Israel’s top diplomat Yair Lapid opened Israel’s first embassy in the Gulf during a trip to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, nine months after they signed a normalization deal.
He met with his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, tweeting a picture of the two of them shaking hands shortly after the opening of the embassy.
Lapid earlier also tweeted a photo of himself and UAE minister Noura al-Kaabi cutting a ribbon in the blue and white of the Israeli flag.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the opening as “historic”.
Lapid’s visit and the opening of the first Israeli embassy in a Gulf state are “significant for Israel, the UAE, and the broader region”, he said in a statement.
Israeli ministers have previously visited the UAE, but newly appointed Lapid became the most senior Israeli to make the trip, and the first on an official mission.
“Israel wants peace with its neighbors. With all its neighbors. We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home. We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognize that. And to come talk to us,” Lapid said during the opening ceremony.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said Lapid would meet “five (Emirati) ministers in less than 30 hours”.
Since their U.S.-brokered normalization agreement was signed last September, Israel and the UAE have signed a raft of deals ranging from tourism to aviation and financial services.
During his visit, Lapid was also due to inaugurate a consulate in Dubai.
Lapid’s trip comes nearly a year after the nations moved to normalize ties, and it follows a string of visits by Israeli officials that were planned then scrapped over issues including the Covid pandemic and diplomatic scuffles.
In March, a planned official visit by Israel’s then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was cancelled due to a “dispute” with Jordan over the use of its airspace, according to Israeli officials.
Netanyahu, replaced as prime minister by Jewish nationalist Naftali Bennett in a coalition government cobbled together by Lapid weeks ago, had already postponed a February visit to the UAE and Bahrain over coronavirus travel restrictions.
– ‘Shalom’ –
According to the Jerusalem Post daily, Netanyahu sought to prevent his foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi from making an official visit to the UAE, to keep him from stealing the spotlight ahead of March elections.
In August 2020, former White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat made history by flying to Abu Dhabi on an El Al plane from Israel.
That was feted by both sides as a breakthrough in efforts for peace in the Middle East, marked by the El Al jet touching down adorned with the word “peace” in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
The normalization accords Israel struck last year with the UAE and then also with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have been condemned by the Palestinians.
The deals break with years of Arab League policy of no relations with Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians.
Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which rules Gaza, said the embassy opening showed the UAE was “insisting” on the “sin” of implementing the normalization accord.
Also on Tuesday, Bahrain appointed its first ambassador to Israel.
Lapid is a centrist former television presenter who tenaciously hammered together Israel’s new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s more than decade-long tenure as prime minister.
He has sought to break from his rival’s policies, saying Monday that Netanyahu’s government had taken “a terrible gamble” by focusing only on ties with the Republican party in Washington.