On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would cooperate in the fight against COVID-19. But a few hours later, the UAE said the deal was signed between private companies in the two countries – and not between governments.
This comes amid multiple warnings in recent weeks from UAE officials that Israel's planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank would harm its efforts to improve relations with Arab states.
In a speech to graduating Israeli fighter pilots, Netanyahu said an announcement was expected “in a few moments” and came after months of “intense contacts.”
“This collaboration will be in the fields of research and development, technology, in areas that will improve the confidence in health throughout the region,” he said.
But the expected declaration, published by UAE's state-run news agency WAM, soberly said that "two private companies in the UAE sign an agreement with two companies in Israel to develop research and technology to fight COVID-19."
"This scientific and medical agreement forms part of constructive cooperation aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to safeguard the health of the region’s peoples," the statement added.
Israel and the UAE do not have formal diplomatic relations, but they are believed to maintain close behind-the-scenes contacts because of their shared concerns about Iran.
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Earlier this month, the UAE's ambassador to the United States published an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper confirming that ties had improved but warning Israel that proceeding with annexation would “upend” any efforts to normalize relations with Arab states.
“Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE,” Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba wrote.
However, last week, another leading UAE official said it was open to cooperating with Israel on efforts to combat the coronavirus and other humanitarian issues despite the political disagreement over annexation.
“Can I have a political disagreement with Israel but at the same time try and bridge other areas of the relationship? I think I can,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, said in an interview with the American Jewish Committee advocacy group.
Last month, the UAE sent a cargo plane to Israel loaded with coronavirus-related aid it said was destined for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority said it could not receive the aid because there had been no prior coordination.
Netanyahu has vowed to annex all of Israel's far-flung settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley, which together amount to around 30% of the occupied West Bank. President Donald Trump's Middle East plan endorsed the move, which has been rejected by the Palestinians and much of the international community.
Israel could begin the annexation process as soon as July 1, but the Trump administration may apply the brakes in an effort to revive peace negotiations. The UAE is a close and influential U.S. military ally.
Opponents of annexation say it would make it virtually impossible to create a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war. A two-state solution is still widely seen as the only way of resolving the conflict.
Netanyahu has boasted of quietly improving ties with Arab states, but full normalization still appears unlikely without a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel. Jordan, another close U.S. ally, is staunchly opposed to any annexation, saying it would cause a “massive conflict.”