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Hosting Israeli delegation, UAE tells Palestinians it still backs their cause

Emirati FM tries to reassure Palestinians they have not been betrayed, as his country holds working groups with Israeli officials on wide-ranging Jerusalem-Abu Dhabi cooperation

An Emirati official stands near an El Al plane that carried a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalization accord, upon its arrival at the Abu Dhabi airport, in the first-ever direct flight from Israel to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)
An Emirati official stands near an El Al plane that carried a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalization accord, upon its arrival at the Abu Dhabi airport, in the first-ever direct flight from Israel to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

The United Arab Emirates has sought to reassure Palestinians that burgeoning ties with Israel have not come at Ramallah’s expense, and that Abu Dhabi still supports the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Speaking late Monday to a group of Palestinians living in the UAE, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said the day’s landmark visit by an Israeli delegation and the new normalization agreement would not affect Emirati support for the Palestinian cause.

“The UAE’s stance will remain supportive of the Arab stand calling for establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. We will continue to support the Palestinian cause based on our historic stance that stems from a deeply rooted, unshakable belief that will never change as a result of any considerations,” Sheikh Abdullah said in remarks carried by the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency.

“I’d like to assure all the audience here that the UAE sees peace-building as a strategic necessity for the region. However, this strategic necessity will not come at the expense of our support for the Palestinian cause and the rights of our fraternal Palestinian people,” he added, commending the local Palestinians for setting up the Emirati-Palestinian Friendship Club.

Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Moscow, Russia, June 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

His remarks came as Palestinian leadership condemned the first direct Israeli flight to Abu Dhabi, which brought American and Israeli officials to the UAE for talks, as a betrayal.

After the festivities of the first day, the two sides were set to get down to detailed negotiations over the terms of the normalization agreement.

Working groups were meeting to discuss diplomatic, financial, business, tourism, health and science issues.

Emirati and Israeli officials discuss future cooperation agreements in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Among the details to be be explored were the timing of opening respective embassies, aviation agreements, visa protocols and establishing an economic-commercial framework agreement between the countries, including investment agreements and cooperation dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teams were also discussing regional tourism cooperation, including with Jordan and Egypt, cultural exchanges and an interfaith dialogue, and space and science agreements.

Highlighting the festive atmosphere, Dubai’s English language Khaleej Times put out its Tuesday morning edition with a banner headline reading “Salam, Shalom.”

In the first signs of the changing relationship, El Al Flight 971 ferried senior officials from Washington and Jerusalem to the Emirati capital on Monday to flesh out the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE, which was brokered by the US and announced earlier this month.

In another historic milestone, the flight by Israel’s national carrier was given permission to fly over Saudi Arabia.

The captain of the El Al airliner which will carry US and Israeli delegations to the United Arab Emirates waves to spectators as the plane prepares to take off on the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

El Al painted a peace logo in Arabic, English and Hebrew on its plane, which, like many El Al aircraft, also features as its moniker the name of an Israeli city or town — in this case Kiryat Gat, about an hour’s drive southwest of Jerusalem.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called the direct flight between Israel and the UAE “a clear and shameful break with the Arab position” on normalizing relations with Israel.

“It was our hope to see an Emirati plane land in a liberated Jerusalem…It pains us to see an Israeli plane land in the United Arab Emirates, a plane which bears the name ‘Kiryat Gat,’ which was built on the village of al-Fallujah,” Shtayyeh said.

“We live in a difficult Arab time,” Shtayyeh concluded.

Senior Palestinian Liberation Organization official Saeb Erekat also condemned the delegation, which he accused of perpetuating apartheid.

“Peace is not made by denying Palestine’s right to exist and imposing an apartheid regime. Apartheid is what Netanyahu means by ‘peace for peace,’” Erekat said, in reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that the normalization agreement did not exchange “land for peace” as had long been the demanded formula for peace with Arab states.

A spokesperson for the Gaza-based terror group Hamas condemned the delegation as serving “the Zionist interest” in creating divisions in the region.

“This visit is tantamount to stabbing the Palestinian people in the back, a consecration of the occupation, a betrayal of the [Palestinian] people’s resistance, and a conspiracy against their struggle,” the terror group said in a statement.

Israel and the UAE announced on August 13 that they were establishing full diplomatic relations, in a US-brokered deal that required Israel to suspend its plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 9, 2020. (Abbas Momani/Pool Photo via AP)

The UAE is just the third Arab country to agree to establish official relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Israeli and American officials have expressed hope that other Gulf Arab countries will soon follow suit, with relations based on mutual commercial and security interests and shared enmity toward Iran.

The normalization deal deeply angered the Palestinians, who maintain Israel-Arab ties must be conditioned on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Senior Palestinian officials in both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have yet to comment on Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow the Israeli-American delegation to use its airspace. The delegation’s plane even looped around the Saudi capital of Riyadh before crossing the border into the UAE.

The flyover has been widely noted to be the first official Israeli flight to cross Saudi territory, although since 2018, Saudi authorities have permitted Air India to fly to Israel via its airspace.

While the Gulf country is widely believed to have close secret ties with the Jewish state, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud had told reporters in Berlin recently that there could be no normalization with Israel without a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

In an interview with The Times of Israel two weeks ago, Erekat brushed off concerns about Saudi Arabia normalizing with Israel and predicted that other Gulf States would not rush to follow in the UAE’s footsteps.

“The Gulf will never normalize with Israel. Saudi Arabia will never normalize with Israel. Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Arab and Islamic world. Saudi Arabia sees its security as emerging from within the Arab depth, rather than from outside forces,” Erekat told The Times of Israel.

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