Yona Bartal - Founder and Executive Director of the Peres Circle in Israel and London
Notes from the Peres Center's delegation to the United Arab Emirates
There is no sufficient understating of the significance of the breakthrough of normalization and the winds of peace blowing through the region. I worked alongside the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, z”l, during an age when peace was not just a philosophical, utopian concept, but rather the result of round-the clock-efforts, deliberations, position papers, secret meetings, tactical and strategic political and diplomatic thinking. Now, a quarter of a century later the age of peace is once again here in the Middle East.
Therefore, it was only natural that in my role as founder and director of the Peres Friends Circle, I would grasp the great opportunity to add the distinguished members of the Circle to the delegation accompanying Chairman of the Peres Center Chemi Peres on his official visit to the United Arab Emirates, which included some of Israel’s most senior economic and industry leaders.
The delegation also included some of the Peres Innovation Center’s strategic partners and heads of global companies based in Israel, who were invited by the Center’s great team headed by Director General Efrat Duvdevani and the Head of the Innovation Department Lital Kiperman. An exciting agenda awaited us, including meetings with leading figures in government and beyond. The delegation also joined events organized by Bank Hapoalim and the Israel Export Institute, while leading Israeli companies participated in a major trade show, displaying Israeli technology, very much in the spirit of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
Already on the flight to Dubai, there was immense excitement. For the first time, we did not fly over the sea. Instead, we turned eastwards and were able to look out over the desert of Saudi Arabia, and we passed over Riyadh. I looked at the screens on the plane and could hardly believe the map, as it marked Doha, Kuwait, Baghdad and even Tehran. We all cast our eyes downwards, looking at the neighborhood which had until now been so hostile.
When we landed in Dubai, we were greeted with big smiles from men and women in traditional dress. They shouted “Tel Aviv” and pointed us where to go, all the time smiling and, in a calming, relaxed manner. It warmed our hearts and any hint of the apprehension we had felt faded away.
At the hotel, we were greeted with an equally friendly welcome, Israeli flags fluttered alongside Emirates flags. It reminded me of the signing of Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan, during which time I served as assistant director of Yitzhak Rabin's bureau. I will never forget how alongside US President Bill Clinton, Jordan’s King Hussein and Queen Noor with her blue suit, Prime Minister Rabin, Foreign Minister Peres, all looked upwards as balloons in the colors of the national flags ascended to the sky. Since then, we have only known a Middle East peace which is usually cold at best, or very tense. For the first time, we received warm hugs and big smiles, not hidden away in rooms, but rather in public.
I personally had previous experience of meeting Emirates’ officials. Ahmed bin Sulayem, the son of Sultan bin Sulayem, both proudly head the UAE free zone and commodity exchange, have previously been in contact with us at the Peres Center. We even had the privilege of hosting Ahmed, secretly at the Center before the normalization agreements were signed, to sit down and talk to him about relations between the two countries. Yarden Leal-Yablonka, the Deputy Director General of the Peres Center gave him a tour of the visitors’ center and with wide eyes, he told us about the leading Israeli initiatives in Dubai – Precious stones and diamond exhibitions, meetings between managers and the advancing of common interests. So, as soon as the agreements were signed, I corresponded with Ahmed and we arranged to meet again in Tel Aviv. Indeed, Ahmed arrived in Tel Aviv at the head of a delegation and opened the UAE Stock Exchange within the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange, after which we had a celebratory meal together at the Hilton Hotel.
In the afternoon, when we arrived in Dubai, we couldn’t help but be struck by the towers, sculptures and the like. It is a super-modern city in the middle of the desert, with an amazing collection of jaw-dropping architecture.
In the evening, we gathered the whole delegation on the hotel lawn by the lake. I welcomed them and told them how exited I was to be part of such a historic visit. We watched the spectacular fountain show. From there we continued to the Bank Hapoalim gala evening, during which Chemi addressed the event, explaining that our delegation had come to build bridges of cooperation between the two countries. He reminded the audience that his father Shimon Peres had foreseen this new Middle East and worked tirelessly for it. I clapped until my hands ached.
The next morning, as soon as I opened my eyes, from my hotel room I was able to gaze at the amazing sight of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. From that moment, the five days until the end of our trip were filled with incredible experiences - in the dunes of the desert, in the city, in the markets, in meetings with decision makers, in visits to amazing sites. We all feel that something new is happening in the Middle East and in my heart, I pray that the momentum which has begun will continue to infect this region in a great pandemic of love and hope.
Today, having returned home, we are all looking forward to the future and hoping that the next destination for our delegation will be to another Arab country as part of the normalization process, implementing President Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East”.
Yona Bartal is the Former Vice President of the President's Residence and had worked alongside Shimon Peres for over two decades. She later joined the Peres Center, founding and directing the Peres Circle.