Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev visited Abu Dhabi's grand mosque, giving more momentum to Israel's diplomatic push in the Gulf, where it sees Arab states as its natural allies against regional powerhouse Iran.
"I am happy that I was privileged to be the first senior official from Israel to sign the mosque's guest book," Regev wrote on Facebook about the tour, which she said took place on Sunday.
Shining a rare spotlight on direct ties with Gulf states, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday he had just returned from a surprise visit to Oman, the first time an Israeli leader has visited the Sultanate in 22 years. Netanyahu has on several occasions hinted at warmer relations with Gulf states.
On Sunday, Regev, in the United Arab Emirates for a judo tournament, fought back tears after Israel's team won gold in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam – a feat which allowed the Israeli national anthem to be played in a country that does not formally recognize it.
Sagi Muki won the gold after besting Mattias Kuusik in the only matchup between the two so far. Kuusik advanced to the final found after his Iranian opponent, Saeed Molaei, claimed injury in the first half minute of their match, in what was thought to be a faked injury, so that he would not have to face an opponent from Israel.
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In recent weeks, members of the Israeli Olympic Committee have been critical of Regev, accusing her of ramping up expectations by interfering in the affairs of the local judo federation. This, they say, was a contributing factor behind Israel’s poor showing in the recent World Championships.
In 2017, Israeli judoka Tal Flicker won gold medal at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam on Thursday. The Israeli martial artist achieved an Ippon, the highest score a fighter can achieve, 25 seconds before the end of his bout with his Azeri opponent, bronze medal world champion Nijat Shikhalizada.
No Israeli flag was flown at the podium in 2017, after the United Arab Emirate hosts forbade any representation of the Israeli team's nationality, something that the hosts claimed was done for their own safety. Israelis competed under similar conditions during the same event held in 2015 in Abu Dhabi.
The International Judo Federation has previously stripped both the U.A.E. and Tunisia of the right to host Grand Prix tournaments, following their refusal to allow Israeli participants to compete under the national flag. In August, both countries promised the IJF that the Israeli flag would be flown at future events and they were reinstated. Several Israeli politicians, including Regev, described the decision as a major diplomatic victory for Israel.
According to a statement issued by the Culture and Sports Ministry, “Regev is grateful for the invitation extended by IJF President Marius Vizer to attend the historical tournament in Abu Dhabi, where, for the first time, Israeli athletes will be allowed to compete under their national flag and to hear their national anthem played. The goal of the minister’s visit is first and foremost to sign a historic agreement for Israel to host a Grand Prix event, which will be attended by the best judokas in the world. The issue is currently being examined and the minister is very keen to accept the invitation.”