Israel’s transportation minister, Miri Regev, targeted the United Arab Emirates with a barb that sent her colleagues scrambling to protect relations with one of Israel’s most important Gulf Arab partners.
“I’ve been to Dubai,” Regev said Wednesday. “I won’t be going back. I don’t like the place.”
Israeli officials have touted official and private travel to the UAE as the first fruits of the Abraham Accords. Regev juxtaposed that expression of distaste with compliments for Emirati infrastructure, a pairing that set the stage for her subsequent claim that she was making a joke, but Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen took the comment seriously enough to counter it with his own statement of affection for the Arab capital.
“I [love] Dubai, and so do one million Israelis that visited the UAE last year,” he wrote on Twitter.
Cohen added emojis that signify peace between Israel and the UAE. The Gulf Arab state was key to the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, a pact that established diplomatic relations between both the UAE and Bahrain. That agreement, which now also includes Sudan and Morocco, was the crown jewel of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy before he lost power in 2021. Yet Israeli relations with Arab neighbors have taken a series of blows in recent weeks, delivered in part by far-right members of the coalition that enabled Netanyahu to return to the prime minister’s office.
“Israel and the UAE maintain fruitful political relations in all fields, including today,” Netanyahu’s office said on March 12.
That statement was offered a contradiction of a report that the Emirati officials had warned Jerusalem that the behavior of Netanyahu’s coalition is impeding cooperation between the two capitals.
“Until we can be sure that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a government he can control, we will not be able to jointly operate,” UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zeyed told Israeli officials, according to the Jerusalem Post.
If that quotation has been disputed by Netanyahu’s team, the subsequent acrimony has unfolded in public. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, amid a trans-Atlantic tour that saw him visit the United States and France without securing a meeting with representatives of either government, declared that “there are no Palestinians because there isn’t a Palestinian people” while boasting that “God is gathering his people” into the Jewish state.
“There are Arabs around who don’t like it, so what do they do? They invent a fictitious people and claim fictitious rights to the land of Israel, only to fight the Zionist movement,” Smotrich said in Paris. “The Arabs in Israel must hear it, as well as certain Jews in Israel who are confused — this truth must be heard here at the Elysee Palace and at the White House in Washington, and everyone must hear this truth.”
Smotrich made that statement while standing at a podium adorned by a map of “Greater Israel,” an image that implied Israel’s rightful boundaries should encompass the neighboring monarchy of Jordan, along with parts of Syria.
“The latest comments by Mr. Smotrich, which were delivered at a podium adorned with an inaccurate and provocative map, are offensive, they are deeply concerning, and, candidly, they’re dangerous,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said Tuesday.
Jordanian officials condemned Smotrich for “reckless incitement and a violation of international norms and the Jordanian Peace Treaty.” Emirati officials echoed that disapproval.
“The UAE has condemned statements by Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich in which he denied the existence of the Palestinian people,” the UAE foreign affairs ministry responded. “The UAE also condemned his use of a map of Israel that includes lands from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Those foreign policy controversies erupted against the backdrop of an intense domestic dispute over a judicial reform law that Israeli opposition leaders regard as an attempt to assert Netanyahu’s political control over the judiciary. The overhaul is championed by Smotrich and was launched following a deal to secure his participation in a coalition to give Netanyahu a parliamentary majority.
Netanyahu’s team, as well as the Israeli Foreign Ministry, hastened to affirm that “Israel is committed to the peace agreement with Jordan, in 1994.” And Regev, in a social media post after her speech Wednesday, said she had accepted an invitation to Dubai and accused the media of mischaracterizing her comments.
“A few minutes ago, I spoke with my friend, the ambassador of the UAE, Mohammed al-Khaja. He also understood what the media was trying to do, taking things out of context,” she said. “The attempt at a conflict between [the two] countries became an invitation for another visit.”