very clear about our commitment to the Palestinian cause, and we believe that it is a just cause and that there should be justice for the Palestinians. The Gulf states have changed over the past 20 years, developing economies and political ties with many different states. We are a broader and deeper society than we used to be, and there are many other interests that we have apart from the traditional Arab-Islamic ones.
And while we discovered that we have new interests, that doesn’t mean that we give up on our traditional loyalties.
We think that we will be able to serve the Palestinian cause perhaps better from within a normalized relationship with Israel. Not everybody has to believe us, but we think that this will actually allow us to be able to speak to our Israeli friends and partners about some of the issues that concern us.
So that’s basically what you say to the Palestinians who claim that this agreement is a “stab in the back“? That the deal will actually help them in the long run?
“Well, if they think about it in the way that I’m presenting it, then yes, it could help immensely. But they need to want to help themselves as well, and perhaps instead of using the traditional criticisms and curses, they actually look at what we are trying to do. The kind of connectivity that this agreement fosters is going to help rather than hinder the Palestinian cause.
With annexation now off the table, is there a new tangible demand from Israel on the Palestinian issue that other Gulf countries considering following in the path of the UAE and Bahrain can raise in their respective normalization negotiations?
Well, the Palestinians have made it very clear that no one will speak on their behalf other than themselves, and that’s fine. Using what we managed to achieve with the annexation suspension, we encourage the Palestinians to reach out to the Israelis and the US authorities and to rethink what might be possible. We are not going to negotiate on their behalf, but we are saying that there is space to move forward, and we believe that we have created that space with this agreement.
Regarding the US sale of F-35 fighter jets, do you think the Israelis have a right to be concerned that such a purchase by your government would place its military technological advantage in the region at risk?
We recognize that that is part of the relationship the US has with Israel. It’s not like we are going to say this has nothing to do with Israel. On the other hand, the issue of defense equipment is actually minor in comparison with the sea-changing relationship that we are putting forward.
The real gain here is not some weapons system, but it is actually a different kind of Middle East where we agree to disagree. If we can do that with the Israelis and we can do that with other Arab states, then we will be able to better define our interests and defend our interests. And that is essentially where we are: a sovereign state reaching out to another sovereign state and saying we want to make peace.
Anat Peled contributed to this report.