Israeli diplomat Eitan Na’eh has had the unique distinction of being Ambassador in both the Gulf countries which recently altered the course of Arab-Israeli conflict by signing the Abraham Accords – the UAE and Bahrain.
He was Israel’s first diplomat to the United Arab Emirates following the Abraham Accords and served as chargé d'affaires of the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi, a position he had held since January.
Last week, Ambassador Na’eh was nominated as Israel’s first ambassador to Bahrain on the same day that Bahrain’s new envoy to Israel presented his credentials to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Speaking exclusively to Majalla, he emphasized that his mission was to nurture the relationship that began with the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020 – which marks its first anniversary this year.
“I think we have seen an influx of many Israelis and business people (and) people-to-people contacts are not a novelty anymore but rather an everyday reality,” the diplomat said.
“Israelis are contacting Emirati colleagues on a daily basis as government officers and the embassy, of course, are coordinating and leading or talking to various levels. So we have government-to-government, business-to-business and people-to-people relationships and the overall picture has started forming. We know each other better now and the overall image is starting to materialize, albeit more slowly because Covid has made it very difficult for travel.”
Against this backdrop of new understanding and outreach, both countries have reached and signed nine agreements while more are being negotiated to be signed in the near future.
Ambassador Na’eh sets great value on how people of both countries need to see the real life behind media headlines.
“Without Covid, we would have seen more contacts with the Emiratis going to Israel and coming back with the view of what Israel looks like,” he said.
“What you see normally in the Arab media and newspapers is not quite accurate. It is a frozen moment of what is a more layered and more complicated situation, which is a normal reality like any other country. People get up in the morning, take their kids to school, take them to kindergarten, they go to work, buy and sell houses, they travel, they study - it is life as normal. Whereas what people know is only the impression they get from what they see on TV. People see black smoke, soldiers and war.”
EXPO 2020 TO CHANGE PERSPECTIVE ON ISRAEL
He is optimistic that the Israeli Pavilion in the Expo 2020 will help to change perspectives about Israel through a dramatic framing of what he calls ‘the Israeli spirit and its vision of what is tomorrow’ and of Israeli culture through shows.
“Israeli culture will come here during Expo 2020. The Expo and the Israeli pavilion will be a meeting place not just for Emiratis and Israelis but, we hope, for people from all over the region.
Israeli culture will be presented every week with a new show, 25 in all. The Israeli pavilion is like the Abrahamic tent - an open structure showing the innovation of the Israeli spirit and its vision of what is tomorrow.
“I think that will bring a lot of contacts on the person-to-person level although we do have a big business delegation coming here in October which will be 250 business people and government ministers.”
He added, “Business deals are already being signed and investments made by the Israeli energy sector in food tech, agriculture, venture funds, and water technologies which generate water from air. Cooperation in space research and exploration will start soon. All this and more are to come.”
JOINT WATER PROJECT IN THE MAKING
The first project between the UAE and Israel, which will showcase technology transfer cooperation will be the generating of water from air.
Ambassador Na’eh calls it “a wonder, a miracle, science fiction in my opinion”. The project takes on especial significance when seen against the backdrop of how water wars are taking center-stage globally and in this region, the current crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the Nile River Dam.
“The water project is being developed by a private Israeli company called Water Gen. The first factory will open here in the Emirates creating water from thin air. It will be produced here in the Emirates. It will be made available, and can be made available in other countries, Egypt included. And this is just an example of what happens when we cooperate. While we bring the technology, we also conduct joint research together with local experts because the technology needs further development.
“This will be a product of cooperation and shows you that sometimes when you bring this kind of thing to the table, 1 plus 1 equals 3 or 4 or 5, not just the simple 1 plus 1 equals 2. So the benefits are many.”
Simply put, the technology uses a box whose size depends on the amount of water required, whether it is for a private house, a block of apartments or for the public in the parks, the beach or in the middle of a desert. The mechanism will simply just suck air into the unit, separate oxygen from hydrogen, mix it with minerals, cool it and then it is ready to drink,” he explained.
“You don’t need any infrastructure, no pipelines, no logistics, just the water generating unit. The existing technology uses diesel, but future technology will work with solar panels and other alternative energies. It is not yet a ready-made product, we still need to do more research and adjust it to local conditions as we still don’t know everything.”
