Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the Israeli prime minister's hotel room in New York in September 2012.
Netanyahu and bin Zayed saw eye to eye on the Iranian nuclear issue, but the foreign minister told Netanyahu his country could not warm up its relations with Israel as long as there was no progress in the peace process with the Palestinians, said two senior Western diplomats who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The meeting was held on September 28, 2012, during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. A day earlier, Netanyahu gave his “red line” speech about stopping Iranian nuclear weapons production. During the speech, Netanyahu said the international community must set a red line for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and prevent it from obtaining enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon.
Meetings between Netanyahu and senior officials from states in the Persian Gulf have been very rare since the prime minister began his second term in 2009.
Netanyahu initiated the meeting. Since reentering the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, he has tried to arrange meetings with senior officials from Gulf states, with which Israel has no official diplomatic relations, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. The killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior commander in Hamas' military wing, in Dubai in January 2010 – which local police attributed to the Mossad – created a great deal of tension between Israel and the Emirates, and made arranging such a meeting impossible for almost two years.
The sources said bin Zayed only agreed to the meeting after a long period during which Netanyahu sent messages to senior UAE leaders through intermediaries. The meeting was held in the Loews Regency Hotel on the corner of East 61st Street and Park Avenue, where Netanyahu was staying during his visit.
The UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, accompanied bin Zayed to the meeting, said the two Western diplomats. They entered the hotel very discretely through the underground parking lot and were taken upstairs to Netanyahu's suite on one of the hotel's top floors in a service elevator.
Israel's then-National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror was with Netanyahu during the meeting, along with the prime minister's military secretary, Maj. Gen. Johanan Locker. The meeting was friendly and dealt mostly with the Iranian nuclear issue, bit also touched on the Palestinians, said the diplomats, who received reports of the session. Bin Zayed expressed his appreciation for Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly, and the two agreed on quite a large number of issues concerning the question of a nuclear Iran.
At the same time, with regards to the Palestinians, bin Zayed pushed Netanyahu to make progress and made it clear his country supports the Arab League peace plan. One of the foreign minister's main messages to Netanyahu was that the UAE was interested in improving relations with Israel but could not do so, especially not publicly, as long as the peace process with the Palestinians remained frozen, said the two diplomats.
A senior Israeli official heard the same message just last year. In September 2016, former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni participated in a small lunch in New York with bin Zayed as the guest of honor. During the meal, he said his country and other Gulf states wanted improve their relations with Israel, but could not takes steps toward normalization until Israel demonstrated a true desire for progress toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
The UAE’s stance concerning relations with Israel and the Palestinian issue has not changed amid U.S. President Donald Trump's and Netanyahu's talks about their wishes to promote a regional peace initiative in conjunction with Arab countries, said the diplomats.
The meeting in New York at the UN was the only one between Netanyahu and a senior UAE government official and no other similar meetings followed it. For the past five years Netanyahu has tried to organize a meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, said the diplomats. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has tried to help Netanyahu in the matter, they said. Blair is considered to have close ties with the crown prince and over the past two years he has worked for him as a paid adviser. Despite Blair’s attempts to arrange such a meeting, it has not happened.
Blair was also involved in an attempt to promote a regional peace initiative after a secret summit held in Aqaba, Jordan, in February 2016, which was revealed in Haaretz. Blair, who is also considered to be close to Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sissi, was involved in the contacts between Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union). Blair led Netanyahu to believe that if a unity government was established with Herzog and a regional peace initiative got underway, Prince Mohammed would agree to take part personally or send a senior representative on his behalf to a regional summit in which Israel would participate.
Reports in the American media say that Netanyahu has been continuing his contacts with UAE leadership through the Israeli ambassador to Washington for the past four years, Ron Dermer, who is considered to be very close to the prime minister. Dermer has a close working relationship with Otaiba and the two see eye to eye on almost every issue, except for the Palestinians, stated an article in the Huffington Post two years ago. Dermer even invited Otaiba to attend Netanyahu’s controversial speech to the U.S. Congress in March 2015 against the Iranian nuclear deal, but Otaiba politely declined, the Huffington Post reported.
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