ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER NAFTALI BENNETT is seeking to build upon a series of peace deals with Arab countries by fortifying ties with the United Arab Emirates, even as he wages war on a particularly contagious strain of COVID-19 at home.
Bennett’s historic December trip to Abu Dhabi marked the first by an Israeli leader to one of the five nations that signed the Abraham Accords, through which four countries—the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—defied a decades-long Arab boycott to normalize relations with Israel. The four are the first to do so since Egypt and Jordan did decades ago.
Bennett’s reception by an honor guard at Abu Dhabi International Airport emphasized the level of relations being built by the two countries. “It was a meeting that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, and I think that understanding was felt on both sides,” a senior Israeli official who was part of Bennett’s delegation told Newsweek.
On his arrival, Bennett met with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and later went on to hold a four-hour meeting with Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. “Straight from the beginning,” the senior Israeli official said, “the Prime Minister was greeted with open arms and immense warmth. There was an instant connection.”
The visit came at a time of dueling talks and tensions across the Middle East, where Iran, Israel’s top rival, was also building diplomatic inroads into the Arabian Peninsula. About a week before Bennett’s trip, UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan traveled to Tehran to sit down with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Iran and the United States have yet to come to a resolution alongside other major powers in an effort to revive the two nations’ full compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018. Israel has protested the effort by the U.S. to return to the agreement, but President Joe Biden has pressed on with negotiations.
Concerns about direct escalation between Iran and Israel loom over the region, but just as nearly every other country in the world, Israel is already at war with a different kind of enemy: COVID-19. Bennett takes the war analogy seriously.
“Israel has spent 73 years fighting for its survival, and that’s something that made the Israeli people more resilient and more agile,” Bennett told Newsweek via a spokesperson on WhatsApp. “When faced by this invisible enemy, the Israeli fighting spirit kicked in and made Israel’s vaccine campaigns one of the most successful in the world.”
“We’ll do what we can to protect lives in the fight against COVID and in the face of the threats posed to our people,” he added.
In November, Bennett summoned top officials to hold a war game against what was then a hypothetical vaccine-resistant variant of the disease. “The purpose of the war game was to prepare us for the next war and not for the previous war, and it certainly did,” Bennett said. “When Omicron was discovered, we found ourselves in a much better situation than we could have been, largely thanks to the war game.” The exercise was launched on November 11, less than two weeks before the first case of what the World Health Organization would later call Omicron was reported in South Africa.
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