He is also optimistic that the same cooperation will extend to food technology, using the cutting-edge scientific methods which offer sustainable production methods - of meat and plant-based food production in laboratory conditions and in medical and scientific research where research can be jointly carried out in areas such as genomics and space research.
“Despite some disagreements, we can still work together in everything to promote food security, water security and sustainability, as well as cooperation in climate change. So yes, this signifies that we are open to normalization which means increased cooperation,” Ambassador Na’eh said. “It is a learning curve, but it is really designed to make the life of people in our region better with cooperation, with technology, and with mutual understanding.”
CLUB NOT CLOSED
To Ambassador Na’eh, the Abraham Accords represent the desire of all people for peace and a better life. Having signed normalization agreements with UAE and Bahrain and the agreement to renew diplomatic relationships with Morocco and the declaration with Sudan, he said that the more countries which join, the easier it will be to solve misunderstandings and conflicts.
“The club is not closed, the club is open. I do realize that not everybody agrees with us nor is happy about the new arrangements. But we can either keep on fighting for another 100 years or we can try to solve problems peacefully and pave the way for a better life, a higher standard of living and quality of life for people in our region. It is in the hands of the people of this region.”
He added firmly, “We are Israel as a fact, Israel exists, Israel enjoys a lot of advantages, other countries have their advantages, and there is a lot of knowledge and human energy in this region. I prefer as a diplomat, of course, to direct (the energy) towards a positive direction and to accumulate and focus all this energy towards development, towards raising the standard of living, harnessing the power of technology, optimism, resources, and of the young generation towards a brighter future.”
“I am hopeful that people are looking at what happens when you normalize relations, and will see the fruits of peace, emulate the model in one way or another and not just for us, but for everybody. I get calls and messages from people in Iraq, Morocco, even Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestinians.”
“People are tired of war. People are tired of violence. It is up to us to offer an alternative, or to continue for another 100 years to argue and to spill more blood. It is in our hands and in the hands of the young generation that is growing up in the Middle East.”
Given the newness of the relationship between UAE and Israel, he said he never felt unsafe in the UAE and only sensed friendship, curiosity and tolerance.
“Of course, I feel safe, of course, I feel secure and, of course, I feel very welcomed by the Emiratis. What I am experiencing here is tolerance, curiosity, and friendship. One cannot but see the hospitality, the ability and will to listen among those who agree with us and those who are in disagreement with us. We may not necessarily agree on anything but at least we agree to listen to each other.”
“The alternative when not agreeing with someone is to turn to violence. We can try to persuade each other. We can try to show each other a better way and show each other how to do positive things. So to answer your questions, I feel very safe, very welcome and to even utter the word discrimination would be a disservice to the UAE, and, from the little that I have heard from Bahrain, again there will be very positive feelings towards my arrival. I don’t expect things to change in one day. So I bring hope.”
As a diplomat, Ambassador Na’eh says he brings optimism, hope and the will to learn to his every assignment. He says he doesn’t make comparisons between countries and considers every country as different.
“What I do have and what I am equipped with is optimism and hope. Yes, I have diplomatic experience and also optimism that we can make a change. You can make things happen, and when you make things happen, the sky does not fall on you, the sun does not get any further or closer but suddenly the world around you changes and it was our actions that changed reality.”
“I have a strong belief that optimism is a very important element when you become a diplomat because what is the other option – war and no relationships, no cooperation, only a wall between us. The alternative is very negative and I believe in the ability to change. The diplomats can make a difference by following up from the leaders and the politicians. We are here to facilitate.”
He also underscored the need to absorb the vision of leaders and understand local sensitivities because diplomats “build a bridge between cultures.”
“The bravery and the vision of leaders can bring results. (As a diplomat) I at least have the experience to try to facilitate and make that happen.”
“What we have to bring with us (as diplomats) and what I am bringing with me is the will to learn. This is the will to learn the local culture and to learn about the local sensitivities as well as to learn how to bring people together. It is more than just talking the local language but more so knowing that every language has a whole culture behind it.”
Speaking about his appointment as Israel’s Ambassador to Bahrain and the challenges that he is expecting, he said.
