Up until the signing of the Abraham Accords signed on August 13, 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not officially recognize Israel, and Israeli passport-holders could not legally enter the country.
Relations became strained in 2010 after the UAE accused the Mossad of assassinating Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. He was the co-founder of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and wanted by the Israeli government for the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and purchasing arms from Iran for use in Gaza.
In late November 2015, the government of the United Arab Emirates granted Israel formal permission to establish a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi. Although this signifies a slight warming in relations between the two countries, the UAE granted permission to Israel largely to facilitate its membership in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Officials from both countries have clarified that the diplomatic office serves the sole purpose of allowing Israeli diplomats to have a permanent office for IRENA and reside there as well. This diplomatic relationship is comparable to the relationship between Iran and the United States, wherein Iran has a UN Mission in New York despite the lack of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations.
During the first week of November 2016, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, paid a secretive visit to the UAE to attend a conference under the auspices of his position as chairman of the UN legal committee. Danon’s visit was conducted under stringent security measures, to avoid public opposition.
Some Israeli businesses conduct business in the UAE, and there is a small population of Israeli ex-patriot professionals working in the UAE. There are also citizens of Israel who hold dual citizenship and work in the UAE as citizens of other countries.
Israeli Officials Visit
In October 2018, Miri Regev, Israel’s culture and sports minister paid the first state visit by an Israeli official to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Muslim world’s third largest house of worship, after mosques in Mecca and Medina. During her trip to the UAE, Regev also witnessed a milestone when Israel’s national anthem was played after Sagi Muki won a gold medal in the international judo tournament held in the capital. Coincidentally, an Israeli gymnastics delegation was in Qatar for the beginning of the world championships being held in Doha (Times of Israel, October 29, 2018). Shortly after Regev’s visit, Israel’s communications minister, Ayoub Kara, visited Dubai for a telecommunications conference (AAJ News, October 31, 2018).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in 2018 during a secret visit where he was accompanied by the director of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen.
The White House hosted a secret trilateral meeting on December 17, 2019, between Israel and the UAE on coordination against Iran as part of the Trump administration’s effort to encourage normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and UAE ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba also discussed a nonaggression pact as an interim step toward full diplomatic relations.
A few days later, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed tweeted an article headlined: “Islam’s reformation, an Arab-Israeli alliance is taking shape in the Middle East.” Netanyahu told his cabinet the following day: “The UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, spoke about a new alliance in the Middle East: An Israeli-Arab alliance. … I can only say that this remark is the result of the ripening of many contacts and efforts, which at the moment, and I emphasize at the moment, would be best served by silence.”
According to Axios, the seeds of the relationship were planted during a U.S.-led anti-Iran conference in February 2019 in Warsaw. Afterward, a trilateral forum — the U.S, Israel and the UAE – was created to strengthen cooperation against Iran. At least three meetings took place in 2019.
Israel announced it will take part in the 2020 World Expo in Dubai. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it welcomed “the opportunity to share our spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship and to present Israeli innovations and trailblazing technology in various fields such as water, medicine and information technology.”
On February 23, 2020, an Israeli cycling team raced through Dubai, taking part in the UAE Tour for the first time in the latest sign of warming ties between the two countries.
Pandemic Research and Cooperation
In its first flight to Israel, Etihad Airways arrived in Israel on May 19, 2020, carrying 14 tons of medical supplies to help the Palestinians cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Palestinian Authority said it would refuse the aid, however, because it had come through Israel. On June 9, 2020, a second Etihad Airlines plane brought another shipment of medical supplies. Unlike the first flight, the Etihad logo and United Arab Emirates flag were visible on the plane. While the PA again complained, the supplies were to be transferred to the UN for distribution in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials hoped the unprecedented flights were a further step toward normalizing relations; however, the possibility was clouded by Israeli plans to apply sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash had warned Israel earlier that it would face “dangerous repercussions” if it went through with what he referred to as annexation. Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba subsequently took the unprecedented step of writing in Israel’s most popular newspaper an article headlined, “It’s Either Annexation or Normalization,” expressing his country’s opposition to Israel’s plan. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with U.A.E.,” he said.
