The United Arab Emirates has reduced official contacts with Israel in protest at Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to involve the UAE in his re-election campaign, Israeli and western officials said, in what is the first diplomatic crisis since the two countries normalised relations last year.
Since the so-called Abraham accords were announced last August, the UAE has enthusiastically embraced bringing its previously secret commercial and strategic ties with the Jewish state into the open, quickly fostering cultural, tourism and investment links.
But Abu Dhabi has been openly appalled by Netanyahu’s determination to parlay the bilateral relationship into electoral gains when Israelis vote next week.
The Emiratis were especially piqued when Netanyahu’s office leaked plans to the Israeli media ahead of the first ever visit by an Israeli leader to the UAE, which had been sold to them as a discreet discussion focused on Iranian aggression, two Israeli officials said.
The trip, due to take place last week, was cancelled at the last minute. A spat with Jordan over flyover rights for Netanyahu's plane, his team’s insistence on upgrading what was supposed to be a quiet visit to something close to a state visit and bringing his wife along all irritated the Emiratis, according to the Israeli officials.
Israeli and western officials said the UAE had since cut back formal contact with Israeli counterparts to a “bare minimum”, at least until the heat of the elections dissipates and a clear winner emerges. Israel’s longest serving prime minister hopes this vote will break a political stalemate that has seen Israelis go to the polls four times in two years. But the process could take weeks, if not months.
The UAE has telegraphed its irritation with Israel through veiled public statements. Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the UAE president, said the accords provided a foundation for peace with Israel and the wider region, adding in a tweet: “The UAE will not be a part of any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever.”
Sultan Al Jaber, UAE minister of industry and advanced technology, downplayed a $10bn investment package, saying it was “not politically associated”. The UAE would study investment prospects on a commercial basis, he said.
“The honeymoon [between the UAE and Israel] ended quickly owing to the stupidities of the new partner [ Israel],” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political science professor, in a tweet.
It is not the first time Netanyahu has upset an Arab power he is seeking to court. In November, Saudi Arabia was angered and embarrassed after Israel leaked a secret trip Netanyahu took to the kingdom to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's day-to-day leader. That meeting came as the Trump administration sought to convince Riyadh to follow the UAE's lead and normalise ties with the Jewish state.
The impasse has resulted in the postponement of a planned signing ceremony to mark the normalisation of relations between Israel and Sudan in Abu Dhabi with Israeli, US and Arab officials in attendance.
UAE officials have acknowledged receipt of documents relating to areas of common interest, such as banking co-ordination and a $10bn Emirati fund for investments into Israel, announced last week, only to then ignore any further follow-up by their counterparts, Israeli officials said.
One Israeli businessman said he was rescheduling planned trips because he did not want his meetings on agritech investments to be overshadowed by the politics. “It’s a complete waste of time right now, because with the Emiratis, there is one public face — if the government is happy, my clients are happy to do business. Right now, it's not a happy time.”
Officials and analysts doubt irritation over the electioneering will weaken the foundations of the deal, such as security co-operation against common foe Iran and bilateral investment and tourist opportunities.
“It is inevitable that such a relationship with Israel, which remains so controversial for so many in the Arab world, is and will remain subject to politicking, and some public spats are normal,” said Cinzia Bianco, research fellow on Europe and the Gulf for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But the potential is too appealing overall.” Emirati interest in partnering with Israel in the fields of technology, biotech, fintech and artificial intelligence should not be underestimated, she said.