“I want to build bridges of understanding. It is not a secret that not everybody in Bahrain thinks the same about the peace process. I believe that with increased dialogue, when the fruits of peace become more visible, and when you increase understanding, when you increase cooperation, then the idea of peace won’t sound so alien.”
“Quite a bit of work was done so far and we now have an embassy in Manama. So, I really hope to further the relationships, to improve and expand them, and to offer hope. We want good relationships, friendships and better understanding between the two nations.”
He also emphasized that he hoped to engage with “all Bahrainis” – a clear reference to opposition to peace with Israel from some predominantly Shiite Muslim groups in the Kingdom.
“I don’t think of it (the opposition) as a problem but I consider it is a challenge to talk to all Bahrainis setting aside any difference of religion, to talk to the people and to talk to the business community, and, of course, talk to the government and leadership.”
“We want to make life better for us and better for our neighbors. There is a lot of hard work ahead of us but what I am bringing with me is a will to work hard to bring people together.”
“Those who agree with us and, hopefully, those who don’t agree with us, maybe will agree with us a little more and disagree with us a little less. This is what I want to achieve, this is the bottom line. We want to build a model. A model that will be emulated by others as well. And we are calling all our neighbors with whom we have a relationship to join us in this journey. Some aspects of it take longer than others and will not be without difficulties.”
He is quick to add that since he has only just been nominated to the post and is yet to arrive in Bahrain, present his credentials and familiarize himself with Bahrain, he has “much to learn about Bahrain before I can talk with any authority”.
“I can talk about hopes, I can talk about goals and of course I am more than aware of the history of Jews in Bahrain. I think that Houda Nonoo, the former ambassador to the U.S and a proud member of the Jewish community of Bahrain and of the Jewish communities of the Gulf, is doing a great job of bringing the Jews of the Gulf together. (But) Bear in mind that I am going as an ambassador of the State of Israel to Bahrain, ambassador of all Israelis to Bahrain and I hope to succeed in this capacity.”
Ambassador Na’eh is himself looking forward to participating in the lively Jewish community life in Bahrain.
“I certainly hope to take part in Jewish life in Bahrain and, if you look back in history when Jews and Muslims lived together and influenced each other in culture, poetry, in science, you will agree that those days were a golden age.”
“So, if there is something that I want to do, it is to rejuvenate, return, and help forge good relationships between Israel and Bahrain, Israeli people and Bahraini people and, of course, to see Jews from all over the world understanding and taking part in this goal to increase understanding between Muslims and Jews.
I am concentrating now on building bridges here in the Gulf, at the moment here in the UAE and in the near future in Bahrain.”
“I think those who look at those relationships will realize what it really is - I believe that learning from European history, building bridges and enabling and facilitating economic cooperation and agreements through trade creates a better future. This is what it is about.”
He sees the Abraham Accords as having contributed greatly to a contemporary search for peace in the Middle East.
“Peace is really a signature on an agreement to start cooperating and stop fighting. For what? In order to achieve stability, in order to achieve conditions of economic prosperity which thrive when stability has been achieved after you make peace.”
“So, we have to create stable relationships and a critical mass of people in countries who believe in creating this model in which other people, Palestinians included, feel they are enjoying the fruits of peace. People must want to take part in this journey and not in violence.”
“For that to change in the minds of people and the course of history, I think the Abraham Accords have contributed to peace in the Middle East. I think that a stable relationship and creating a model for stable relationships will have a greater persuasive power than those who call for war and more bloodshed.”
Indeed, he says the Abraham Accords come as part of an illustrious line of agreements to bring peace to the Middle East. Reminiscing about the 1977 breakthrough visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, he recalls how he was filled with huge excitement as a 14-year old.
“It was 1977 when Sadat first came to Jerusalem. I was just 14 years old and was filled with huge excitement. I grew up in Israel, there was a war when I was just under 4, there was a war when I went to elementary school, and there was a war when I was 10 years old in 1973.”
“Four years later, Sadat came to Israel and a feeling of exhilaration swept through the country. Of course, when we signed the Camp David Accord in 1979 it was really welcomed with a wave of optimism. We expected that other countries would follow and at last we can turn our energy to build, to grow, and reach economic prosperity.”
