Lapid heads to UAE on first official visit by an Israeli minister

Israel’s top diplomat Yair Lapid visited the United Arab Emirates Tuesday on the first official trip by a minister from the Jewish state after the two regional powerhouse economies normalised ties last year. 

Lapid landed at Abu Dhabi airport, later tweeting: “Making history: Proud to represent the State of Israel on its first official visit to the United Arab Emirates. Thanks for the warm welcome.”

Alongside the tweet, he posted an image of himself disembarking the plane to a welcome from a small delegation led by an Emirati diplomat to minimal fanfare.

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. 

The head of mission at the Jewish state’s embassy in the UAE tweeted: “30 years as a diplomat, but to see the blue and white (Israeli colours) here at the Abu Dhabi airport, whilst waiting for the minister of foreign affairs to land — is exciting!”

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 inaugurate the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi as well as a consulate in Dubai. 

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 weeks ago, had already postponed a February visit to the UAE and Bahrain over coronavirus travel restrictions. 

– ‘Peace’ –

According to the Jerusalem Post daily, 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. 

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, as well as with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, have been condemned by the Palestinians. 

They break with years of Arab League policy which has held that there should be no relations with Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians. 

In October 2018, Netanyahu and his wife 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 a decade as prime minister.

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

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