Will Netanyahu’s three postponed trips hurt Israel-UAE ties? – analysis

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For the third time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has postponed his first visit to the United Arab Emirates, in what would have been a milestone event after the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE was announced in August.

This cancellation comes at a sensitive time, with the Biden administration freezing or reversing some of the gestures that the Trump administration made toward the Gulf state while facilitating the Abraham Accords.

One of the previous postponements was at the UAE’s request. Netanyahu wanted to visit in the first week of December, which would have coincided with the country’s National Day. He then hoped to go later that month, or in early January, but then the Knesset was dissolved on December 23 and Israel switched into election mode.

The latest deferral of the trip planned for next week came on Thursday, after Israeli and UAE teams had actually coordinated the logistics of Netanyahu’s visit for the first time. Due to coronavirus restrictions, Netanyahu planned to pay only a three-hour visit, including meeting Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Muhammad bin Zayed in his palace, and skip a stop in Dubai. It remained uncertain whether he would also stop in Bahrain.

The Prime Minister’s Office statement on the trip’s postponement pinned it on commercial flights in and out of Israel being grounded due to COVID-19 variants entering Israel from abroad.

But you don’t have to be an insider to know that Netanyahu can get around coronavirus restrictions if he really thinks it’s important. And he doesn’t even need to bend the rules – he can borrow a private jet from a wealthy supporter, as he has done in the past, and it would be perfectly legal for him to fly abroad and back.

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The unstated reason is that Netanyahu feels he needs to set an example. The rate of people catching COVID-19 is on the rise, due to the new, more-contagious variants, and the rate of people getting vaccinated is dropping, so this is no time for him to be seen flouting the rules that the public has been told to follow to save lives.

Yet that reasoning was potentially awkward, because of tension between Israel and the UAE over coronavirus restrictions in recent months. First, Israel hesitated for diplomatic reasons to label the UAE a “red country” that Israelis can’t visit, despite the numbers warranting such a designation.

Then last week, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, Sharon Elroi-Price, blamed some of the high level of COVID-19 morbidity in recent weeks on Israelis who had visited Dubai.

“In two weeks of peace with [the UAE], more Israelis died than in 70 years of war,” Elroi-Price said, angering the authorities in Abu Dhabi. Netanyahu’s office apologized soon after, clarifying that Elroi-Price was blaming the Israeli government’s policies, not the UAE, for the situation.

Still, a well-placed source in Abu Dhabi said that Netanyahu’s stated reason for postponing the trip is understandable and acceptable, and that most Gulf states are considering some kind of lockdown soon. No disappointment was apparent among Emirati officials, the source said.

At the same time, there are diplomatic considerations. A meeting between Netanyahu and bin Zayed would have been a clear demonstration of the warm peace between the two countries, topping off almost six months since it was announced.

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But beyond the obvious symbolism, a Netanyahu visit would have been a chance to bolster ties at a time when the UAE’s relations with the Abraham Accords’ patron, the US, have quickly and suddenly been diluted.

The Biden administration announced that it was reviewing Trump-era agreements to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE and arms to Saudi Arabia, something they said was routine procedure when a new president takes office. Although American sources have said the UAE sale is likely to proceed, and the UAE embassy in Washington played it cool with a message that they were expecting this to happen, this is a development that may have put a damper on the celebrations in Abu Dhabi.

The F-35 sale was not a term of the Abraham Accords, but peace with Israel facilitated the deal because Jerusalem was more willing to accept the sale as not being a threat to its qualitative military edge.

Then on Monday, US President Joe Biden added a layer of frost to the relationship with the UAE by canceling the exception for Abu Dhabi to the Trump-era 10% tariff on aluminum exports, which former US president Donald Trump granted on his last day in office.

Also on Thursday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US will no longer support offensive operations in Yemen. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis.

As the Biden administration moves to put more daylight – as the Obama administration would have put it – between the US and the UAE, it would make sense for Netanyahu to reassure the Emiratis of the value of close ties with Israel, even when there is a less-friendly president in Washington.

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Of course, there’s the Biden administration’s goal of returning to the 2015 Iran Deal, along with Iranian compliance. Israel and the UAE worked together to oppose that deal years before the countries officially had diplomatic relations, though Netanyahu and Israeli officials were far more vocal about it than any Arab officials ever were. That alliance is likely to rear its head again, as the Biden administration promised to consult with US allies in the Middle East.

That being said, Netanyahu can still do all those things in a few weeks – if the coronavirus situation improves by then. And for Netanyahu there would be an added benefit, because the trip would take place even closer to the Knesset election on March 23 than it is now, making voters more likely to remember it, and its positive associations, when they go to the polls.

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