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UAE Envoy: We’re not a democracy, but public support allowed for normalization

Ambassador to US Yousef al-Otaiba says ‘genuine energy’ in Emirati street in favor of agreement with Israel; states threat of annexation is what sparked talks for alternative path

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba at an event with then-US House speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018. (AP/Jon Gambrell)
Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba at an event with then-US House speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018. (AP/Jon Gambrell)

The UAE ambassador to the US said Tuesday that while his country is not a democracy, its rulers have taken public opinion into account, which allowed Abu Dhabi to proceed in normalizing relations with Israel.

“People always think we do not pay attention to public opinion inside the Emirates because we’re not a democracy and it’s actually quite the opposite,” Yousef al-Otaiba said during a webinar organized by the Jewish Insider news site.

“Because we’re not a democracy we have to be very in tune with what our people want and what the street feels and people really wanted this,” the envoy said of his country, which is a federation of seven constituent monarchies.

“This is not something that we’re forcing against the popular will of the Emiratis that live in the country. There is a genuine energy that people are excited about.”

Otaiba’s comments on goodwill toward Israel on the Emirati streets seemed in line with reporting by Israeli journalists in the UAE over the past month, who have uniformly testified to being received with enthusiasm by the citizenry.

Later on in the webinar, the UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibah said the country’s Foreign Ministry had begun offering Hebrew language training for Emirati diplomats.

Additionally, al-Otaiba talked through the process that led the UAE to sign the normalization agreement with Israel at the White House earlier this month.

(Clockwise from top left) Former diplomat Dina Powell, Haim Saban and UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba speak on a Jewish Insider webinar on September 29, 2020. (Screen capture/Zoom)

He said the talks with the Trump administration began against the backdrop of deep concern in the UAE over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.

Eventually, the idea was proposed for al-Otaiba to reach out directly to Israelis in the form of an op-ed in a major daily in which he’d map out how such a controversial move would risk a rare opportunity to develop relations with other countries in the Arab world.

The ambassador said he consulted with Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban who recommended that the June op-ed be published in Hebrew in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Al-Otaiba said that the op-ed jump-started marathon negotiations, which climaxed in an announcement of the normalization agreement last month.

He described the agreement as something of a quid-pro-quo. “We’ll trade you something way better than annexation… The beauty of the Abraham Accords is its simplicity: No annexation for normalization.”

The ambassador said that in the four weeks leading up to the declaration, he spoke more to Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and US special envoy Avi Berkowitz than he did with members of his own family.

“It takes an incredible amount of trust,” al-Otaiba said, crediting the Trump administration for bringing about the agreement.

Netanyahu had for months promised to annex as much as 30 percent of the West Bank as early as July 1, but that plan was officially suspended as part of the normalization agreement with the UAE. The sides have not formally provided an exact time-frame for how long the matter has been “taken off the table,” as US President Donald Trump put it last month.

He admitted that while the normalization agreement does not in and of itself lead to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, it did “preserve the two-state solution.”

“We’ve bought time. We put time on the clock,” he said, adding that direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians would likely require “handholding by the US.”

Earlier this month, The Times of Israel reported that the Trump administration gave the UAE a commitment during normalization negotiations that Washington would not recognize Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank until 2024 at the earliest.

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