Israel's Bennett Builds on UAE Peace While Waging War on COVID-19 at Home

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seeking to build upon a series of peace deals with Arab countries by fortifying ties with the United Arab Emirates, even as he wages war on a particularly contagious strain of COVID-19 at home.

Bennett's historic trip last week to Abu Dhabi marked the first visit by an Israeli leader to one of the five nations that signed the Abraham Accords, through which four countries —the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — defied a decades-long Arab boycott to normalize relations with Israel, making them the first to do so since Egypt and Jordan did decades ago. His reception by an honor guard at Abu Dhabi International Airport emphasized the level of relations being built by the two countries.

"It was a meeting that that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, and I think that understanding was felt on both sides," a senior Israeli official who was part of Bennett's delegation told Newsweek. "So when he came, the welcome was extremely warm."

A photo obtained exclusively by Newsweek shows Bennett and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed entering the royal hall of the airport, from which Bennett later went on to hold a four-hour meeting Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

"Straight from the beginning," the senior Israeli official said, "the Prime Minister was greeted with open arms and immense warmth. There was an instant connection."

The visit came at a time of dueling talks and tensions across the Middle East, where Iran, Israel's top rival, was also building diplomatic inroads into the Arabian Peninsula. Just about a week before Bennett's trip, UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan traveled to Tehran to sit down with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Divisions continue to prevail, however, as Iran and the United States have yet to come to a resolution alongside other major powers involved in an effort to revive the two nation's full compliance to a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018. Israel has protested the effort by its U.S. ally to return to the agreement, but President Joe Biden has so far pressed on with negotiations.

Concerns over a direct escalation between Iran and Israel loom over the region, but just as nearly every other country in the world, Israel is already at war with a different kind of enemy: COVID-19. Omicron, which has spread faster than previous variants of the coronavirus that has ravaged the globe for two years, is now a major concern.

Bennett, whose nation has been regularly embroiled in controversy, crisis and conflict throughout a history spanning less than three-quarters of a century, has taken the war analogy seriously.

"Israel has spent 73 years fighting for its survival, and that's something that made the Israeli people more resilient and more agile," Bennett told Newsweek. "When faced by this invisible enemy, the Israeli fighting spirit kicked in and made Israel's vaccine campaigns one of the most successful in the world."

"We'll do what we can to protect lives in the fight against COVID and in the face of the threats posed to our people," he added.

The Israeli leader demonstrated this resolve last month with a seemingly unprecedented move that helped to preempt the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. He summoned top officials to hold a war game against what was then a hypothetical vaccine-resistant variant of the disease.

"The purpose of the war game was to prepare us for the next war and not for the previous war, and it certainly did," Bennett said. "When Omicron was discovered, we found ourselves in a much better situation than we could have been, largely thanks to the war game."

The exercise was launched on November 11, less than two weeks before the first case of what the World Health Organization would later call the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was reported in South Africa. Today, it's already the dominant strain in a number of countries, including the U.S., to which Israel has banned travel in response.

Bennett said his approach, which as of Tuesday includes making Israel the first country in the world to administer a fourth vaccine to medical experts and elderly citizens, has been inspired by the results of his recent anti-epidemiological drill.

"For example, at the first stage of the drill we decided to keep Israel's borders open to tourists, only to find that by the later stages of the drill, the country's hospitals were overwhelmed with patients," Bennett said. "We concluded that it would have been better if we had limited entry of tourists into Israel's borders at an early stage. This is just one of the many insights we gained from the drill that influenced our decision-making process when Omicron was discovered."

UAE, Abdullah, Zayed, Israel, Naftali, Bennett
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett walk together into the royal hall of Abu Dhabi International Airport during the latter's historic visit to Abu Dhabi on December 13 in this photo obtained exclusively by Newsweek. A senior Israeli official present on the trip said the talks focused largely on joint initiatives in trade, technology and climate change. Haim Zach/Government Press Office of Israel

"The more prepared we are, the greater chances we'll have at winning the war against COVID," he added. "We must move fast, hard and strong."

Among the experts tasked by Bennett with organizing the exercise was retired Israeli Major General Yaacov Ayish, who previously led the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff Operations Branch and served as Ground Forces Chief of Staff during the country's second war with Lebanon in 2006.