Nevertheless, a few days later Netanyahu announced that Israel and the UAE agreed the Israeli and Emirati health ministries would cooperate in research and development in medical projects related to the coronavirus. Sensitive to the timing of the agreement, the UAE publicly admitted only that two private companies in the UAE had reached a deal with two Israeli companies to develop research and technology to combat COVID-19. Israel Aerospace Industries signed a cooperation agreement with the company Group 42 from Abu Dhabi on July 2, 2020, to join forces to research and development technology in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
UAE Agrees to Establish Diplomatic Relations
In a dramatic and unexpected joint announcement by the United States, Israel, and the UAE on August 13, 2020, Israel and the UAE “agreed to the full normalization of relations.” The agreement was sealed in a phone call on August 13, 2020, between President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
White House officials said the deal, to be known as the Abraham Accords, was brokered by senior adviser Jared Kushner, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Delegations from Israel and the UAE will meet to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues. They will also open embassies and exchange ambassadors. Flights from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv are also planned to bring pilgrims to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. A few days later, the UAE cancelled the its law to boycott Israel, which had been enacted in 1972 but not enforced in recent years.
The statement also said that as “a result of this diplomatic breakthrough, and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over areas of the West Bank.
UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba released a statement calling the agreement “a win for diplomacy and for the region” and “a significant advance in Arab-Israeli relations that lowers tensions and creates new energy for positive change.”
He added that the move “immediately stops annexation and the potential for violent escalation. It maintains the viability of a two-state solution as endorsed by the Arab League and international community. It creates new dynamics and possibilities in the peace process.”
The UAE also reportedly secured a commitment from the administration that the United States will not recognize Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank until at least 2024. Nevertheless, Otaiba anticipated Palestinian anger when he tweeted, “The UAE will remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people – for their dignity, their rights and their own sovereign state. They must benefit from normalization. We will forcefully advocate for these ends, now directly and bolstered with stronger incentives, policy options and diplomatic tools.”
One matter of controversy emerged after the announcement of the Abraham Accords regarding the possible sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE. It was initially reported that Netanyahu acquiesced to the sale, seeing it as the price of the agreement, but he later denied such a quid pro quo.
There is a precedent for such a deal. Following the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel dropped objections to the sale of fighter planes to Egypt. This case is different, however, because the F-35 is the most advanced fighter plane in the world and, though Israel already has them, Israeli officials, members of Congress, and some analysts argued the sale would erode Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the region.
One of the striking aspects of this development is the lack of protests in the Arab world. The Palestinians denounced the agreement but public demonstrations were muted in the West Bank and virtually nonexistent elsewhere. The Arab League denied the Palestinian Authrority request to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the UAE-Israel agreement. Only Iran and Turkey took a stand against the Israel-UAE peace deal, and even they didn’t do so for the sake of the Palestinians,” noted Prof. Eyal Zisser, “but because they see the deal as hurting their own status in the region.”
Prof. Hillel Frisch noted the significance: “Rest assured that if the lack of demonstrations went largely unnoticed by the general public, it was most assuredly noticed by state leaders in the Middle East and their violent proxy organizations. For those leaders who wisely seek to establish relations with Israel, the lack of demonstrations was reassuring, as it lowered the sense of danger emanating from the Arab street regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
On September 15, 2020, the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement was signed in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. by President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. As part of the Abraham Accords, the three leaders, along with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain also signed a declaration expressing their common interests. On October 15, 2020, the Knesset approved establishing formal relations with the UAE by a vote of 80-13.
In September 2020, shortly after the signing of the Abraham Accords, the Dubai Diamond Exchange and Israel Diamond Exchange agreed to share expertise, open reciprocal offices and promote regional trade in precious stones. Israel is one of the leading exporters of polished diamonds and Dubai is one of the most important diamond centers in the world.
Diplomats from the United Arab Emirates made their first official trip to Israel on October 20, 2020, and signed an agreement allowing their citizens to travel from one country to the other without visas — Israel’s first such waiver with an Arab state. Other agreements included approving direct flights between Tel Aviv and the Emirates, providing protections for investors, and promoting scientific and technological cooperation.
The United States, UAE and Israel also agreed to create a $3 billion investment fund, to be called the Abraham Fund, to promote private investment in Israel, the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. One of its first planned projects is construction of the long-discussed “Med-Red” oil pipeline from Eilat to Ashkelon, which would carry Emirati oil that now goes to Europe via the Suez Canal. The new route would lower energy prices and speed shipments.
The fund will also be used to improve checkpoints in the West Bank, but the Palestinians were still angered by the plan, which they see as “a stamp of approval for the Israeli occupation’s continuation.”
In December 2020, Emirati authorities confirmed that the Educational Hebrew Institute, the first Hebrew language and Israeli culture institute in the UAE, will open in January.
On December 7, 2020, a member of the UAE’s ruling family and Abu Dhabi businessman Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Nahyan purchased a 50 percent stake of Israeli Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s leading soccer clubs.
Photos: Twitter feed of Yiftah Curiel in Frisch. Peace agreement photo: Chris Kleponis / CNP