| Magazine Feature |

Bridging the Gulf      

    Ambassador Eitan Na’eh bridges the gulf between Israel and its Arab neighbors

Photos: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, AP Images

It didn’t take long for Ambassador Eitan Na’eh, who arrived to head Israel’s first embassy in the United Arab Emirates last year, to discover that his hosts were fond of a certain story about the Emirates and the Jews.

The hero of the tale was the UAE’s founding father Sheikh Zayed, a far-sighted statesman who turned a handful of cities at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula into a global trade and leisure hub.

A philanthropist who used to receive letters from all over the world asking for financial support, the sheikh, who died in 2004, was once visiting Switzerland, and an aide was reading through the day’s solicitations. Suddenly, the man opened a letter and then pocketed it.

“What is it?” asked Sheikh Zayed, but the aide brushed the question aside and continued to read.

When the pile of letters was finished, the sheikh asked his advisor again what had been in the envelope that he’d skipped. Left with no choice, the aide told the Emirati ruler that it was a request for help from a Jewish man.

“So why did you put the letter away — is he not a person?” demanded Sheikh Zayed, and instructed that the man’s request for $2,000 be answered with a check for double.

“After eight months here, during which I’ve heard that story a few times,” concludes Israel’s ambassador, “I’ve learned two things. The Emiratis are open-minded, and the reason goes back to the man they call the Father of the Nation.”

Tolerance, as Eitan Na’eh’s long diplomatic career in the region has taught him, is a scarce commodity across the oil-rich Middle East. But the picture is mixed: he’s seen the region go in two opposite directions at once in the last few years.

As Israel’s ambassador to Turkey from 2016, his term in office came to an abrupt end when President Erdogan ordered him expelled in protest at the shooting of Palestinians trying to storm the Gaza border. That acrimony was unsurprising given that Turkey — once a staunch ally of Israel and the West — had become far less tolerant under Erdogan’s Islamist-tinged rule.

On the other side of the region, the UAE has traveled the other way, becoming one of the first Arab states to embrace President Trump’s Abraham Accords. Where Sheikh Zayed had labeled Israel an “enemy,” his son Mohammed bin Zayed signed a peace agreement with the Jewish state.

So as Eitan Na’eh prepares to leave the Emirates to become ambassador in Bahrain down the road, he’s well-positioned to consider the million-dollar question about the peace deals: Is the future with the young modernizers in the Gulf, or will the old, extreme Middle East gain the upper hand?

It’s unlikely that there’ll be a definitive answer by the time Na’eh leaves his temporary home, but in the meantime, he’s doing his best to tell Israel’s story in the billionaires’ playground on the Gulf.

Chevron Royalty

“Coca-Cola and Chabad,” the Ponevezher Rav is reported to have said — “I’ve found both in every city I’ve visited.” Pithy as they come, that quip could be a description of Eitan Na’eh’s career.

The man who’s spent a professional lifetime as an emissary of the State of Israel descends from a storied family of Lubavitch shlichim, and has arrived at key postings to discover Chabad setting up shop.

Born in Kiryat Bialik, a Haifa suburb, in 1963, his parents were a marriage of Dutch and Polish ancestry — with Chabad being the common denominator.

Despite the impeccably Ivrit sound, the ambassador’s surname is not in fact a product of the Hebraization that was once a nonnegotiable for advancing in Israeli government service.

It’s an indication that he descends from Chabad royalty. His ancestor was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Na’eh, who founded the Chabad yeshivah in Chevron in the late 19th century. Rav Menachem Mendel’s son — and Eitan Na’eh’s great-great-uncle — was Rav Avraham Chaim Na’eh, famous for his distinct set of shiurim or halachic measurements.

Rav Chaim Na’eh, as he’s still referred to by the Yerushalmis of the Eidah Hachareidis, where he later served on the beis din, left Eretz Yisrael in 1911 to collect money for the impoverished of Jerusalem. His travels took him to far away Bukhara, now Uzbekistan.

The Lubavitcher illui ended up becoming attached to the community there, wearing traditional Bukharan robes and teaching Torah in Samarkand.

So it was ironic that after an early consular posting to Chicago in the 1990s, it was on to a position in Ankara, Turkey, and then to another Central Asian country — Azerbaijan — that Rav Chaim Na’eh’s nephew was sent in 2001. Given his ancestry, that posting was a closing of a family circle for the young diplomat.