“I had the same feeling of hope and optimism in 1993, when we signed the Oslo Accords and again when we signed the peace agreement with the Kingdom of Jordan in 1994, I was overjoyed.”
He continued, “Again, as an adult and as a diplomat, when the Abraham Accords were signed, I wanted to take part in them and I am glad and proud to be taking part in them on the ground in the Abraham Accords countries, both in the UAE and soon in Bahrain.”
PEACE ABOVE ALL THINGS
Peace is a win-win opportunity for all, according to Ambassador Na’eh.
“Look, it is no secret that there is conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I hope that through direct negotiations and bringing more stability and more security we can find a way to listen to each other. It is not easy as we tried and failed for 100 years but we are trying a new way now.”
“I think that more people will realize that through cooperation with Israel, a normal relationship with Israel, dialogue with Israel, we can achieve much more than trying to fight with Israel. Terrorising Israelis, inflicting pain and suffering on both our peoples won’t achieve anything.”
“Making Israel suffer more will not bring peace. Taking care of our own people, having our kids finish school, study at university and then find jobs and harness knowledge-based economies to better the life of people — that will increase stability and security. We have seen enough wars and hopefully now it is time to see more peace rather than more war and more bloodshed.”
“When you embark upon peace, it is an exercise where everybody wins. It is better than sports. You know when you play sports, someone wins and someone else loses. In sport, like the Olympics, we say the most important thing is participation.”
“But here we say “no,” the most important thing in this exercise of peace-making is that everybody wins and nobody loses. I think that can be a beautiful headline – When you make peace, everybody wins.”
But he is also practical enough to quickly admit that this peace is not easy to achieve.
“It won’t be easy, but it will be easier than fighting and I take the lesson from other countries whose people laid down their arms. They didn’t fall in love with each other all of a sudden, but at least they realized that, for very practical reasons, they better start talking to each other and start cooperating with each other rather than killing each other. I don’t have a better answer than that.”
SAUDI ARABIA ON RIGHT TRACK
He is very positive about the winds of change blowing through Saudi Arabia and believes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms will tap into the dynamism and energy of young people for a bright future.
“I think the change (in Saudi Arabia) is positive. Saudi Arabia is a very important and very big country in the region, and whatever happens in Saudi Arabia will probably have an effect in the whole region. So every positive development is good for all of us.”
“Reforms are always necessary, especially with an aim to better the lives of people and to allow more people to take part in economic life. I believe in women participating in the economy. I think that this trajectory and these reforms will hopefully contribute to a better life in Saudi Arabia and everywhere else. Young people have energy and dynamism and I think it is not just the Saudis who should enjoy it, but people in the whole region.”
In a heartfelt message to Majalla readers, Ambassador Na’eh called for genuine efforts to find areas of cooperation for our children and grandchildren who represent our future.
He said, “We have to try and learn to live with our differences, find commonalities, and find areas of cooperation, to better the lives for ourselves, but certainly for our children and grandchildren, in years to come. I think we should all realize that in peace everybody wins and I would emphasize this. In peace, when you join hands and cooperate, one plus one is never two. It is way more than two.”
“And the potential in this region, if the powers of the people and their positive energies could be harnessed in order to achieve these goals, which we really could do if we put aside our differences. I am not saying to forget our differences, and I am not saying we should forget our past, our heritage and religion. We should find a way to combine all these together and find a way to live together despite our differences. We owe it to our next generation.”
Concluding on a patriotic note, Ambassador Na’eh said, “I believe in Israel, I love Israel. I believe that the security of Israel should be independent, but I also believe in building bridges and ties with our neighbors because I think that good relations, no less than anything else, can bring stability to our region. But I certainly grew up with the notion that what happened in Europe to Jews during the Holocaust should never happen again.”
“We should never allow it to happen again and that we should trust in ourselves to prevent it from ever happening again. And that conviction is what I brought to my adult life and to my work as a diplomat – a great sense of the need to secure our existence as well as the safety and security of my people and my country and the need to build good relations with other countries and our neighbors.”
“But securing our existence has many aspects such as economic prosperity, safety and security, defense, with stability as the bottom line. I look forward to a world where there is no discrimination.”