Ayish shares the Israeli leader's view of the fight against COVID-19 as a war.

"In Israel, we faced four waves in this war against COVID in the last nearly two years," Ayish told Newsweek. "And right after the fourth wave, under the leadership of Prime Minister Bennett, he decided that, although we faced it very successfully with the vaccines, etc., instead of moving on and dealing with that and the other challenges that Israel has, to prepare the whole governmental system, the relevant agencies and the relevant ministries for the fifth wave."

"It wasn't clear what the threat was," Ayish added, "but he felt that it's not the end of COVID and we should be ready, and he decided to choose a war game as a platform to deal with that as a war against COVID."

What followed bears many of the markings of a full-on war as well. Ayish said Bennett and his command assembled in a deep underground bunker designed to harbor officials in times of war and crisis. The idea, he explained, was to create "something as close as we can to reality."

For added effect, Israeli news media was brought in to simulate the information front of the fight, as well as the psychological side of such a conflict. Ayish described the extent of the challenge faced by troops and officials as they attempted to navigate a successful outcome by mitigating both infection and panic as the new COVID-19 variant consumed Israel.

"From their perspective," Ayish said, it was "a very intense exercise and war game."

He described how "you could see in certain stages that they're really under pressure when they are watching the TV channels and hearing the commentators talking about the implications of this variant, and the fact that it's lethal, and the fact that it can bypass the vaccine, and the fact that the PCR tests are not as effective as we expected them to be, and therefore we don't identify those who are infected."

The competing narratives over the disease and how best to tackle it were also simulated. As in the U.S. and many other countries, skepticism and resistance to vaccines in Israel has not only helped to fuel the pandemic, but has also torn the fabric of society, creating added tensions at a time of great stress for the system.

All the while, Ayish said Bennett sat at the head of the operations table, "asking what is going on, what is the situation report, what can we do, what are our capabilities in different channels, what type of implications is this going to have on the education system, on the judiciary system, on the Israeli economy, on the other agencies and ministries such as transportation, etc."

Ayish acknowledged that some aspects of the exercise were particularly stressful.

"The biggest challenge is it also affected children in the exercise," he said. "Think about the psychological impact on those who are exercising. Suddenly, children are affected and you're sending them to school, so, suddenly, other kids are affected and some of them in the war game died due to that, so it was pretty intense, and highly effective."

But Ayish was pleased with the results, saying that the initiative ultimately "derived the best out of all of" those involved.

Like Bennett, he noted that decision-makers initially adopted a course that only encouraged the spread of the simulated virus.

"I must admit that at the beginning the solutions were going in a certain direction," Ayish said, "and solutions were to allow the Israeli economy and Israeli society to live their life as much as they can."

But as the exercise evolved, the awareness grew among the participants that things had to change, and quickly.

"After they have realized that we are here with a very lethal variant and it has so many aspects," he said, "it led the prime minister to the understanding that we have to close all the entrances into Israel."

He also noted those conducting the exercise "learned that there are different types of PCR tests" with varying accuracy when dealing with a new strain. Millions of PCR tests were later ordered to accommodate the gaps in the system.

"There are those that are very professional and very accurate and very high quality, and there are those who are not at the same quality," Ayish said. "And suddenly you can find that using this you might miss certain variants because their DNA or the biological structure is different."

Ayish said Bennett's leadership and the exercise as a whole has proved to be a consequential asset that "helps us very much in this war, which has not ended, we are in the middle of it."

The findings were not only shared within Israel, but with other countries as well.

"We need to share," Ayish said. "In the military, in wartime, we call it intelligence, but in this case, it's information, it's to share information with other countries, and suddenly the Foreign Ministry becomes highly relevant and highly effective."

He said information was shared across continents to North America, South America, Africa, Europe and even in the Persian Gulf region, where partnerships with countries like the UAE continue to develop in various fields. In the span of just one week, the UAE has since seen daily cases of COVID-19 spike from a daily average of 50 to 452 per day among a population where more than 90% of eligible citizens are fully vaccinated.

The common threat posed by COVID-19 was also discussed in a phone call earlier this month between Bennett and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The conversation also touched upon the ongoing Iran nuclear deal talks in Vienna, as did Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz's later talks with Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a trip to Washington about a week later.