“We arrived there just as Chabad were getting stuck into Azerbaijan,” he smiles.

Almost the same happened two decades on, when he arrived with his wife Cheryl (a native of Manchester, England) amid the euphoria of the peace deals, to put up the mezuzos at Israel’s first embassy in the UAE. The nascent Jewish community in the Emirates welcomed them with open arms — and naturally, that included a Chabad start-up.

Perhaps because of his own deep roots in his homeland, as well as the family’s odyssey, Eitan Na’eh found his calling in diplomacy.

“A love of country” is his immediate response when asked what skill set a diplomat needs. Hard skills such as Arabic, which Naeh reads and writes, come in handy, even though English is widely spoken. That, and the even keel needed to raise a family in places as different as Baku and London, and the nous to decipher new cultural and strategic environments.

One of the most exciting things that Eitan Na’eh learned about his latest posting — unlike others he’s recently left behind — was just how warmly he’d be embraced by the locals.

Long before the dramatic peace breakthroughs led by Jared Kushner, Bibi Netanyahu, and a handful of Gulf leaders, it was common currency that the Middle East was changing from the bottom up. The young generation across parts of the Gulf was opening up ideologically to Israel in ways that their parents would have considered blasphemous.

That knowledge achieved concrete expression in 2019 at a conference in Israel, when I ran into someone who was pushing a vision of grassroots economic peace with the Palestinians. Although not a new idea, he was eager to share examples of the new feelings in the form of text messages with some friends in the Gulf.

“I like to read Amos Oz,” read one, referring to the Israeli novelist. “I want to visit Israel,” read another.

These were mundane exchanges — and therein lay their power, because they proved that at the day-to-day level, Arabs were ready to let go of the past when it came to Israel.


New Generation

Since arriving in the Gulf, Eitan Na’eh has witnessed that dynamic up close.

“I’ve talked to many of the 18-to-44-year-old generation,” he says, “and although it’s not a statistical sample, a large cross section thinks that normalization with Israel is great.”

The curiosity that young Gulf Arabs have regarding Israel extends to Judaism.

“They want to learn about Jews,” says Na’eh. “Last Pesach, I took the embassy staff to celebrate Pesach in a desert hotel, reclining on cushions in the sand like our forefathers did when leaving Egypt. The Canadian ambassador, who is also Jewish, joined us, as did young Emirati guests. The locals fit right in with their Middle Eastern dress and were happy to read the Haggadah in English, sing Mah Nishtanah — they loved it.”

The openness that Na’eh attests to — as do a legion of Israeli and Jewish tourists — is woven into the DNA of a country where expats constitute close to 90 percent of the population.

“Sheikh Zayed built this country after he unified the different sheikhdoms in 1971,” Na’eh says. “It was a very poor country until oil was discovered, and the regime understood that the new wealth should be shared. Crucially, the sheikh saw that the country could not be built by Emiratis alone.”

That marriage of monarchy with tolerance sounds like the 18th-century concept of enlightened despotism, and is born out by a 1977 New York Times interview with Sheikh Zayed.

Speaking not long after independence, the Emirati ruler explained why the country had no elected legislature, instead relying on a medieval-style elective monarchy. “Why should we abandon a system that satisfies our people in order to introduce a system that seems to engender dissent and confrontation?” he asked.

Yet balancing this pre-modern vision was the imperative “to treat all living creatures with dignity.”

It obviously doesn’t harm that with a GDP per capita of close to $70,000, there is lots of money to grease the wheels of the social order. But money isn’t everything, and the tolerance is real. When Na’eh observes that “if you wear a yarmulke, you can always get a conversation going,” the only question about Israel’s Middle East breakthrough is, “What took so long?”


No Surprises

It didn’t take long at all, though, for the euphoria and warm words of the peace deals to be tested on the intractable terrain of Gaza. Just months into his term of office, Ambassador Na’eh found himself defending Israel this summer as Hamas launched rocket salvos from Gaza and the IDF responded in kind. The accords, says Na’eh, proved themselves.

