Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
It was a rare embrace between one of Israel’s most controversial politicians and an Arab ambassador. Itamar Ben Gvir and the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja clutched each other’s hands in a warm greeting in Tel Aviv in early December.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” wrote a columnist in Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, arguing that the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel gain recognition from four Arab states including the UAE in 2020, did little to moderate Israel’s position on the Palestinians. Ben Gvir, he said, was “a superstar in the UAE.”
Israel on Thursday swore in what is likely to be the most right-wing government in its history, led by six-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ben Gvir, an extremist who has been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism, became national security minister. Bezalel Smotrich, who supports abolishing the Palestinian Authority and annexing the West Bank, became finance minister.
Both politicians were invited to national day celebrations in December hosted by the UAE and Bahrain, which were among the nations that normalized relations with Israel, along with Morocco and Sudan in 2020.
“The Emirates are here to show that unity equals prosperity,” Al Khaja was cited by the Times of Israel as saying at his country’s national day celebration, where he was photographed with Ben Gvir. “We will continue to use diplomacy to deepen connections through friendship and mutual respect.”
The public embrace of figures that are hated in the Arab world – and are divisive within Israel itself – is a rare gesture on the part of Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel.
Egypt and Jordan, who recognized Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, have had what observers have called a “cold peace” with Israel.
In his phone call to congratulate Netanyahu on returning as prime minister, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “emphasized the need to avoid any measures that would lead to tension and complicate the regional situation.” Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned in a CNN interview last month that his nation was “prepared” for conflict should the situation change at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, of which he is the custodian.
The rightward direction of Israeli politics puts Israel’s new Arab partners in an awkward position regarding the Palestinian cause, which remains a central issue among Arab publics.
“It is awkward not just for us (in the UAE), but for everybody, in America, and all over the place,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the UAE, told CNN. “It is a dilemma, but the way to deal with it is just to wait and see.”
An opinion poll by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in July 2022 showed that support for the Abraham Accords had dropped in Gulf countries to a minority view, including the UAE and Bahrain, where more than 70% of the public views the agreement negatively. The data however also showed that around 40% of people in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain support maintaining business and sporting ties with Israel.
The normalizing states appear to be cognizant of that. On Friday, all four Arab states continued the tradition of supporting the Palestinians at the United Nations by voting at the General Assembly to seek the International Criminal Court’s opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Netanyahu called the vote “despicable.”
But Israeli media has reported that behind the scenes, the Emiratis have also been sending messages of concern to Netanyahu about the inclusion of extremists in his government. Ahead of the Israeli elections, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed warned Netanyahu against including Ben Gvir and Smotrich in his government, the Times of Israel reported, citing a senior official. Axios, which first reported the news, said Netanyahu didn’t respond.
The move would be a rare case of one of Israel’s Arab partners showing a preference for the country’s domestic politics.
The UAE foreign ministry didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Israeli analyst Zvi Bar’el wrote in Haaretz that the December move to embrace Ben Gvir may have been linked to Abu Dhabi’s desire to steer Israeli policy, adding that it made the UAE “the Arab country with the greatest influence on the new Israeli government.”
The effectiveness of the UAE’s diplomacy within Israel remains to be seen. So far, Israel’s extremist minister seems unrestrained.
Less than a week since he was sworn in, Ben Gvir made a controversial visit to the al-Aqsa mosque compound escorted by Israeli police on Tuesday. The mosque, which lies in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, is in an area known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. It is the third holiest site for Muslims and the holiest for Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount. Under current arrangements, non-Muslims aren’t allowed to pray there and Ben Gvir wants to change that.
The UAE “strongly” condemned Ben Gvir’s visit without naming the minister, and called for the need to respect Jordan’s custodianship of the holy site. It later joined China in calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on the matter.
“However unhappy they (Bahrain and the UAE) might be towards the emergence of Israel’s most right-wing government, it’s clear that they’ve chosen to air these concerns privately, and have stopped short of letting them stand in the way of what they see as an important strategic relationship,” Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the Centre for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, England, told CNN.
But the UAE has said earlier that the more friendly ties with the Arab world weren’t a green light for Israel to expand its territory. In June 2020, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, warned Israel that its relations with Arab nations would suffer if there is any “illegal seizure of Palestinian land.”
Abdullah, the professor from the UAE, said that Abu Dhabi may have some leverage over Israel that it may use privately at times, but added that ultimately “everybody knows that nobody today has any leverage over Israel. Even America.”
