A senior Emirati official has told of how both the UAE and Israeli governments were taken aback by the level of support on the Israeli street for warmer relations before the Abraham Accords were announced, as he acknowledged a “mistake” in previously barring athletes from the Jewish state.
Dr Ali A Nuaimi, who helped pave the way for the Accords , told Jewish News the impact of the historic normalisation agreement on the ground had “exceeded” all expectations in just over a year.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper in Abu Dhabi, he suggested his generation of Arabs had been “hijacked by a narrative that created hate between us” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been an issue people couldn’t look beyond.
But the chair of the International Centre of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism – who had behind the scenes been welcoming ever larger groups of Jewish leaders from abroad since 2012 – said: “When the issue between the Palestinians and Israelis came to a dead end and there was no hope, our leadership saw an opportunity to make a move in the right direction. There was engagement with some of our Jewish friends in the US and later on with the US administration. We also approached Netanyahu at that time.”
A watershed moment came with the publication in Hebrew of an article by the UAE’s Washington envoy. “We were shocked to see the great response from the Israeli people which encouraged us to move forward. Netanyahu didn’t expect the majority of Israelis would accept and interact positively with the messages in that article. We were able to engage in a real discussion and negotiation which end up with the announcement of the Abraham Accords.”
The process has confirmed, according to Al Nuaimi, that people in the region have changed. “Many outside don’t understand that,” he said. “If we’d made this announcement 20 or 30 years ago you would see millions demonstrating against it in Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Beirut. The Arab people are fed up with wars and terrorism, they want peace. This is the message I want our friends in the West to understand – don’t approach us with the same narrative. The Israelis have changed, the Palestinians have changed and the Arabs have changed. Some leaders didn’t yet change but they will. We have to match the expectation of the people with a narrative that will build bridges between all those of this region.”
He is especially proud of the engagement between young Israelis and their counterparts in the UAE as well as Bahrain and Morocco since they signed up to the Accords, and pointed to the large turnout for the opening of Israel’s pavilion at the Dubai Expo. He insisted only Israel’s stringent covid entry restrictions had prevented a travel boom to the Jewish state, in the same way Israelis have already flocked to the UAE. Even his enthusiasm for the Accords couldn’t persuade him to spend a week in a quarantine hotel as he would have had to do to take up an invitation to attend a counter-terror conference in September, he joked.
So had it been a mistake not to even let in Israeli sportspeople to compete for so many years? His answer was quick and unequivocal. “Yes. The engagement people to people will change the region. When I sit with you you will know about me from me and not from others. We will build trust and respect and see the common interests.”
Al Naimi addressed the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace last month, joining hundreds of Muslim scholars, academics and civil society leaders at an annual gathering led by Sheikh bin Bayyah, chair of the UAE Fatwa Council, to tackle extremism and promote inclusive societies. He also welcomed plans to take the FFP to the UK.
Asked if there was a need for moderate voices to be louder in the West, Al Naimi said: “They should be louder, not only in the West. Everywhere. We need them. My wish is that those who spoke freely here go back to their country and speak the same way. We have to have courage and be willing to make sacrifices for our cause. There are risks when you speak publicly about these values but that should not make us back off.”
The rise of antisemitism in Europe and fears of some to be openly Jewish in parts of the Continent must be addressed through education systems and involve engagement with leaders from all faiths, he insisted,
Returning to the Middle East, he said the Saudi Arabia was “very supportive” of developments in the region and gave no indication that the Kingdom was about to join the accords. “The Saudi leadership have an obligation because they have Mecca. We have to understand that. This is why the question should not be when the Saudis will join but when the negotiation between Israeli and the Palestinians will start because at that point the world, not only the Saudis, will push for a peace treaty from all sides.”
He hoped the fact Israelis have shown an appetite for peace with Arab states would also help to push Jerusalem to progress the Palestinian track, despite the fact the current Israeli government has clearly stated two states are off the table Under Naftali Bennett. He said: “We believe we made a mistake – the Arabs – in the last 70 years. We didn’t engage with the people. Now when Israelis visit the UAE they see with their own eyes that we are Arab, we are Muslim, but we believe they are part of the region. The message that went to them in the last 70 years was that they are not accepted. That whenever there is an opportunity to destroy Israel it will be taken. They see from our people, not only our leadership, it’s different. This assurance to the Israeli people will in the end make the Israeli politicians make the right decision to meet the expectation of the Israeli people in creating peace.”
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