Iran, Gaza to Top Agenda During UAE Visit by Israel’s Foreign Minister
The UAE sees solidifying its relationship with Israel as a way to gain access to Washington, as the US withdraws its troops from the region
(DUBAI) As Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid prepares to meet his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, the first official visit of a senior Israeli minister to the Gulf state since the signing of the historic Abraham Accords in September, the continuing withdrawal of US troops from the region and the rising threat of Iran loom large.
Lapid will meet the UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed this week in the United Arab Emirates, an event which coincides with the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai.
Winning over public opinion is key, says Andreas Krieg, a Middle East defense expert from King’s College London.
“Lapid will want to ensure that Abu Dhabi stands firmly by its Israeli partner as global public opinion and most importantly public opinion in the Arab world turned against Israel” following the most recent violence between Israel and Gaza, Krieg said.
“There will be a range of security issues both sides want to discuss, one being Gaza and the prospect of stability there, and the other one being Iran and its activities in the region,” he said.
Nobody is expecting the Palestinian issue to be top of the agenda. Yes, officially or unofficially it will be on the table as both sides want to see an end to the violence, but there is an understanding that there are major issues at play during this first official meeting
Though several of the UAE’s leaders, including Sheikh Abdullah and Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy, spoke out last month during the cross-border attacks between Israel and Hamas in Gaza urging Israel to cease violence and exercise restraint, Krieg is doubtful that this is the time for tough talking about the events of the conflict, in which over 250 people were killed in Gaza and 13 killed in Israel before a cease-fire took effect on May 21.
“Abu Dhabi widely shares the Israeli point of view blaming Hamas for any escalation of violence in Gaza,” Krieg said. “The benefits from a security, intelligence and information technology cooperation with Israel outweigh the reputational costs for Abu Dhabi, making the Palestinian question a non-issue. Lapid would have not taken the trip if he feared tough words from the UAE.”
Ahmed Khuzaie, a Washington-based Bahraini political commentator and managing partner of the Khuzaie Associates political consulting firm, agrees.
“Nobody is expecting the Palestinian issue to be top of the agenda. Yes, officially or unofficially it will be on the table as both sides want to see an end to the violence, but there is an understanding that there are major issues at play during this first official meeting,” Khuzaie said.
Lapid’s visit is historic beyond the Abraham Accords, since it is only the second time an Israeli foreign minister has traveled to the Gulf on an official visit since Tzipi Livni’s visit to Qatar in 2008, and marks a turning point in diplomacy between Israel and its Gulf neighbors.
Haisam Hassanein, a Washington-based policy analyst who focuses on Israel’s relations with the Arab world, says a UAE alliance with Israel will give the Emirates ties with a strong regional power, especially now that the US is withdrawing troops from the region.
Additionally, a relationship with Israel, regardless of who is the prime minister, offers better access to Washington’s corridors of power, he added, giving the UAE the ability to harness the likes of influential Jewish lobbying groups that were once inaccessible.
“Meanwhile, Israel is excited about the potential economic benefits and its long-term, yearned for goal to get accepted in the region by key regional powers,” Hassanein said.
The US question is a major factor in the alliance as the new administration continues its withdrawal from the Middle East, driving a more pragmatic approach. Krieg says it is now time for such alliances to begin filling the void.
“The Israel-UAE partnership is a direct result of regional players needing to work together in the absence of a US security umbrella,” he said. “The ideational synergies between Israel and Abu Dhabi are thereby the perfect basis on which to build partnerships that are independent from Washington.”
However, equal to or stronger than the US question, is Iran. “There are fears in the Gulf that left-leaning leaders in Israel could be softer on Iran than right-wing leaders such as Netanyahu,” Hassanein said. “It’s something the Emiratis will be keen to hear from Lapid on, including his recent discussions with [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken on policies toward Iran.”
Lapid has spoken with Blinken twice since taking over as foreign minister, and is scheduled to meet with the US secretary of state in Rome on Sunday, the day before he heads to the UAE.
The Israel-UAE partnership is a direct result of regional players needing to work together in the absence of a US security umbrella
Khuzaie points out that while Jerusalem focuses on the brutality of Iran’s new president-elect, Washington continues to pursue the path of reentry into the Iran nuclear deal.
“This is how international diplomacy has been operating since the Cold War and I can positively say it is well planned,” he said. “One team, or country in this case, plays hard and the other plays it soft. It’s the oldest game in the book and has proven to be effective.”
Krieg says that with the deep intelligence integration between the UAE and Israel, which primarily aims at targeting Iran’s surrogate network in the region, this cooperation will continue and potentially be deepened.
“As the Biden administration appears to continue on a path of withdrawal from the region, self-help in the security domain becomes ever more important – not just vis-à-vis Iran. Emirati investments in Israeli technology will be essential discussion points as the UAE is to gain more stakes in Israeli information and health technology,” he said, adding that the UAE has already invested billions into Israeli technology since the signing of the Abraham Accords in September.