Lapid visits UAE, opens first Israeli embassy in Gulf

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Since their US-brokered normalisation agreement was announced in August last year, Israel and the UAE have signed a raft of deals ranging from tourism to aviation and financial services.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets United Arab Emirates Minister of State Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates June 29, 2021. (AFP)

ABU DHABI – Israel’s top diplomat Yair Lapid opened the Jewish state’s first embassy in the Gulf during a trip to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday after relations were normalised last year.

“The opening of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi with the Emirati Minister of Culture and Youth,” he tweeted with a photo of himself and UAE minister Noura al-Kaabi cutting a ribbon in the blue and white of the Israeli flag.

Israeli ministers have previously visited the UAE, but newly-appointed Lapid is the most senior Israeli to make the trip and the first to travel on an official mission.

“Israel wants peace with its neighbours. With all its neighbours. We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home. We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognise that. And to come talk to us,” Lapid said during the opening ceremony.

Since their US-brokered normalisation agreement was announced in August last year, Israel and the UAE have signed a raft of deals ranging from tourism to aviation and financial services.

During his visit, Lapid will also inaugurate a consulate in .

Lapid’s trip comes nearly a year after the nations moved to normalise ties and follows a string of visits by Israeli officials that were planned then scrapped over issues including the Covid pandemic and diplomatic scuffles.

In March, a planned official visit by Israel’s then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was cancelled due to a “dispute” with Jordan over the use of its airspace, according to Israeli officials.

Netanyahu, replaced as prime minister by Jewish nationalist Naftali Bennett in a coalition government cobbled together by Lapid, had already postponed a February visit to the UAE and Bahrain over coronavirus travel restrictions.

— A race for limelight —

According to The Jerusalem Post newspaper, Netanyahu sought to prevent his foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi from making an official visit to the UAE, to keep him from stealing the spotlight ahead of March elections.

Then-tourism minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen, now science and technology minister, reportedly also had to cancel trips.

In August 2020, former White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat made history by flying to Abu Dhabi on an El Al plane from Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, second left, attends the inauguration of the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 29, 2021. (REUTERS)

That was feted by both sides as a breakthrough in efforts for peace in the Middle East, marked by the El Al jet touching down adorned with the word “peace” in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

The normalisation accords Israel struck with the UAE, followed by deals with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan also last year, have been condemned by the Palestinians.

They break with years of Arab League policy of no relations with Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians.

In October 2018, Netanyahu and his wife Sara visited the UAE’s Gulf neighbour Oman amid Palestinian fears of a normalisation of ties between Oman and Israel.

Lapid is a centrist former television presenter who tenaciously hammered together Israel’s new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s more than decade-long tenure as prime minister.

He has sought to break from his rival’s policies, saying Monday that Netanyahu’s government had taken “a terrible gamble” by focussing only on ties with the Republican party in Washington.

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