ABU DHABI — Like the silent video clips showing meetings of world leaders, with only the occasional sounds of camera clicks and flashes in the background, or dramatic music instead of words, on the Israeli delegation’s flight to the United Arab Emirates, the optics themselves were the message.
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The most powerful picture of them all was the El Al plane landing at the Abu Dhabi airport on Monday – this was intended to provide the first symbolic and tangible manifestation of the normalization agreement with Israel. And so the takeoff and landing were accompanied by an abundance of ceremonies, gestures and gimmicks: Historic boarding cards, historic seat covers, a historic menu, historic masks with flags. Altogether, the word “history” worked overtime on this trip, until its real significance had worn away.
From the moment the plane took off from Ben-Gurion Airport and until it returned there, those involved felt truly excited, and there were attempts by everyone – Americans, Israelis and Emiratis – to create a festive and optimistic atmosphere. But outside the frames, the hidden soundtrack of the talks and the events also revealed the tension that accompanied this complex event.
The production was no simple thing. Security around the high-profile guests from Israel was tight, participants were asked to stay close to the hotel (also due to coronavirus regulations), and the journalists were accompanied by American and Emirati representatives. On the diplomatic level, the Emiratis didn’t have it easy vis-a-vis the rest of the Arab world. In light of all that, the desire to make sure the guests were received with both hospitality and security became entangled with the desire to control the message as much as possible and avoid any embarrassing pitfalls that could overshadow it.
A brief welcome ceremony was held after the delegation landed on Monday, where National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat spoke in Arabic. After that the large delegation arrived at the hotel, where small working groups held talks on the cooperation agreement that is on the way. Signs were set up in the long hallway next to each meeting room, announcing the subject under discussion inside: diplomacy, finances, flights and visas, health, culture and tourism, space and science and investments, innovation and commerce. Kosher food was served at overflowing tables set up outside the rooms.
The participants in the meetings, representatives of the relevant government ministries, told Haaretz that the talks were fruitful and in good spirit. But these were only first meetings, and the understandings have not yet been formulated. However, some things are already clear: On the subject of tourism, mutual visits will apparently require visas; there won’t be any spontaneous visits for the holidays.
In addition to the working groups, Ben-Shabbat and Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz met with the UAE’s national security adviser, Tahnoun bin Zayed, Foreign Minister Abdallah bin Zayed, Jared Kushner, the special adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brian and other senior American officials, at Tahnoun bin Zayed’s palace.
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Toward the evening, the journalists in the delegation were invited for a tour and dinner at the Abu Dhabi Louvre, where they were addressed by UAE officials. On the tour of the museum, special emphasis was placed on the model of a future multi-faith center that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed plans to build. The complex, which will be called the Abrahamic Family House, is expected to include an active synagogue, church and mosque as well as an education center for the promotion of religious pluralism.
Throughout the visit, this visual message was accompanied by a verbal one: the Emiratis repeatedly stressed their work in religious tolerance, the struggle against extremism and their hopes that these would contribute to stability in the region.
Although this was not especially obvious in the official photos of the delegations, there were quite a few women among the Emiratis, including government ministers and other officials. In comparison, the Israeli and the American delegations were far less balanced in this respect.
On Tuesday morning the talking points were once again separated. The members of the American media were taken to cover O’Brien’s and Kushner’s visit to an air force base, where they saw the parked American F-35s that the Emiratis hope to buy for themselves soon, despite Israeli objections over a loss of military edge. Alongside a local general, the American officials wanted to convey from there that military ties between the two countries were stronger than ever, “without reference to the agreement with Israel.”
At the same time, the Israeli media was sent to tour the Grand Mosque and historical museum. There, a brief quote was finally extricated from the local guide, who was caught off guard by questions about the agreements. She managed to reply that she relies completely on the decisions of the leader before her supervisor ended the moment kindly but firmly.
The only interview on the record with a local senior official during the visit took place at the airport, just before departure, and included mainly the messages that had repeated themselves quite a bit in private, freer conversations: This move is important for the Emiratis because they believe this is the time for regional change – and they want to lead it.
For a moment it seemed that there might be a twist in the plot. In response to the question of whether normalization might stop if annexation in the West Bank went ahead, the official answered that it would not. But then he went on to say that in any case, assurances had been received from the United States – and from Israel – that annexation would not proceed. Immediately after that came a clarification that the first answer in fact did not reflect the official position.
Except for the questions about annexation and Kushner’s call to return to the negotiating table, the absent-present entity at the events was, as usual, the Palestinians. In a speech during the delegation’s visit to the local Palestinian community, which consists of a few tens of thousands of residents, Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed said his country would continue to support the Palestinians.
The Emiratis have been tensely following responses to the move in the Arab world, and monitoring social media on the issue, and they believe that popular opposition to it comes mainly from Iran, Qatar and Kuwait. They are very busy in winning over Arab public opinion and are certain that the young and the educated are with them completely. No one has the mistaken illusion that this picture of victory is not more complicated than a few frames of a plane and flags – but they convey that they are still determined to move ahead. The Palestinians, they say, will also benefit from a more stable and prosperous region.
In many ways, this normalization show recalls the events of the Bahrain meeting last year. Then, too, under American pressure and mediation, the locals welcomed the Israelis very warmly. But since then they have not been especially enthusiastic to continue the relationship on the civilian level. The Emirati story is quite different at the moment, but the real test is the same: What will happen to these high-level ties after the American babysitters are out of the room – will this warm welcome really become routine? The senior Emirati officials believe and persuade others that it will. They also reiterated that although this is a “gradual” process, they would want to see it progress as fast as possible.