Below is an edited transcript of BICOM’s podcast with Dr Yossi Draznin, Director General of Israel’s Ministry for Regional Cooperation, who spoke to Richard Pater about normalisation between Israel and the UAE, on 10 September.
The UAE visit
I’ve travelled around the Arab world with the Israeli delegation but this was the best visit to an Arab country by far. The expectations of normalisation and its benefits are very high on the Israeli side and the Abu Dhabi side and it will be a big challenge to fulfil those expectations.
Before leaving I did my homework and I knew what to expect, but I was really surprised on how knowledgeable the Emirates were. They know very well the Israeli political system, the US political system and the international system. They have a clear mission ahead of them: to invest globally but also to ensure a return on such investment, which could be financial, influence or reputation. If we, Israelis, want to progress our economic and business relations we have to get our act together.
The first step of the normalisation agreement will be the start of a government to government working group, with several sub-groups that will focus on a wide range of issues, including finance, agriculture, tourism, culture, aviation and many others. So, we will proceed in several sub-groups to discuss how to build the relationship. We have the signing ceremony next week, and the following week, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we expect a working-group delegation to visit Israel and further discuss all the issues of the sub-groups. We have already passed onto them our initial ideas.
On the civilian tract, Israeli and Emirate businesses are not waiting for government-to-government relations to mature. At the moment both governments are working to ensure that the airlines can land in both country or the businesses can fulfil their plans and transactions. But at the end of the day, we are only laying the regulatory groundwork and we expect the private sector to do most of the work.
Red Sea-Dead Sea Project
In our ministry, we see this normalisation not only as a bilateral agreement but as an opening to a multi-regional dialogue between our immediate region, which includes Egypt, Jordan (and hopefully the Palestinian Authority) and the Gulf region. I know that the Israeli government is keen for our neighbours to benefit from our normalisation with the UAE. The Red Sea-Dead Sea project aims to take water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and in the middle there will be a water desalination plant which will serve the people in Israel and Jordan. However, it has been waiting to materialise for a long time now, due is budgetary constraints and we are welcoming our friends in the UAE to see in what ways they can become involved in the project and find some return on their investment if they decide to do so.
We have another project run by our Ministry called Jordan Getaway Free Zone Industrial Park, which is based on the Israeli-Jordan border and has a designating bridge crossing the Jordan River that connects the two side, allowing for greater accessibility and passage for people, raw materials, and produced products. When I was in the UAE I told the officials that both Israel and Jordan are prepared to allow the UAE the freedom to use the park to help business flourish.
For now, some of our political issues are behind us and the normalisation agreement is a good opportunity for us to reconnect with our Jordanian counterparts to see how both sides can progress with business projects. Jordan is in need of water and we have ideas of what might be the best way to get more water from Israel. We also have ideas on creating a regional cooperation centre somewhere between Eilat and the Jordanian coastal town of Aqaba and Taba on the Egyptian side, which can advance new agricultural and economic projects. Perhaps later on we might also be able to involve Saudi Arabia. It is still too early to say how the Jordanians will react to our agreement with the UAE. They are waiting to see how our relationship with the UAE develops but we are already sending them messages that they should join the partnership.
With Egypt, we have a very long border on the Sinai but very minimal population on both sides live near each other. Nevertheless, we are constantly trying to find new projects with our Egyptian counterparts. We have better understanding of each other needs now than we have had in the past and I am confident that in the near future we will come up with new projects both bilaterally and perhaps trilaterally with the UAE. One example is to expand the Qualified Economic Zones that we have with Egypt. At the moment they are only operational in the textile industry and we should advantage of its successful to expand it to other areas. At the end of the day, what we hope to achieve in our immediate region is that everyone will have food, jobs and live a prosperous life.
Re-engaging the Palestinian
With the Palestinians we work with more local authorities through COGAT. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority is stemming good projects that will benefit their population because of political considerations and not wanting to be seen cooperation with Israel. However, we need the PA to allow communities and private sector businesses in the West Bank to work with Israeli firms until the political horizon improves.
I do not see many signs at the moment that the PA will re-engage with us but I think everyone is of the agreement that the UAE move is a significant change to our region and that the Palestinians should be part of it – even just for the economic benefits and not the political.
The F-35 dilemma
I used to work in the Defence Ministry and was representing Israel in our embassy in Washington where I dealt with the security and defence aspects of our relationship, including arms sales to our neighbours and protecting Israel’s QME. I am not involved in these discussions anymore but I can ensure you that the relationship between Israel and the US are so strong and intimated that both sides will find a solution to the F-35 issue that will satisfy all parties involved.
The UK role
The UK should and must have a role in future dialogues between us and our regional allies. At the moment the UK is involved in two levels: the development agency (DfiD – now part of the Foreign Office) and the political side with the Foreign Office, which helps bridge our knowledge gaps, particularly with the Gulf countries in which the UK has a rich history and I see no reason why we should not learn from their experience. But I also call upon the UK business sector to use its relations with Israeli and Emirate companies to come into the discussion to help further develop ties between all three countries.