The top council of American Jewish community leaders is planning a first-ever visit to the United Arab Emirates this February, the Forward has learned.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai and conduct meetings with government officials. Though details of the visit have not yet been finalized, members of the Presidents Conference received a memo this week, labeled “Confidential,” informing them of the upcoming visit and asking them to register.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the conference, was not available for immediate reaction, but two officials of conference member-groups confirmed that the leadership intends to visit the UAE.
The Presidents Conference first visited the Gulf state of Qatar in 1995 and played a role in bringing about the establishment of ties between Qatar and Israel. The visit to the emirates, which have been wary of warming up to Israel, may be a sign of a new UAE willingness to engage with Israel in the future. Representatives of Israel and the UAE talked last year about opening a low-level Israel interest office in Abu Dhabi, but little progress was made at the time.
The Bush administration has stressed in recent months the important role moderate Gulf countries can play in the effort to stabilize the situation in Iraq.
In the memo circulated among the members of the Presidents Conference, Hoenlein and lay chairman Harold Tanner report that they have received a formal invitation to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which are part of the seven-emirate UAE federation, and that meetings will be scheduled with government and business leaders. “As you can understand, this visit is viewed with great significance here in the U.S. as well as in Israel and the region,” the memo reads. The Presidents Conference trip to the Gulf region will precede the group’s annual mission to Israel, scheduled for the second week of February.
“This visit is a positive development,” said William Rugh, former American ambassador to the UAE. “The people of the UAE are very open and tolerant.” According to Rugh, who served as ambassador to Abu Dhabi in the early 1990s, the main goal of the Gulf states is to improve their relations with Washington and “that is the bottom line.”
The UAE has no diplomatic ties with Israel and still adheres to the primary Arab boycott against trade with Israel. It did, however, abandon the so-called secondary and tertiary boycotts against third-party firms that trade with Israel. “The UAE is very careful not to lead the way on issues of the boycott and of diplomatic ties with Israel. They don’t want to be the first,” said Rugh.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.