TEL AVIV, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday a new partnership with the United Arab Emirates to work together to fight the corona virus. This is the latest advance in the Jewish state’s efforts to build closer ties with the Arab states.
However, Mr. Netanyahu’s euphoric description was contradicted a few hours later when the Emirates made a much more subdued statement announcing an agreement between two private Emirati companies and two Israeli companies to develop virus-fighting technologies.
The Emirates’ statement took the wind out of what Mr Netanyahu had touted as a diplomatic coup, suggesting that despite deepening ties, the two countries were still at odds over Mr Netanyahu’s promise to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
Mr. Netanyahu spoke to graduates from an Air Force base near Tel Aviv and spoke great about a new partnership that could benefit the wider Middle East.
“Our ability to address the corona pandemic can also benefit the entire region,” he said. “It creates opportunities for open cooperation that we have never known with certain countries.”
The partnership would include research and development collaboration between the Israeli and Emirates Ministry of Health on medical projects related to the coronavirus, he said.
To seal the deal, the two ministries would announce the agreement “in a few moments”.
However, it was unclear why the Emirates would consent to such a public move at a time when Israel was preparing plans to annex parts of the West Bank, a move that Arab countries, including the Emirates, have repeatedly denounced.
And four hours later, when Israeli officials braised, the answer came in a Twitter post from a spokeswoman for the Emirates State Department.
“Given the strengthening of international research, development, and technology collaboration for humanity, two private companies in U.A.E. sign an agreement with two companies in Israel to develop research technologies to combat Covid-19. ” wrote Hend al-Otaiba, the spokeswoman.
No state partnership between the two countries that do not have diplomatic relations but whose relations have improved in recent years has been mentioned, and nothing about their health ministries.
On Thursday, it was unclear whether the two countries had reached a private agreement that would dissolve when it became known, or what the daylight between the two announcements caused. However, it appeared that Mr Netanyahu’s plans for annexation had made the representatives of the Emirates uncomfortable to take such a public step towards Israel.
Barbara A. Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the Emirates and a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Mr. Netanyahu’s testimony had urged the Emirates to make a statement she was unwilling to do.
When stronger state-to-state contacts were in the works, it was clear that the Emirates did not want to publish them.
“You are not on the same side at a time when the Israeli government is openly discussing how much West Bank should be annexed,” said Ms. Leaf.
Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank by July 1, a move that much of the world sees as a violation of international law and a new obstacle to the establishment of a future Palestinian state.
Just two weeks ago, the embassy of the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, wrote a pioneering article in a leading Israeli newspaper that directly warns Israelis that “the annexation will definitely and immediately reverse all Israeli efforts to improve security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and the United Arab Emirates”.
“It is either annexation or normalization,” says the headline.
Mr. al-Otaiba did not respond to a request for comment.
A public partnership with the Emirates would have been a political stroke of luck for Mr. Netanyahu, who tried to build relationships with Arab countries without making progress on a peace deal with the Palestinians. While some Arab leaders have rejected the possibility of relations with Israel, others have long viewed an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a prerequisite for warming relations.
In recent years, the Persian Gulf monarchies have turned from Israel as oppressors to their conflict with the Palestinians and instead see it as a valuable partner in trade, security and their rivalry with Iran.
Shimrit Meir and the Israeli analyst from the Arab world said Thursday’s announcements are still significant despite the obvious mistakes.
“We have two private companies that work with Israeli companies on Covid: this is almost unknown in the Middle East language,” she said.
When she found that the two countries had previously worked together in secret, she said, “I think the trip is both important and brave.”
The two countries had recently been working in secret to fight the virus when Mossad, the Israeli secret service, quietly purchased some of the devices Israel needed to fight the corona virus from European Gulf states, according to European media reports.
While Israel remains deeply unpopular in much of the Arab world, the Palestinian cause has become less important to the region as the Arab states have turned inward to deal with economic crises, popular uprisings, and the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State deal with.
Persian Gulf countries such as the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have viewed Iran as the primary threat to regional stability and recognized Israel as a potential partner in fighting it.
“The U.A.E. has changed his approach to relations with Israel only in the face of the Iranian threat, which they also perceived as a threat, ”said Eli Avidar, who headed an Israeli mission to Qatar in 1999-2001 and is now a member of the Israeli Parliament.
This has led to a gradual increase in covert business with Israel between Gulf States on issues such as security, technology, agriculture, and most recently health.
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem.