Jerusalem. — On June 29, Yair Lapid, Minister of Foreign Affairs, became the first member of an Israeli government to be officially received in one of the Gulf countries. The focal point of his visit to the United Arab Emirates was the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi.
In his speech, Lapid emphasized that “Israel wants peace with its neighbors – with all its neighbors.” He added: “We’re here to stay and we call on all the countries in the region to recognize that and to come talk to us.” Words of thanks to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who signed the so-called Abraham Accords weren’t lacking. Lapid added that peace “isn’t a compromise. It’s the most definitive choice we can make.”
“We have come to work”, Naftali Bennett stated in his inauguration speech and, indeed, during the first month of his mandate, in terms of foreign policy, the actions of the new government have followed suit. Yair Lapid has reestablished the role of foreign minister, a role that was in all practicality lost during Netanyahu’s mandates, when Bibi himself overshadowed his minister and personalized international politics.
Breaking with tradition, the new Israeli prime minister traveled to Jordan before Washington
Although in matters such as the Abraham Accords there’s a clear continuity with respect to the previous government, Bennett has broken away from his predecessor with a clear rapprochement towards Jordan. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be where it will be harder to differentiate his policies, since the current parties which make up the new government don’t see eye to eye on the matter. Whether or not the United States returns to the Iran Nuclear Deal (and under what conditions) will also be key for Israel, since this agreement would give Iran greater influence in the area, which isn’t in the interest of Israel or its new Arab allies.
At a delicate time due to the recent conflict with Gaza and the deep crisis in neighboring Lebanon, the newly elected executive leader replaced the traditional first official visit to Washington with a secret meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in early July. At that meeting, as the media later revealed, both leaders agreed to turn over a new leaf in relations between their countries.
Since the signing of the peace treaty in 1994, Jordan and Israel have maintained close ties related to security issues, but diplomatic relations had cooled. Furthermore, during the tensions in the run-up to the conflict last May and throughout the bombings in Gaza, Jordan was highly critical of Israel’s actions.
In the meeting between Bennett and Abdullah II, the water shortage in the Jordanian territory was discussed and possible help from Israel was considered. An agreement was closed shortly after between the respective foreign ministers of both countries: Yair Lapid and Ayman Safadi. Israel has committed to the sale of 50 million cubic meters of water and Jordan will increase exports to the West Bank to $700 million a year, now $160 million.
Another call that was not long in coming was to the president of Egypt, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who congratulated Bennett on his new position. The relationship between the two countries is key given the mediating role Egypt plays in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as could be seen last May.
The Israeli prime minister put the return of Israeli prisoners and the remains of fallen soldiers killed in various conflicts on the table. Al-Sissi called for the improvement of humanitarian conditions in Gaza, a cease-fire and the renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. They also discussed advancing cooperation on economic and social issues.
Although Bennett has an official visit to Washington scheduled for August, Lapid met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on June 27 in Rome. There he reiterated what’s no surprise to anyone: “There is no relationship more important to Israel than the United States of America. There is no loyal friend of the United States of America than Israel.”
Israel wants to prevent the United States rejoining the Iran nuclear deal
The Israeli Foreign Minister also had words of appreciation for U.S. support in the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have been followed by similar conversations with Morocco and Sudan. Blinken pointed out that these agreements do not replace the need to address unresolved Israeli-Palestinian issues. Lapid pledged to “minimize conflict between us and the Palestinians, while making life better for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
Lapid also expressed concern for the Jewish state over the terms of the U.S.’s possible return to the nuclear deal with Iran: “We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is through direct and professional conversation, not in press conferences.” Israel’s main fear is that with the resumption of the deal, the trade sanctions against Iran would be lifted, implying the entry of millions of dollars that would allow Tehran to increase its influence in the area, specifically in Lebanon.
The profound social and economic crisis in Lebanon is deeply worrisome to Israel. There is a constant, deep-rooted struggle for greater influence in the region between Iran, on the one hand, and Israel and the moderate Arab countries on the other. Israel is not interested in Iran sending money to Beirut through its Hezbollah allies, and in this way establishing itself as the country’s savior.
On July 6, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted on his official account: “In view of the dire economic situation in Lebanon and considering Hezbollah’s attempts to increase Iranian investments in the country, I have contacted UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force for Lebanon) through the intermediary of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and I have negotiated a proposal to send humanitarian aid to Lebanon”.
Gantz was perfectly aware that this gesture would be rejected by the Lebanese government, given the enmity between the two countries. Even after the explosion in Beirut’s port last August, when the country was in dire need of help, the government immediately rejected Israel’s aid offer.
United Arab Emirates
It was this shared concern about Iran’s influence, coupled with potential economic gains, which led the Gulf countries to sign the Abraham Accords last year. The new Israeli government’s hope is that more countries in the area will join the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as conversations with Morocco and Sudan are already demonstrating could occur.
One month after Lapid’s visit to Abu Dhabi, the UAE embassy was inaugurated in Tel Aviv on July 14 alongside the recently sworn in Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Emirati Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja. Herzog lauded the path Netanyahu and Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed had set out on and hinted at the possibility of more peace agreements in the region soon.
As for the Emirati ambassador, Al Khaja, stated in his speech that “we have seen trade talks and bilateral investment opportunities, as well as collaborations between hospitals and universities.” He also added that the embassy will not only be the place of residence for diplomats, but a base from which “to continue working to make the Abraham Accords a reality.”
Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher