Analysis'Diplomacy is all about people'

Playing Joshua to Bibi’s Moses, Lapid looks to take UAE ties into promised land

In first major trip in new role, foreign minister charms hosts and opens ‘bottleneck’ to new agreements, apparently held up by Netanyahu’s desire to secure limelight for himself

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid shakes hands with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/Government Press Office via AP)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid shakes hands with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/Government Press Office via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — On Saturday, June 19, as the new Yair Lapid/Naftali Bennett government finished its first week in office, Jews in synagogues around the world read the Torah portion that describes Moses striking a rock in the desert to extract water, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded.

As a punishment, Moses — the leader who ushered the Israelites into freedom and kept them together through forty long years in the desert — was not allowed to enter Canaan. Instead, it would be a new leader with a new style, Joshua, who would pick up where Moses left off and bring the people into the Promised Land.

During his two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates — the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the Gulf state — Lapid sought to do what Netanyahu could not.

The new foreign minister aimed to build on Netanyahu’s years of behind-the-scenes work that made the Abraham Accords possible, and open the relationship so that citizens of both countries can enjoy real, tangible and meaningful benefits from the burgeoning partnership.

Netanyahu deserves much credit for the Abraham Accords, the series of agreements Israel signed with four Arab states in 2020 that the Trump administration helped engineer.

Lapid is well aware of the debt he owes his predecessor. He went out of his way to thank Netanyahu at the inauguration ceremony of Israel’s embassy in Abu Dhabi Tuesday, calling his political rival “the architect of the Abraham Accords.”

Netanyahu, for his part, didn’t seem any more magnanimous in his new role as leader of the opposition, tweeting on Tuesday “good luck to Israel’s new embassy in Abu Dhabi” without mentioning Lapid or the new government.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is greeted on the tarmac by UAE Minister of State Ahmed Al Sayegh at the beginning of Lapid’s two-day visit, June 29, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem, GPO)

By all indications, Lapid succeeded in his first major test as Israel’s top diplomat, leaving a lasting impression on his hosts and opening the next chapter in Israel-UAE ties.

Opening the bottleneck

Netanyahu’s diplomatic experience, credibility in standing up to Iran, and influence in the halls of power in Washington, DC were recognized and respected across the region, and helped Israel seal the agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

But other Netanyahu’s traits as Israel’s leader — including his pattern of seeking political advantage everywhere and of undermining political rivals — kept the deal with the UAE from developing further.

He kept crucial information from senior ministers, including his agreeing not to hold up a US sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.

Netanyahu repeatedly sought to fly to the UAE to celebrate the deal himself, and refused to allow then-foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi to make the trip, sources on Lapid’s delegation told the Times of Israel, to keep him from stealing the spotlight.

US President Donald Trump (R) with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (L), Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani (2-L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) pose for pictures in the colonnade at the White House before the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

But the UAE wasn’t eager to be used in Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, and pushed for the trip to be postponed. It was finally put off for good after a spat with Jordan in March that kept his plane grounded.

With the Emiratis preferring to wait on Israel’s elections results, and Netanyahu barring other ministers from making the trip, follow-on agreements with the UAE couldn’t take place.

Lapid’s visit “opened the bottleneck,” for more agreements, an Israeli diplomatic source who made the trip told The Times of Israel. This was the sit-down between foreign ministers that the Emiratis were waiting for, and in the near future tourism, agriculture, environmental, and other ministers can make the journey and advance further accords.

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)

The Tuesday-Wednesday visit was meaningful in and of itself, but Lapid’s charm and skill as a conversationalist had their own effect, especially in a region that values personal connections. His Wednesday visit with UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimi went far over time as the two fell into conversation over religion and philosophy.

The night before, as members of Lapid’s entourage dined with their hosts at the Zuma restaurant in Abu Dhabi, he and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan sat separately at their own table, speaking together for almost two hours.

