This is the 'Real New Middle East'
Ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's historic visit to the UAE, Khaleej Times has caught up with Ofir Akunis, Israel's Minister of Regional Cooperation and Member of the Knesset, to know his thoughts and aspirations on the prospects and growth opportunities for both nations in the wake of the Abraham Peace Accord. Excerpts from the interview with
Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the UAE
Excited about Israeli leader's maiden visit to the UAE and inspired by his aspirations on the bilateral relationship, Akunis starts off his discussion by saying that the bond between the UAE and Israel is natural.
He explains: "We share the same values of tolerance, free market, modern economy, peace and prosperity. A visit from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will serve as an example of the alliance between the two countries. After the signing of the Abraham Accord in September 2020 in Washington DC, and getting it ratified by the Israeli Cabinet and Parliament in October, we have been witnessing the emergence of the real 'New Middle East'."
Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the leaders of both nations
His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Netanyahu have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to initiate the game-changing peace process in the Middle East following the normalisation of ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.
Akunis says: "Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves a lot of credit for this peace agreement. His strong leadership was essential to fulfil a 25-year-old vision. He definitely deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for this bold initiative along with Sheikh Mohamed. The leaders of Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and the US, which brokered the peace deal, also deserve to be equally acknowledged. Anyone who achieves or brokers real peace by actions, and not just by words, deserves such recognition."
Cultural and political implications of the accords in the Gulf
The minister says that culturally, Jews and Arabs share a lot of values in interfaith coexistence. He is hopeful that after the pandemic is over, Emiratis will come to Israel to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the Jews will travel often to the UAE, especially Dubai. "We have a lot of things to share together. I think once we win the fight against Covid-19 in this region, it will be a new beginning. And I'm very optimistic about the ties between us."
Bilateral trade benefits for the UAE and Israel
As the Regional Cooperation Minister, Akunis reiterates that the peace treaty has brought in a lot of cooperation in the field of business, agriculture, technology, Fintech, food tech and much more. "I think that both nations are in a win-win situation."
When it comes to the real deal, Akunis is a visionary. Why? He explains: "Shortly after the accords were announced, I mentioned in the local media in Israel that trade will reach $500 million within the first year of the signing. Six months later today, trade has reached $272 million."
He adds: "I am glad that we are on the right track and will soon achieve my predicted target. I also think that it will grow in the future. The $500 million trade between the countries is just the beginning."
Bahrain came onboard with the peace treaty a month after the UAE, he adds.
"I have already voted for the peace treaty with Morocco in the Cabinet and hopefully it will be approved in the Knesset in a few days. We now have three new peace treaties in six months.
"The previous peace treaty in the Arab world - between Israel and Egypt - was in 1979, and with Jordan in 1994. As I mentioned earlier, we are not just talking about the New Middle East; we are making it. We are living in the days of the New Middle East. And I'm excited that my two kids can see it right in front of them and not just talk about it."
Dreams for the New Middle East
For Akunis, it's the road connectivity between Israel and the UAE. "My vision is that we start a railway route from Abu Dhabi or Dubai, through Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the border between Israel and Jordan in the north - up to the Port of Haifa. This will be the gateway to Europe and the Western world. I also envision people from Tel Aviv driving their car on vacation to the UAE, using the connecting roads that will be built in Jordan and Saudi Arabia."
He stresses that what is important is strong bilateral economic cooperation to ensure sustained growth and prosperity, and hopes that eventually peoples of all the nations in the Middle East region will live in harmony. "I believe that I will witness this during my lifetime because we are on the path to achieving it."
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