“I was hosted in a majlis — a traditional Arab salon — by some Emiratis. On TV, scenes of the Gaza conflict were playing in a loop, and there were young people there. I was asked tough questions about Israel’s actions, and I won’t say that they all agreed to my answers — they felt sorry for the Palestinians and prayed for them. But when I’d finished, my hosts said, ‘You know, this is the first time that we’re hearing Israel’s side directly from you.’ ”

A favorite approach used by Na’eh to tell Israel’s story is to force critics to acknowledge their own generalizations, by conveying the multihued tapestry that is his country.

“When I was deputy ambassador in London in 2013, I used to go talk at universities a lot,” Na’eh recounts. “Once in Sheffield University, a student got up and said, ‘I’m against Israel.’

“I asked her, ‘What is Israel and what are you against? Are you against Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the kibbutzim, the country that Holocaust survivors built from scratch, that has Jews from Europe and Morocco?’

“In the end she had to admit that she was against a specific policy.”

The encounter with Israel’s critics in the Emirati salon didn’t faze Eitan Na’eh, because he’s spent the last three decades telling Israel’s story. Indeed, it’s that unfiltered contact with ordinary Emiratis that makes the breakthrough to the Gulf so exciting for Israel’s diplomats.

Unlike the cold peace deals Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1993 respectively — agreements that were between governments while the populations continued to seethe against Israel — the Trump peace deals are a different species.

“It’s one of the wonders of our times to see ordinary Israelis and Emiratis talking,” Na’eh enthuses.

At the root of the agreement, he says, is a new vision for Middle East peace. “States have interests including commerce and security, but we’re trying to build a relationship of respect between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Emiratis.”

That search for respect, says Na’eh, was the driving force for the drama surrounding the annexation of parts of the West Bank last summer. Now long forgotten, the Abraham Accords had triggered excitement among many Israelis living over the Green Line, because it contained a provision allowing Israel to annex large population blocs in Yehuda and Shomron.

A few days before I took a swing through Gush Etzion to take the pulse of the locals over the proposal, the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba published an op-ed in Israel’s Yedioth newspaper, warning Jerusalem not to proceed with the move.

“Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic, and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE,” he wrote. “It will harden Arab views of Israel just when Emirati initiatives have been opening the space for cultural exchange and broader understanding of Israel and Judaism.”

A year later, Na’eh explains the context for the stark warning. “They were the Nachshon in reaching out to us from the Arab world, and they asked us not to embarrass them by making a unilateral move. Israel is used to doing things its own way because there was no one else to consider in the Middle East. Suddenly we’re not alone in the region.”

So does that mean that annexation is out, should the political will reemerge in Jerusalem and Washington? “Of course not. We have our own interests, just as the UAE does. But now other countries have Jerusalem’s ear, and we have to take these countries into account.”


Friends and Neighbors

While the novelty of hosting Emirati royals at Jewish events at the embassy hasn’t worn off, two big unknowns hover over the new relationship: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With a landmass the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, the vast country governed by the House of Saud looms over the UAE. The ties between the two are deep, such that the opening with Israel was considered to have received the blessing of the Saudis. But are the Saudis prepared to cross the Rubicon themselves and sign a peace deal with Israel?

Under the tight control of an ultra-conservative religious establishment, Saudi Arabia is far less tolerant that its Gulf neighbor. But under the radar, ties between former Prime Minister Netanyahu and the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) were known to be cordial. If not for President Trump — an MBS fan — losing the election, the momentum of the deals may well have drawn in the Saudis. But with the Biden administration’s tilt toward the Iranians, that seems on ice for now.

Peace deal or no, internal change may well be coming in the Saudi kingdom. The rigid control of the Wahhabis, whose puritanical Islam inspired the 9/11 attackers, is slipping. Merely the latest sign of that was an unprecedented recent interview given by MBS in which he accused the Wahhabi clerics of falsifying religious doctrine to promote “extremism.”

How much is the opening to the Emirates a harbinger of things to come with its giant neighbor?

“The UAE punch above their weight in both investment across the world and ideas in the region,” Na’eh says. But whether that wins out in the battle of ideas across the Middle East, he implies, is too soon to tell.

It may come as a surprise to Israelis who are obsessed with Iran, says the diplomat, but that struggle for the hearts and minds of their own populations are high on the list of Gulf concerns — not just the Iranian threat.

“People think that the peace accords came about because with America retreating from the Middle East leaving a hostile Iran, the Gulf states see Israel as a capable ally. That’s only part of the truth. It’s more complex, because these countries have other concerns, including Islamic extremism. They also want access to our investment, our tech, our agriculture.”