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A medic collects a swab sample from an Israeli border guard at a COVID-19 drive-through testing site in Jerusalem on November 29. Israel appears to have become the first country in the world to administer a fourth vaccine against COVID-19. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Here, the U.S. and Israel reportedly discussed potential alternatives to diplomacy, including military options to target an Iranian nuclear program that Tehran repeatedly argued was never intended to produce a weapon. Like his predecessor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett continues to cast Iran as an existential threat to his country, even in the midst of a pandemic that has already infiltrated Israel's borders.

"The threat from Iran is in a category by itself, one which threatens the very existence of our country," Bennett told Newsweek. "As Prime Minister of Israel, I am committed to protecting Israel both from Iran and any other threat, including COVID-19. One does not come at the expense of the other. Neither of them will triumph over us."

Following Gantz's visit, an IDF official confirmed to Newsweek that the Israeli military was actively training to conduct operations abroad in response to developments concerning Iran.

"The Chief of the General Staff instructed the IDF, in accordance with the decision of the political echelon, to prepare the IDF for operations in distant arenas," the IDF official said at the time. "The IDF is constantly training for a number of scenarios in all regions and arenas, and maintains a comprehensive training schedule. Included in the IDF's training schedule are its frequent exercises with allies and partners around the world."

Next spring, the IDF is set to hold a large-scale series of exercises hundreds of miles away across the Mediterranean Sea, roughly the same distance needed to strike targets in Iran.

"The Iranian regime continues to pose a serious challenge to Israel's security and the stability of the region," the IDF official said. "Iran constitutes not only a regional, but a global challenge."

"Preparations to deal with the Iranian challenge also included the establishment of a new directorate that is dealing, among other things, with the Iranian military nuclear program, Iranian regional entrenchment and weapons proliferation," the official added.

Such moves have drawn the ire of Iran, which sees Israel as the belligerent in a shadowy conflict that has played out across the Middle East.

"This is not the first time that the language of threat against Iran's peaceful nuclear program is being used by the US and the Israeli regime," Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations told Newsweek.

The mission said this peaceful nature has been affirmed by "numerous" reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is barred from inspecting Israel's own widely suspected nuclear arsenal.

"Unlike the Israeli regime, who possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads, and the U.S., who constantly upgrades its nuclear arsenal in contravention of its NPT obligations, nuclear weapons have no place in Iran's defensive doctrine," the Iranian mission said.

"However, we'll continue our peaceful nuclear program and exercise our right of self-defense in the face of any act of aggression against our territory," the mission added.

The Iranian mission also urged the U.S. to reverse the Trump-era return to sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and warned Israeli against pursuing any threats.

"Instead of resorting to threats and intimidation, the U.S. is well advised to implement its JCPOA obligations and put aside the bankrupt policy of maximum pressure and lift all illegal sanctions against the Iranian people," the mission said. "The policy of Iran-phobia promoted by the Israeli regime will doom to fail and this regime is reminded that any adventuristic designs against Iran will be dealt will swiftly and with all vigor."

Further U.S.-Israel consultations are expected, as White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert are traveling to Israel and to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.

A senior Biden administration official declined to discuss if Israel factored into the so-called "Plan B" if nuclear deal talks failed to reach a resolution in Vienna, but said that Israel's peace efforts, including with the UAE, would instead be the center of attention.

"I think the focus on Israel, where we're heading, the integration and building on the Abraham Accords has been a central focus of ours," the senior Biden administration official said. "And that will be an important topic of conversation."

But amid these U.S. official visits, Israel's borders remain closed as the war on COVID-19 rages on for a country accustomed to adversity.

"We are very flexible, very agile, and, for us, at the end of the day, when we are facing a crisis, it's like, okay, it's another crisis," Ayish said. "We've been there, we will adapt, and we will react."

Israel, travel, Ben, Gurion, Airport, COVID-19, restrictions
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish traveler waits in queue with other travelers with luggage at the check-in counter ahead of their departing flights at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, east of Tel Aviv, on December 21. Israeli lawmakers on December 21 banned citizens and residents from U.S. travel, adding it to a list of more than 50 countries declared off-limits in an effort to contain the Omicron coronavirus variant. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images