“Anyone could see by the way that they were sitting, talking to each other, the time they were sitting together, it was more than just a professional discussion,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Hayat.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) meets the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation and Dubai Expo 2020 Director General Reem Al Hashimi, June 30, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

“Diplomacy is all about people,” he explained. “When you get to the point where you establish a friendly personal relationship, it helps along the way with any other barriers that could appear.”

“I think that was established without a doubt.”

“He is a nice person and it’s pleasant to talk to him,” said Lapid light-heartedly after his working meeting with bin Zayed also ran long Tuesday evening.

Strategic dialogue

Lapid’s visit was more than deep conversation late into the night. There were several significant achievements during the trip that moved bilateral ties forward.

The opening of Israel’s embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai were meaningful events, even if they came after months of open cooperation between the sides.

“This is not just any other (diplomatic) mission,” said Hayat. “It is a mission that is a headquarters that the political level is looking at.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and his Emirati counterpart Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan sign an economic and trade agreement at the UAE Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi, on June 29, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The two foreign ministers also released a joint statement on Wednesday. Though it was in line with the sentiments both sides expressed during the visit, the text hinted at a significant expansion of the relationship.  “Bilateral ties will be deepened, broadened, and strengthened even further in the near future for the benefit of both countries and the region as a whole,” the statement read.

The text also indicated that the two sides would be working closely on diplomatic and security issues. “The ministers discussed the importance of deepening strategic dialogue and cooperation between the two countries to address regional challenges and seize opportunities,” it said. “They agreed that close strategic dialogue would provide an effective mechanism to promote the positive force of peace in the region.”

Though the statement did not spell out what “regional challenges” it was referencing, one can safely assume that the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and proxy network sits at the top of the list of threats both sides face.

In addition, Lapid and bin Zayed signed a bilateral Agreement on Economic and Trade Cooperation, the 12th agreement between the countries in the last 9 months. The accord opens the door for a slew of further deals that won’t be long in coming, diplomatic sources told The Times of Israel.

Emirati Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar Sultan Al Olama (L) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) at the opening of Israel’s new consulate in Dubai, June 30, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

UAE ministers expressed the same sentiment this week. During the inauguration ceremony at the Dubai consulate on Wednesday, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence Omar Sultan Al 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 promised.

It is clear to both sides that other Arab countries without formal ties with Israel are paying close attention to the relationship to help them determine their own course of action.

“The better the relationship with the Emiratis is, the more other countries will want to move forward,” said Hayat.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)

The Biden Administration wants to help Israel expand the Abraham Accords, and its cheerleading of Lapid’s visit was evidence of this desire.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Sunday with Lapid in Rome, said in a statement  Tuesday that the establishment of the embassy and Lapid’s visit to the UAE marking the occasion “are significant for Israel, the UAE, and the broader region.”

Still, the next step will be harder than many assume. While Israel is in touch with more than a dozen regional states that currently do not have relations with it, the US doesn’t have strong leverage with countries seen as on the fence. Leaders will make their decisions based on their own internal interests, including the anticipated reaction of the public, and not pressure or incentives by the US or Israel.

A pleasant surprise

Sources on the delegation said that the Emirati’s enthusiasm and desire to accelerate the bilateral relationship surprised even them.

At every opportunity, UAE officials and spokespeople stressed that potential obstacles like the change in Israel’s government and the May conflict in Gaza would have absolutely no effect on the growing ties.

Lapid’s visit was clearly of paramount 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 in a country that monitors and curtails the press.

Morning newspapers in the UAE lead with Yair Lapid’s visit, June 30, 2021 (Foreign Ministry)

The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, intervened on his own initiative to ensure the Israeli delegation had catered kosher meals at the hotel instead of the pre-packaged kosher meals that had been ordered. Jeeps carrying guards from bin Zayed’s office traveled in a convoy behind the truck carrying the Kosher food to make sure it reached its destination and was not tampered with.

“The Emirati leadership took a very brave step to lead the way, to create the circle of peace,” said Hayat. “Besides the fact that we appreciate, we admire that courage, we have to know that other countries are looking at us.”

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