Israel-UAE Deal Brings 25 Years of Covert Diplomacy Out of the Shadows

As one diplomat puts it, 'These foundations were built bottom up, patiently and quietly, over many years, to prepare people’s hearts in advance, unlike what happened in Jordan and Egypt'

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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A UAE representative prepares to board an El Al plane from Abu Dhabi this week.
A UAE representative prepares to board an El Al plane from Abu Dhabi this week.Credit: Nir Elias/AP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

ABU DHABI – The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates came as a complete surprise to many Israelis and is often described as the relevant leaders’ personal achievement.

But as in any diplomatic process, though leaders make the decisions and reap the rewards, many people and processes over years have paved the way to the gala ceremony that will take place at the White House. In the UAE’s case, 25 years of quiet diplomatic efforts helped prepare the ground for the current agreement.

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And unlike in the cases of Jordan and Egypt, where largely defense officials manage the relationship while civilian ties are neglected, Israel’s Foreign Ministry slowly and quietly built productive civilian ties with the UAE alongside the security relationship.

Now that bilateral relations have become open, people involved in this effort can speak more freely about the process. One of them is Eliav Benjamin, head of the ministry’s coordination bureau, who is responsible for ties with Arab and Muslim states that don’t have official relations with Israel.

From the right, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, Jared Kushner and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat in Tel Aviv this week.Credit: NIR ELIAS/Reuters

“It all began after Oslo, when Shimon Peres came and told us, ‘Start opening the door to the Arab world,” Benjamin said, referring to the 1993 agreement with the Palestinians and the then-foreign minister. “That’s when the contacts started. We opened a dialogue with them in Washington, New York and Abu Dhabi, with senior officials’ blessing. Slowly and quietly. A dedicated team was built and we were on the phone with them.

“At first, most of the activity was economic, with the goal of it spreading to the diplomatic sphere as well. In 2002, there was a breakthrough when they wanted to establish a diamond exchange in Dubai and saw the Ramat Gan exchange as a model. We held many talks with them about this, and dozens of Israeli traders started working there.

“Today, more than 40 are registered. Every year there’s a big jewelry fair, and you can see quite a few religious Israelis there. That was one of the first anchors. We also invested in helping with agricultural development and water.

“Even after the Mabhouh affair, the end of the crisis became an opportunity,” Benjamin said, referring to Israel’s 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas operative in Dubai. “In 2017, we opened our delegation to the UN’s renewable energy agency in Abu Dhabi. The agreement was that we’d be there under the agency’s auspices, but it included a sign and a flag in front. Everything. This was an important breakthrough.”

Renewable energy and diplomacy

Dan Shaham Ben-Hayun currently heads Israel’s delegation to the renewable energy agency and serves as its special envoy for applied research. Until now, he rarely spoke to the press, given the sensitivities in building the relationship. His delegation was Israel’s first official foothold in the Persian Gulf.

“Israel supported setting up the agency in the UAE, and when it opened, we received the option of opening an affiliated delegation there,” he said. “It’s a delegation to an international organization based in Abu Dhabi, and I think we acted wisely when we scrupulously adhered over the years to the mandate we were given. We dealt mainly with being able to display Israeli technologies for renewable energy and green construction in the country.

“But our second role, as diplomats, was understanding the country – its culture and priorities, what they talked about and how they talked. In any relationship, it’s important to understand the other side, what’s important to him .... It’s not just what I want, but also what the other side wants.”

The ability to be there openly as Israeli diplomats “contributed to a direct, unmediated familiarity with the social and economic system and decision-making in the country, as observers and people being observed,” Shaham Ben-Hayun said. “When you’re a guest, you respect and accept the conditions set for being a guest and a diplomat.

“Both sides’ ability to understand and respect each other contributed to building mutual trust for the next step. When you’re serious and professional as a diplomat, you send them the message that it’s okay to continue. They saw that they had a serious ally. There was a carefully cultivated Israeli image, and our presence allowed us and them to get acquainted.

“Additionally, our deep understanding of what’s important to them helped build a framework of relations that will enable the embassy-to-be to be more focused. For example, we understand how important areas like food security and desert agriculture are to them. These fields are also now bases for the normalization agreements on the way. This is important to us, and I think it’s also important to them. They’re deeply committed to this.”

500 Israeli companies

Benjamin said the current agreement “is an outgrowth of these efforts and also of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. They wanted further dialogue with us of their own initiative. Their research institutes, for instance, included us in strategic dialogues.

“From economics, it progressed to diplomatic contacts and good, direct personal connects between senior officials and key people. Even secret reciprocal visits. Or a medical consultation. An intimate acquaintance. Thus the announcement three weeks ago wasn’t born in a vacuum.”

Some aspects of the developing relationship were public. Israeli sports teams took part in competitions in the UAE, Israeli ministers visited, and Israel was invited to participate in the 2020 Dubai expo, though it was later postponed by the coronavirus.

The Foreign Ministry also helped some 500 Israeli companies enter the UAE market. Many were defense technology companies, like spyware developer NSO.

Over the past 18 months, the ministry has also worked openly to prepare Emirati public opinion.

“The Foreign Ministry’s digital public diplomacy team opened a Twitter account for the Gulf and worked on it a lot to move public opinion in both countries,” Benjamin said. “The leadership understood that after many years of laying suitable groundwork, public opinion there was ready for this. People there were just waiting for the dam to open.

“Obviously, the U.S. administration also played a role. Throughout the years, we had very good ties with American ambassadors in the UAE and with their ambassador to the United States.

The expo invitation “was another key element in the infrastructure we built,” he said. “We negotiated for two years over that invitation.”

An F-35 plane at the graduation ceremony for the Israeli Air Force, 2018.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Asked whether the UAE’s desire to buy American F-35 fighters, the upcoming U.S. election and the possibility of another Israeli election played an equally important role, Benjamin replied, “You could say this normalization agreement came together after all the stars aligned.

“True, there’s also their desire for the F-35; that isn’t new. And granted, there was the question of applying sovereignty, yes or no,” he said, referring to Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. “And there are leaders who want to show an achievement. That’s all true.

“But there was also an accumulation of long-term processes that worked. The economic story, for instance, played a super-important role. The coronavirus also suddenly created a suitable catalyst for open civilian cooperation.

“These foundations were built bottom up, patiently and quietly, over many years, to prepare people’s hearts in advance, unlike what happened in Jordan and Egypt. We were already talking about swapping art exhibits, for instance. You don’t see things like that with Jordan and Egypt.

Benjamin notes the “civilian diplomatic ties with them for years, including public contacts,” and the “economic and business ties and the brand equity of the relationship for both sides.” All this “helped lay the groundwork for the agreement. Very wealthy, well-connected businesspeople there went to the leadership and said, ‘Come on, let’s move forward.’ We saw this more and more, including through the expo; they help us connect to companies there.

“We believe in bottom-up processes and building infrastructure,” Benjamin concluded. “And that’s how the ground became ready.”

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