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UAE foreign minister: Peace with Israel will grow despite change in government

ABU DHABI — The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, told me in an exclusive interview on Tuesday he is convinced that relations with Israel will continue to move forward regardless of the change of government in Jerusalem.

Why it matters: This was the first interview Bin Zayed has given to an Israeli journalist. The interview took place on the sidelines of Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's visit here, the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the UAE since the signing of the peace treaty between the countries in September.

What he's saying: “I was concerned Israelis are going to go through a phase of looking inwards and wasting the current momentum. But I think Lapid’s first call to anyone was to me," Bin Zayed said.

  • He called the new relationship with Israel "an exciting relationship" and said he is "not concerned about the change of government."
  • "What really amazed me is the excitement and how long it has lasted, and having a new Israeli government which is equally excited tells me that this is a much broader political belief and willingness to invest in the relationship."

Driving the news: Lapid arrived in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday and inaugurated the Israeli embassy there. Later, he met with Bin Zayed for the first time and signed an agreement on finance and trade cooperation.

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the opening of the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi and Lapid’s visit. “The U.S. will continue to work with Israel and the UAE as we strengthen all aspects of our partnerships and work to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all the peoples of the Middle East,” Blinken said.
  • On Wednesday, Lapid inaugurated Israel’s consulate in Dubai and visited the Israeli pavilion at the Dubai Expo, which will begin in October. The pavilion is the biggest one Israel has ever built.
  • Bin Zayed told me the Expo will be the next big opportunity in the new relationship between Israel and the UAE. “It will be the first ever Expo in the Middle East, and it gives a great platform for Israel,” he said.

Between the lines: The Emirati foreign minister was deeply involved in the secret relationship with Israel for almost 20 years. In September, he attended the peace ceremony at the White House with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and signed the peace treaty with Israel.

The big picture: He told me he hopes the Biden administration will continue pushing the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world.

  • He said he was happy that Blinken used the term “Abraham Accords” in their conversations, but expressed frustration about the fact that the Biden administration doesn’t use publicly the name given to the agreements by the Trump administration.
  • “What’s the rationale? ... There was no rationale. Zero. You like it. We like it. Part of the problem is history, culture and religion. So actually solving it through a religious, cultural, historical magnate is something we should all celebrate,” Bin Zayed said.

What’s next: Two days before his visit to Abu Dhabi, Lapid met Blinken in Rome and discussed the Abraham Accords. In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Lapid said the normalization process was part of the Biden administration’s agenda.

  • While the Trump administration saw the normalization process as a substitute for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Biden administration sees it as a supplement to moving forward on the Israeli-Palestinian track, according to Lapid.
  • The Emirati foreign minister said the big challenge of the normalization process is how to get the Palestinians into the game. He said Israel should work on improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza and avoid irresponsible steps in Jerusalem to prevent a new escalation.
  • But most of all, he said, Israel should try and strengthen the Palestinian Authority as a partner.
  • “I believe that sooner or later, Israel would have to solve the Palestinian issue. It doesn’t only tarnish Israel’s image, but could also cast doubt on Israel’s future. This is a big challenge for you,” Bin Zayed said.

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