Israel Finds a Lifeline in the U.A.E. as Its Ties to Arab Countries Fray

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Israel Finds a Lifeline in the U.A.E. as Its Ties to Arab Countries Fray


Only a few years ago, plenty of citizens of the United Arab Emirates were willing to speak warmly about their country’s budding ties with Israel.

Israel had just established relations with the Emirates through a U.S.-brokered deal. Business groups sprung up to funnel cross-country investment. Two women, Emirati and Israeli, posed for a photograph holding hands atop a skyscraper in Dubai. American, Emirati and Israeli officials predicted that their deal, called the Abraham Accords, would spread peace across the Middle East.

But now, as Israel’s monthslong bombardment of Gaza fuels anger around the region, Emirati fans of the deal are increasingly hard to find.

An Emirati businessman who had once touted the economic ties said that he had left an Emirati-Israeli business council, and that he had nothing else to say. Some Emiratis, although frustrated with the accords, said they were afraid to speak publicly, citing their authoritarian government’s history of arresting critics. One figure who did speak out, Dubai’s deputy police chief, declared online that Arabs had “truly wanted peace” and that Israel had “proved that its intentions are evil.”

Neither the Emirates nor Israel is likely to walk away from the deal, analysts say: It remains a diplomatic lifeline for Israel while its ties to other Arab countries fray, and it has brought the Emirates billions in trade and positive public relations in Western nations. But the current trajectory of the war does not bode well for the accords or the security of the Middle East, said Mohammed Baharoon, the head of B’huth, a Dubai research center.

“This is a partnership,” he said, “and if one partner is not paying their dues, then it’s not a partnership anymore.”

Anger toward Israel and its main ally, the United States, has risen sharply in the Arab world over Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, Gazan health officials say, and left two million others facing mass displacement, the risk of starvation and a collapsing medical system.

For the handful of Arab leaders who maintain ties with Israel, the war has pushed them to reconsider that relationship. Jordan recalled its ambassador in November. Egyptian officials have warned that any action that sends Gazans spilling into Egypt could potentially jeopardize a decades-old treaty. And Israel’s ambassadors to Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt have largely remained in Israel since the war began on Oct. 7, after the Hamas-led attack that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people.

The diplomatic chill has left Israel’s Embassy and Consulate in the Emirates as its only fully functioning diplomatic mission in the Arab world. Several government-owned airlines also suspended flights, leaving the Emirates as the only country in the Middle East where people can fly directly to Israel.

Despite the pressure, Emirati officials say they have no intention of cutting ties.

In a written statement to The New York Times, the Emirati government highlighted how Emirati officials had used their relationship with Israel to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid for Gazans, as well as the medical treatment of injured Gazans taken to the Emirates.

“The U.A.E. believes that diplomatic and political communications are important in difficult times such as those we are witnessing,” the government said.

In late February, Israel’s economy minister, Nir Barkat, became the first Israeli minister to visit the Emirates since Oct. 7, attending a gathering of the World Trade Organization. In an interview, he said he was “very optimistic” after meeting with Emirati officials.

“There’s a bit of sensitivity while the war is still happening,” he said, but the two countries “have aligned interests, and the Abraham Accords are extremely strategic for all of us.”

Still, even if the existence of the accords is not at stake, what the relationship will look like is far from certain, many Israelis and Emiratis said.

“The romantic phase of the Abraham Accords kind of faded away,” said Noa Gastfreund, an Israeli co-founder of the Tech Zone, a group that connects Emirati and Israeli tech entrepreneurs and investors. Now, she said, “we got into the realistic phase of understanding that it won’t be easy.”

The accords, announced in 2020, were particularly coveted by Israel as a major step toward greater integration into the Middle East, where Arab countries had long isolated Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and control over Gaza and the West Bank.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Donald J. Trump hailed the deal as a milestone, the Emirati president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, tempered his celebration. He emphasized that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump had reached an agreement “to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories.”

Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists poured into the Emirates, and in 2022, the country reported $2.5 billion in trade with Israel. A handful of Israeli restaurants opened in Dubai; one called itself Cafe Bibi, after Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname.

But cracks soon emerged among disappointed Emiratis, watching as Jewish settlements expanded in the West Bank and Israel formed the most right-wing government in its history.

Multiple plans by Mr. Netanyahu to visit the Emirates never materialized. The accords did not expand to include countries like Oman or Qatar. And while Saudi officials have pursued talks with American officials to potentially recognize Israel, they are uninterested in joining the accords — and are demanding heavy concessions.

At a conference in September, Anwar Gargash, a senior Emirati official, said that the Israeli relationship was “going through a difficult time.”

Tensions have only worsened since the war began. Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai’s deputy police chief, has posted scathing denunciations of Israel on social media, saying that Israeli leaders “don’t deserve respect.”

“I hope for all Arab leaders to reconsider the issue of dealing with Israel,” he wrote in January — an unusually frank plea in the Emirates, where most citizens say little about politics, out of both deference and fear.

Several Emiratis declined to be interviewed about the war in Gaza or Emirati ties with Israel. One Emirati in his 20s agreed to speak on the condition that he be identified only by a middle name, Salem.

He described a growing sense of cognitive dissonance as he enjoyed a comfortable life, amid gleaming skyscrapers and specialty coffee shops, while images of death and destruction streamed out of Gaza. The relationship with Israel was demoralizing, he said, particularly because he and many Emiratis had been raised to view Palestinians as brothers whom they must protect.

He now believes the Abraham Accords were an attempt to curry favor with the Emirates’ Western allies, he said. It made him feel like his country’s values were up for sale, he said.

Emirati views toward the accords had already grown darker before the war, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a generally pro-Israel research organization. By November 2022, 71 percent of those surveyed in the Emirates said that the accords were having a “negative” effect on their region.

So far, Emirati officials have responded to the war by focusing on aid to Gaza, directing increasingly harsh rhetoric toward Israel, and calling for a cease-fire and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The strongest remarks from an Emirati official to date came from Lana Nusseibeh, the country’s U.N. representative, in recent testimony to the International Court of Justice. She denounced “Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on the Gaza Strip,” argued that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was illegal and demanded consequences.

She also said, at a conference in Dubai last month, that the Emirati government was not willing to fund the reconstruction of Gaza without an “irreversible” pathway to a Palestinian state.

In an interview, Mohammed Dahlan, an influential Palestinian exile and a close adviser to the Emirati president, suggested that Arab rulers had soured on Mr. Netanyahu.

Before the war, Mr. Netanyahu and Biden administration officials had set their eyes on a larger prize than relations with the Emirates: an Israeli deal with Saudi Arabia.

That prospect now looks increasingly out of reach, scholars say.

“Israel has become a moral burden for anyone engaging with it,” a Saudi academic, Hesham Alghannam, wrote in a Saudi magazine last month. “Arabs are nearing the conclusion that while peace with Israel may still be conceivable, it is no longer desirable.”

During Mr. Barkat’s visit, an image circulated on social media of the Israeli minister and Saudi Arabia’s commerce minister exchanging business cards at an event. The Saudi government swiftly denied the meeting had been intentional.

“An unknown individual approached the minister to offer greetings and later identified himself as the minister of economy in the Israeli occupation government,” the government said in a statement.

Asked about the Saudi reaction, Mr. Barkat said, “we love to create collaboration with all peace-seeking countries in the region.”

Patrick Kingsley, Adam Rasgon and Omnia Al Desoukie contributed reporting.





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