Emirati ambassador pens love letter to Israel

Two men walking and talking with others

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with UAE ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus on 13 January 2019. 

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Pool Reuters

United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba penned an op-ed for an Israeli newspaper warning that annexation would set back normalization of ties with Israel.

The article appears to be an attempt to save face as Israel charges ahead with plans to annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank next month – an effort backed by the Trump administration – as the UAE cozies up to Israel.

“Recently, Israeli leaders have promoted excited talk about normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states,” Al Otaiba wrote in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday.

“But Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction.”

He warns that “annexation is the illegal seizure of Palestinian land. It defies the Arab – and indeed the international – consensus on the Palestinian right to self-determination.”

The planned annexation would be a formalization of what Israel has been doing on the ground for decades: stealing land, forcibly displacing Palestinians and building colonies in flagrant breach of international law.

Yet Al Otaiba’s article offers no explanation as to why all of these Israeli crimes, on top of Israel’s earlier annexation of occupied East Jerusalem and multiple wars on Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinians just in the past 12 years, were not enough to slow the march towards normalization.

Israel undoubtedly hopes that by forcing annexation through now it can create a new reality, where countries – including Arab governments – will eventually acquiesce to its illegal annexation.

In this context, the op-ed is more than anything a love letter to Israel. Al Otaiba gushes about how “Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy,” and of the “great potential of warmer ties.”

The tone is one of someone who is disappointed that a dear friend is about to do something to embarrass them.

Indeed, Al Otaiba and the UAE government have not been exerting meaningful opposition to Israel’s actions in recent years. Quite the opposite.

Al Otaiba brags that his country has branded the Hizballah resistance group, which drove Israeli occupation forces out of Lebanon, as “a terrorist organization,” and that the Emirates has “condemned Hamas incitement.”

Al Otaiba also boasts of being present when Donald Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, revealed the “Peace to Prosperity” plan.

“I was one of three Arab ambassadors in the East Room of the White House when President Trump unveiled his Middle East peace proposal in January,” he wrote in the Israeli newspaper.

The other two were ambassadors Abdullah bin Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa of Bahrain and Hunaina al-Mughairy of Oman.

Along with the UAE, Bahrain and Oman have eagerly jumped on the normalization bandwagon with Israel in recent years.

A year ago, Bahrain hosted a US-sponsored “peace” conference strongly opposed by Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was welcomed in Oman in October 2018.

Al Otaiba goes on to acknowledge the “quiet diplomacy” between the UAE and Israel.

“Israeli diplomats have an ongoing presence in Abu Dhabi at the headquarters of the United Nations International Renewable Energy Agency,” he writes.

Al Otaiba told Emirati publication The National before the op-ed was published that he thought it was “important to speak directly to the Israeli public.”

“We decided that Yedioth Ahronoth is probably the best place to run it to get a mainstream, broad Israeli audience,” he added.

“This land is disputed land,” Al Otaiba told The National.

“The American government can do whatever they want with their embassy, but this land is subject to an ongoing dispute for the past 60 years, and you’re essentially trying to resolve the dispute without a negotiation,” he added.

It is notable that Al Otaiba used the Israeli-preferred terminology of a “dispute.”

The territory in question is not “disputed.” It is occupied, and under international law Israel has no right to it whatsoever.

But Israel has for decades tried to get the world to refer to occupied Palestinian land as merely “disputed territories,” both to erase the fact of military occupation and to insinuate that Israel has a valid claim to it.

Al Otaiba’s op-ed in the Israeli newspaper also does not use the word “occupation” even once.

Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, praised Al Otaiba’s piece and echoed his denunciation of Israel’s annexation plan.

“The UAE, through its deliberate actions, refutes Netanyahu’s statements regarding relations with the Arab world and warns of the repercussions and dangers of expanding the occupation,” he tweeted.

Such words ring hollow, however, as Gargash is scheduled to speak at the annual global forum of the major Israel lobby group the American Jewish Committee next week.

Advised by Israel lobby donor

The piece was published in English and in Hebrew.

Despite its seemingly critical tone in places, it garnered positive attention from at least one Israeli official who hailed it as the first article by an Emirati official in Israeli media.

The spokesperson of Israel’s foreign ministry was “pleasantly surprised to read in Hebrew” Al Otaiba’s piece.

In fact, the Emirati ambassador had originally intended to publish his op-ed in an American newspaper such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid revealed on Friday.

Al Otaiba consulted with his friend, the Israel lobby billionaire mega-donor Haim Saban, more than a week before publishing.

The latter advised Al Otaiba to publish his article in Hebrew, according to Ravid.

Saban is, in his own words, “a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”

Saban brought on board Israeli businessman Moshe Debby, who runs a public relations firm in Tel Aviv, to help brainstorm where to publish Al Otaiba’s piece.

Ties to far-right Israel lobby

Al Otaiba has personally been close to some of Israel’s most extreme backers.

In 2017, The Intercept published Al Otaiba’s hacked emails, revealing coordination between him and the far-right, pro-Israel neoconservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Al Otaiba was in close touch with the think tank’s CEO Mark Dubowitz and senior counselor John Hannah. The latter was a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

The emails reveal “a remarkable level of backchannel cooperation” between the Emirates and the think tank, which is funded by pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson, according to The Intercept.

Their exchanges are evidently based on a mutual enmity towards Iran as well as to Qatar’s relationship with officials from the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas.

Other emails leaked to Middle East Eye show Al Otaiba corresponding with Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank linked to the Israel lobby group AIPAC.

Satloff offered Al Otaiba a meeting with a senior Israeli military official to evaluate the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system during the 2012 Israeli assault on Gaza that killed 174 Palestinians, the majority civilians.

“I would be interested in hearing how it did in Gaza recently,” Al Otaiba responded, agreeing to the proposal.

Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.