Seven months ago, Consul General of Israel Hillel Newman’s diplomatic visit to the United Arab Emirates was top secret. But after the Abraham Accords declaration normalized relations last September, that trip is no longer hush-hush. Already more than 130,000 Israelis have visited the newly-available tourist destination.
The first commercial flights between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv began April 6.
“It’s ushering in a new era in the Middle East,” Newman said of the Abraham Accords.
“It is an important win for diplomacy, and for the people of this region,” agreed Hazza Alkaabi, Consul General of the United Arab Emirates in Los Angeles.
The two top diplomats spoke April 8, during a virtual panel discussion organized by the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of Greater Phoenix and Southern Arizona and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix that left many viewers with a surprising sense of hope.
“Frankly, it was incredible to see the Consuls General of Israel and the UAE together in the same Zoom,” said Paul Rockower, JCRC’s executive director. “I didn’t expect to be as moved by it, but once the program opened I found myself a bit overwhelmed at the historic nature of the program. Sometimes it helps to stop and take a moment to reflect on how drastic the landscape has shifted — this program gave us the opportunity to do so.“
The agreement propelled the UAE and Israel to develop and enhance existing commercial and security ties, and allowed the countries to collaborate on new endeavors, ranging from artificial intelligence to tourism. The two countries have signed a host of agreements across a variety of sectors from banking and finance — including preventing terror financing — to water security.
“Both countries have a desire to fully cooperate in different sectors,” Alkaabi said.
Newman said in just a few short months the two countries have signed nine agreements, with five more “close” to be being signed and an additional 16 “in the pipeline.”
Hillel and Alkaabi both emphasized the warmth of the relationship between the two governments, each encouraging cultural exchange and what Hillel dubbed “people-to-people normalization.”
“I’m proud of the growing Jewish community back home in Dubai,” Alkaabi said.
Hillel encourages travel among Israelis and Americans to the UAE to make sure that “people in UAE, the people of Israel, and the people of the United States, understand that there’s warmth, tolerance and there are tangible fruits of peace.”
The warming of relations didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s a decade’s long effort,” Newman said. Normalizing relations has been a “high priority issue in Israel’s cabinet” for many years, and entailed relationship building as well as support from other countries, including the United States.
“It also took a realization in the Arab world that Israel is an ally and not an enemy,” Newman said. “Some of us have grown up on narratives, which unfortunately we were fed since birth by radical elements.”
Alkaabi and Newman both voiced optimism that the Abraham Accords offers a path toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians — maybe even within the next five years.
“At last the Palestinians will understand that they have to make the choice and join peace. It’s their choice, and time is not on their side. We will move forward in our relations with other countries for the good and the benefit of society and humanity,” Newman said.
“I totally agree with the Consul General head on,” Alkaabi said, and also emphasized the Abraham Accords prevented annexation while creating new opportunities for the Palestinians. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE worked with Israel to deliver vaccines to the West Bank.
Since the UAE, Bahrain and Israel agreed to normalize relations last September, Morocco, Bhutan and Sudan have followed suit.
In five year’s time, Newman hopes to see the number of countries in the Abraham Accords grow to include at least 10 countries.
Richard Hirschhaut, Los Angeles Director of the American Jewish Committee, moderated the discussion. He said the April 8 discussion emanated from the Embassy of the UAE in Washington, D.C. in hopes it would be the first of many opportunities for UAE officials to get acquainted with the American Jewish community and build bridges where bridges can be built.
He said he was most taken by the rapport between Newman and Alkaabi.
“For me, it was a sense of mutuality,” Hirschhaut said. “These are two skilled, polished diplomats who did not conduct themselves behind diplomatic speak, or with caution, or with hesitation, or with nuance or with words that need to be parsed. It was open. It was a conversation among friends. That, to me, was a revelation.”
He said the 130,000 Israeli tourists to the UAE reflects the longing Israelis have for wanting to live their lives normally in peace with their neighbors. However, it is unclear how many people from the UAE are eager to travel to Israel.
Hirschhaut said a change in governmental tone doesn’t necessarily translate and trickle down to the people, and he believes that is top of mind for UAE officials.
“I think there really is a conscious effort and intentional effort to merge the individual connection with government policy,” Hirschhaut said.
Like Rockower, Hirschhaut was also moved by seeing the two diplomats share the same virtual stage. “It made the vision of peace very real. And I think that has genuine power and authenticity to it,” Hirschhaut said. JN