Turf Battles Among Israeli Bureaucrats Delay Delegation's Departure to UAE

Israel's Foreign Ministry is fighting for its place at the table as Netanyahu tasks Mossad chief and ambassador to the U.S. with finalizing the deal

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Benjamin Netanyahu and senior ministers in Jerusalem, June 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu and senior ministers in Jerusalem, June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Officials in Israel and the United Arab Emirates started Sunday to work on the details of their agreements to establish full diplomatic relations, in advance of official talks to take place in Abu Dhabi.

The Israeli delegation that was meant to leave for the Gulf for those talks is being delayed by disagreements on the division of authority between the National Security Council, Mossad and Foreign Ministry. Haaretz has learned, however, that Foreign Ministry representatives are already checking out buildings in Abu Dhabi that might house the Israeli embassy. And on Monday, the the delegation slated to travel to the UAE held its first preparatory meeting.

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Both countries moved Sunday to translate the announcement of the establishment of relations into action, as Abu Dhabi removed the long-standing blockage of direct dialing to Israel and access to Israeli websites. Until now, a UAE resident who tried to call an Israeli number received a message in Arabic and English explaining that the call was not possible.

The new direct line was inaugurated by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zaid. In the past there had been numerous conversations between senior Israeli officials and their Gulf state counterparts but it’s been rare for such a conversation to be publicized. The two agreed to meet in the near future and said they’d continue to talk until the signing of the bilateral relations agreement in a Washington ceremony.

Senior officials in Israel and Washington said in press briefings Sunday that they believe Bahrain and Sudan would join the regional initiative. The participation of Oman, however, is in doubt because of its traditional role in the region as a neutral mediator with Iran. Morocco is also mentioned by Israelis as a possible partner but Washington speaks less of that option. U.S. President Donald Trump’s adviser on peace initiatives, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, hasn’t dismissed the possibility that Saudi Arabia will eventually join the initiative that the U.S. is calling the Abraham Agreements. Nevertheless, he stressed that such changes could take time.

This week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to give the ministers of the security cabinet details about the agreement with the UAE. Many security cabinet members, particularly those from Kahol Lavan, are furious at the way Netanyahu conducted the secret talks while circumventing the Foreign Ministry and keeping Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Ashkenazi in the dark. Instead of using people from the Foreign Ministry who had been working for years to strengthen ties with the Gulf states, Netanyahu sent his close associate, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, and Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer to conduct the talks practically by themselves. These contacts have been taking place over the past two months, since the Americans suggested delaying the annexation plan in exchange for normalizing relations with the Gulf states.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat was tasked with putting together the delegation and he is expected to include in it people from government and the Mossad. The Foreign Ministry is fighting for its place in the delegation. Because of these disputes over its makeup and authority, along with waiting for the wording of the details Israel wants to present, the delegation sendoff has been delayed. When it does set out, senior officials in both countries say the issue of direct flights will be first on the agenda.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, posted a series of videos and did interviews aimed at marketing the move in the face of the right’s objections to suspending the annexation plan. Senior officials in the UAE were also hard at work trying to explain the agreement to its opponents in the Arab world. In Bahrain and Oman, who are being wooed into joining, there have been petitions instigated calling on the rulers there not to do so. These petitions are being encouraged by the Palestinian Authority.

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