Still, the UAE-Israel relationship is not everlasting, he said. “This relationship is going to be dictated by the UAE… When it doesn’t serve the interest of the UAE… it can collapse at any time.”
With additional reporting by Nadeen Ebrahim
Turkey’s ruling party mulls bringing elections ‘slightly’ forward
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party is considering a “slight change” on the date of elections scheduled for mid-June, Reuters cited AK Party spokesman Omer Celik as saying on Monday. Since the date of the elections corresponds with the summer holiday season, the party is evaluating bringing it “slightly forward,” he said.
- Background: Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled to be held on June 18, and Erdogan previously said elections would be held in June. The date change would not amount to snap elections, Celik said.
- Why it matters: The elections are set to take place as Turkey faces soaring inflation and an economic downturn that could hurt Erdogan’s prospects for re-election. But the government has of late tried to win back voter support through populist moves including wage hikes, retirement benefits, social aid, energy and agriculture support.
Amnesty condemns Iran for upholding protester death sentence
Amnesty International on Monday condemned the Iranian supreme court’s decision to uphold the death sentence of protester Mohammad Boroughani, who according to Iranian state media is accused of stabbing a security guard during a protest.
- Background: Boroughani will be executed under the “moharebeh law,” or waging war against God, the state-aligned Tasnim news agency said. Prior to the supreme court’s confirmation of the sentence, he was sentenced to death by a revolutionary court during a group trial in Tehran presided by notorious judge Abolghasem Salavati, Amnesty said.
- Why it matters: The protester is among 26 others identified by Amnesty last month as being at risk of execution in connection to the country’s nationwide protests. Iran has already carried out two protest-related executions over the past months of unrest. CNN has verified that at least 43 detainees are facing execution. The situation has drawn strong criticism from several European countries, including Germany, France and Britain.
Iran’s judiciary indicts two French nationals and a Belgian for espionage
Iran has indicted two French nationals and a Belgian for espionage and working against the country’s national security, Reuters reported, citing the semi-official Student News Network on Tuesday. The agency did not give the names of the three or say where or when they were indicted.
- Background: Belgium’s justice minister said last month that Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele had been sentenced to 28 years in prison in Iran for what he called a “fabricated series of crimes.” Iranian media aired a video in October in which two French citizens appeared to confess to spying. The video sparked outrage in France, which said the detainees were “state hostages.”
- Why it matters: A total of seven French citizens are being held in Iran, France’s foreign minister said in November. Iran has accused foreign adversaries of fomenting the wave of unrest that erupted three months ago. The protests mark one of the boldest challenges to the country’s leadership since its 1979 Islamic Revolution and have drawn in Iranians from all walks of life.
Regional: #HalaRonaldo (Hello, Ronaldo)
Soccer fans in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are celebrating the arrival of famed Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo in Riyadh, who touched down in the kingdom on Tuesday ahead of his unveiling ceremony with the Al Nassr Football Club.
Twitter was flooded with images of Ronaldo wearing the club’s yellow and blue colors, smiling on large billboards in the Saudi capital. Memes showed “sheikh Ronaldo” dressed in Arab attire, and another showed him wearing a jersey with the “Just do it” slogan for his sponsor Nike crossed out and replaced with “inshallah” – God-willing in Arabic.
A magazine in Saudi Arabia even put out ads for a full-time “Ronaldo correspondent,” Esquire magazine reported.
“Welcome to the greatest player in the world,” tweeted one Saudi user, sharing a video of a framed photograph of Ronaldo holding his Al Nassr jersey.
“The streets of Riyadh welcome Ronaldo,” tweeted one Kuwaiti social media influencer, saying Saudis are lucky their country has become home to such a high-status player.
The celebrations quickly faded for some, however, when a video showing Ronaldo mistakenly refer to his new home as “South Africa” on Tuesday went viral. “So, for me it’s not the end of my career to come in South Africa. This is why I wanna change. And to be honest I don’t really worry about what the people say,” the soccer star said at a press conference in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Some joked that Ronaldo accepted a large sum to play in Saudi Arabia only to get the country’s name wrong.
Al Nassr FC announced on December 30 that the footballer was joining their team, tweeting a photo of Ronaldo in its jersey. The 37-year-old was a free agent and immediately available due to his high-profile break-up with Manchester United last month.
By Nadeen Ebrahim