December 3, 2020

U.A.E. and Israel Agree to Visa Waivers and Direct Flights

JERUSALEM — Diplomats from the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday made their first official trip to Israel since the countries normalized relations in August, and the two sides signed pacts deepening their ties, including allowing their citizens to travel from one country to the other without visas — Israel’s first such waiver with an Arab state.

Confined to the Ben-Gurion Airport tarmac as a coronavirus-related precaution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Obaid Hamaid Al Tayer, the U.A.E.’s minister of state for financial affairs — along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of the United States, which brokered the new diplomatic relationship — marked the milestone under a temporary canopy, with an Etihad Boeing 787 Dreamliner providing the backdrop.

“Today we are making history,” Mr. Netanyahu said, assuring his guests that “the enthusiasm for this peace agreement among our peoples is enormous, it’s real, it’s broad, it’s deep.”

These ties create a tremendous foundation for economic growth, opportunity, innovation and prosperity,” Mr. Mnuchin added.

But some aspects of the bilateral pacts announced Tuesday further antagonized the Palestinians, who were enraged by the Emiratis’ decision to bring their below-the-radar cooperation with Israel into the open with formal diplomatic relations. The Palestinians had long counted on Arab solidarity to deny Israel such normalization until they had achieved statehood.

Tuesday’s visa-waiver agreement, in particular, frustrated Palestinians who pointed out that Israel would now let Emiratis visit Israel and Jerusalem with ease, while still forcing residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to submit to an often insurmountable permitting process, including extensive security checks, before gaining access to Muslim holy sites like the Aqsa mosque compound.

“I need a permit issued by the Israeli military to visit Jerusalem,” Salem Barameh, who leads the Palestinian Institute for Public Diplomacy, wrote on Twitter. “The city I was born in. But now an Emirati can go visa-free because two warmongering, human rights abusing regimes made a deal together for weapons. Does this sound just to you?”

ImageA pipeline to carry Emirati oil to the Mediterranean Sea is one of the Abraham Fund’s first planned projects.
Credit…Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israel has visa waivers with many European and South American countries, but even citizens of the United States, its closest ally, must obtain visas before entering the Jewish state, and vice versa.

The Emirati delegation also formally asked on Tuesday to establish an embassy in Tel Aviv. Israel is expected to do the same in Abu Dhabi.

Another bilateral agreement signed on Tuesday paves the way for direct flights between Tel Aviv and the Emirates, which would promote commercial ties between two of the region’s wealthiest countries and open a vital new hub for Israelis traveling to the Far East. Other pacts were described as providing protections for investors and promoting scientific and technological cooperation.

Trump administration officials also announced that the governments of the United States, the U.A.E. and Israel will create a $3 billion investment fund, to be called the Abraham Fund, that would seek to promote private investment in Israel, the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

One of its first planned projects is the revival of an oil pipeline across Israel from Eilat, on the Red Sea, to Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean, to carry Emirati oil bound for European customers. It would allow the oil to bypass the Suez Canal, lowering energy prices and speeding shipments, said Adam Boehler, chief executive of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, a government agency.

The “Med-Red” pipeline was built decades ago to move Iranian oil, Mr. Boehler said, before the Islamic revolution of 1979 turned Israel and Iran from allies into bitter enemies.

The other initial project would be to “modernize the checkpoints” for the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Mr. Boehler said. Israel has already upgraded a number of key crossings with biometric scanners and other technology, cutting the time it takes to transit those bottlenecks from hours to minutes.

In an interview, Mr. Boehler said that Mr. Netanyahu had pressed him about the idea over lunch recently and had made checkpoint improvements “No. 1 on his list” of recommendations for the new fund.

Credit…Hazem Bader/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But that announcement drew harsh denunciations from Palestinian officials who said it meant that Emirati and American money would be used to reinforce Israel’s military rule. The news appeared to heighten Palestinians’ feelings of betrayal by the U.A.E.

“It is a stamp of approval for the Israeli occupation’s continuation,” said Ahmad Majdalani, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of social development. “It’s a gift that will encourage Israel to continue its unjust actions.”

Emiratis have insisted that their normalization of relations with Israel would ultimately prove helpful to the Palestinian cause. But Mr. Majdalani pointedly said that Emirati-funded checkpoint upgrades would not bring peace any closer.

“We are not fooled by what they are doing,” he said.

Mr. Boehler defended spending to improve checkpoints, where on a normal day tens or even hundreds of thousands of Palestinians cross into Israeli territory for work or medical appointments.

“If you represent the Palestinian people and we can save 200,000 or 400,000 hours, every single day, that’s a huge economic cost,” he said. “That makes a big difference. And it makes a big difference to people in the West Bank.”

Mr. Boehler said that the fund would also “look at investments that benefit directly the resilience of people in the West Bank.”

In a statement, the Emirati minister of state, Ahmed Al Sayegh, said the fund was intended to “put the well-being of people first, regardless of their creed or identity.”