Leading Emirati and Israeli officials said during an Al-Monitor event Wednesday that they think the incoming Biden administration will continue to support normalization between Israel and Arab states.
The director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, said that while US President Donald Trump’s support for Arab-Israeli normalization was “breathtaking,” he thinks President-elect Joe Biden shares a similar commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity.
“Biden is an old friend of Israel,” said Ushpiz. “I’m 100% sure that this commitment will continue also during the Biden administration.”
Ushpiz and the United Arab Emirates' assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy, Omar Ghobash, spoke at Al-Monitor’s virtual event “The UAE, Israel, and Normalization: Looking Ahead.” The discussion was moderated by Al-Monitor President Andrew Parasiliti and Al-Monitor contributor and "On Israel" podcast host Ben Caspit.
Israel and the UAE signed the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords at the White House in September. The historic deal established full diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel. Bahrain also agreed to normalize ties with Israel at the time. The UAE and Bahrain were only the third and fourth Arab states to recognize Israel after Egypt and Jordan.
Since the accords, Israel and the UAE have signed a plethora of additional agreements on enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. The relationship has also created hope throughout the region that Arabs and Israelis, long divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can have normal interactions.
Ushpiz and Ghobash addressed a variety of issues relating to the Middle East at the event, including the incoming Biden administration in the United States and its approach to Iran. Biden has made it clear he will attempt to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, if Iran is in compliance, and will engage US partners in the region in doing so.
Watch the full video from the event.
Ghobash said that the UAE’s position on Iran will not change and its relationship with Washington will remain strong when Biden takes office in January.
“I don’t think that the new administration means we change our position in any way. We have a good relationship with the Democrats and the Republicans in the US,” he said. “Our relationship is with the United States — not with any particular individual, group or party.”
On Iran, Ghobash criticized Iran’s regional policies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, but also said the Emirates wants to live in peace with Iran. The UAE’s focus is on forging economic ties with all countries in the region, Ghobash said.
“Our concern in the Emirates is to focus on economic development and taking our people forward,” he said. “Ideally, we’d like to do that with the rest of the region participating.”
Ushpiz said it is important for Israel to voice its long-standing concerns about Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon no matter who is in the White House. He said the goal on Iran should be “indefinitely blocking all paths of the Iranians to a bomb.”
The two diplomats were less forthcoming on the possibility of Saudi Arabia following the UAE and Bahrain in establishing ties with Israel, while noting that they don't speak on behalf of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has grown closer to Israel over concerns about Iran in recent years, but has refrained from openly acknowledging this relationship. Yet whatever progress had been made recently may have been hindered by leaked reports of a secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Nov. 22 in the Saudi city of Neom.
Ghobash said the UAE cannot tell Saudi Arabia how to conduct its policy in this regard.
“We in the Emirates can only demonstrate the benefits of peace. We can’t instruct anybody,” he said. "These are very sensitive internal matters for states like Saudi Arabia.”
Ushpiz said that Saudi Arabia views the UAE-Israel normalization in a “positive” way and said air travel to the UAE and Bahrain from Israel could not have happened without Saudi cooperation.
“I flew to Bahrain over Saudi land twice. I flew to Abu Dhabi over Saudi land. And there is no way this could have happened unless the Saudis would have permitted it.”
The discussion also touched on the issue of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proposed an international peace conference for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be held in 2021.
“We’re not against any process that puts peace back on the table,” said Ghobash on the conference. “We’d welcome it and support it.”
Ushpiz said Israel still seeks to talk directly with the Palestinians at any time.
“There is no substitute for direct, bilateral, without preconditions negotiations,” he said.
Ghobash also praised the PA for resuming its security and civil cooperation with Israel, which followed vocal criticism from Palestinian officials toward the UAE's and Bahrain’s relations with Israel. The Abraham Accords provide an opportunity for the Palestinians to better engage with Israel and the region, Ghobash said.
“There seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction of anti-Emirati sentiment from the Palestinians,” said Ghobash. “Perhaps now they will see the opportunity has opened up.”
Ushpiz also discussed relations between Israel and Turkey. Ties have worsened in recent years under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who supports a variety of Islamic causes in the region, including the Palestinian cause.
Ushpiz criticized Ankara's actions in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is conducting energy exploration in what Greece, Cyprus and the European Union say is Greek and Cypriot maritime territory.
“There are activities in the eastern Mediterranean that are a source of concern for us, that are a source of concern for our partners in the region, including member states of the European Union,” he said.
The UAE is also supportive of Greece and Cyprus on the issue.
Ushpiz also criticized the presence of the Palestinian group Hamas in Turkey.
“I would remind all of us there is an active Hamas office in Istanbul,” he said. “That’s a serious source of concern for my country.”
Also Wednesday, Al-Monitor's Amberin Zaman broke the story that Turkey has named an ambassador to Israel in a bid to normalize relations again.
The participants also expressed hope that the Abraham Accords could help end bigotry between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. Caspit noted how he did not need to hide being Israeli during his recent trip to Dubai. Both participants expected normalization to erode preujdice and anti-semitism in the region. Ghobash also expressed hope that the fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, known for their anti-Arab and right-wing beliefs, may begin to have a more positive view of Arabs now that the club has an Emirati co-owner.