Aspirations for development of the two countries’ trade relationship are high. On Na’eh’s watch, important treaties have been signed laying the foundations for a broad relationship, including agreements on health, economic cooperation, and the prevention of double taxation. In the works are accords on space, energy, water cooperation, and more.

“I would take offense if I thought that the only reason that the Emiratis want to deal with us is because of Iran,” concludes Na’eh.


“We’re Not Going Anywhere”

While Eitan Na’eh says that his children, raised in different way stops on his global diplomatic journey, are grateful for the breadth that his career has afforded them, there’s one event that can’t provide him much nachas.

It involves the acrimonious end to his tenure as ambassador to Turkey in 2018. Relations between Israel and its neighbor to the north were plunged into deep freeze by the 2011 Mavi Marmara incident, in which a ship crewed by Turkish activists bent on breaking Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, were stopped by IDF naval commandos.

The violent confrontation, in which the Israeli forces were attacked by the activists with knives and clubs, ended with Turkish citizens dead and the worst diplomatic crisis that the two countries had ever known.

Almost overnight, Turkey’s massive Israeli tourist presence dried up, and Erdogan ramped up the Islamic rhetoric in a bid for intra-Muslim leadership.

The breach was only repaired in 2016 when Eitan Na’eh was appointed as ambassador — but it didn’t last long. As Hamas attempted to breach the Gaza border fence with large numbers of activists in 2018, Israeli troops opened fire. Enraged, Erdogan ordered the Israeli ambassador to leave.

As an added humiliation, news cameras were on hand for a highly irregular security check of the departing diplomat in the airport.

So, what does Eitan Na’eh think of the chances that relations will resume, if not Gulf-style warm peace, then predictable normalcy?

“I’m optimistic that ties will get back on track some time,” he says. “Turkey is a very young and dynamic country. Commerce has stayed high between the two countries, and I’ve lived through times when our two countries identified common interests like military development and fighting terror.”

While theoretically Na’eh is right, surely President Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman bid for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world means that Israel is beyond the pale?

“I’ll leave that to historians to debate,” he says. “In the meantime, I think that the common ground that was first identified by Ben-Gurion hasn’t disappeared.”

That focus on interests and hard facts is, if you like, the distilled essence of Eitan Na’eh’s diplomacy, one that he says should be applied from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.

A sixth-generation Israeli with deep Chabad roots stretching back to the resettlement of Chevron in 1816, Eitan Na’eh is a proud sabra; he feels that he belongs to the region as much as his Muslim interlocutors.

And that’s his central diplomatic message: “No one is going anywhere, so we need to learn to get along.”


Behaving Ourselves

Israelis’ euphoric reaction to the UAE peace treaty was part happiness at a diplomatic breakthrough, part joy at gaining another destination to indulge their notorious wanderlust in a world that was largely locked down.

Within weeks of the Abraham Accords’ signing, tens of thousands of Hebrew-speakers of all stripes were gawking at the Gulf’s opulence, staying at the upscale hotels, taking selfies with thawb-clad locals, and test-driving fast cars.

So what advice does Israel’s ambassador have for his fellow countrymen, some of whom have a rather liberal attitude to the amenities in the hotels they visit? The question is prompted by a scene on the long-running satire show Eretz Nehederet involving a Ben-Gurion Airport customs officer pulling — Mary Poppins style — first a lamp, then a bathroom sink, then a hotel waiter out of an arriving traveler’s suitcase.

A career diplomat, Na’eh passes over the opportunity to lecture anyone on good hotel behavior, instead noting the ground rules: “Don’t be loud, and be respectful of local culture and traditions.”

In a society with formalized rules around hosting, local norms include taking coffee with the right hand, and shaking it if you want no more, and eating dates in uneven numbers.

Another rule that doesn’t come naturally to Israelis, says the ambassador, is that of not crossing one’s legs, since showing the sole of your shoe to someone else is considered insulting.

If that’s a cultural norm that then-president George W. Bush discovered at a 2008 press conference in Iraq, when he had to dodge a shoe thrown at him by a local journalist, Israelis will have to learn another rule of etiquette in 2021: “Don’t cut off someone mid-sentence.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 879)

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