Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Two young local women entered the bar. Both were dressed in traditional black clothing, covered from head to toe. Along with the Corona protection mask, only the eyes remained visible. It looked like a niqab.
“Oh, great this is just what we need,” I thought to myself, because at that exact time we had a meeting scheduled with a group of academics. It was in Dubai.
I thought these women, apparently Islamists, came to interrupt. Minutes passed. Before I realized what was going on, one of them approached me to introduce herself, in the Queen's English.
“My name is Lubna,” she said, and held out her hand. For a moment I pulled back, what did she want? It turns out that the young women dressed in abayas were part of the group that came to the meeting.
For Lubna is a banker and a Cambridge graduate and Nura an electric engineer.
Minutes passed and the ice broke, mostly thanks to them. I have been to a great many encounters with academics and students around the world. I have never experienced such a wave of empathy.
It all started the pro-Israel NGO Reservists on Duty, a group founded and led by Amit Deri. One of the organization's leading activists is Lorena Khateeb, a young Druze woman who works part-time at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, in particular, maintains connections with the Arab world through social media networks.
These ties, including with Dr. Majid Al-Sarrah, a public policy lecturer in Dubai, have developed into an initiative that focuses on corresponding visits. That’s how we arrived to Dubai.
The delegation included Atef Abu Naji, a law student and an early-stage intellectual; Yahya Mahamid, who insisted on serving in the IDF; Jonathan Elkhouray, a public diplomacy advisor who arrived in Israel after his father was an officer in the South Lebanon Army; and Nasreen Khalifa, a Bedouin Muslim law student. A great group.
Deri obtained funding and a number of journalists were invited but only yours truly showed up.
Better than Sweden
Almost every American campus, even with a high percentage of Jews, has hostility towards Israel, sometimes even anti-Semitism. Not in Dubai. Here there is something different in the air.
There was no need to argue about the Israeli-Arab conflict. The meetings within educated circles did not deal with futile political discussions, but rather with joint projects, some of which will happen in the near future. In the field of agriculture these projects are already taking place.
At the main entrance to the central fruit and vegetable market we had to rub our eyes, we couldn’t believe it. The flags of Israel and the Emirates stood side by side, both made of blueberries, garlic and assorted vegetables. Later there was an infinite number of Israeli flags, which indicated the source of the fresh produce.
We saw the customers, in traditional dress, touching the goods and loading more and more products from Israel into their carts. This is normalization.
We Israelis have become so accustomed to cold peace that this warm bond unfolding before our eyes warms our hearts.
We all live with stereotypes. Haredi dress, Muslim dress, etc., they evoke in us a reaction, sometimes a subconscious one. I'm not a fan of the burqa or the niqab. So I dared to raise the issue with the young women who came to the meeting. No one is forcing us, they explained. It's traditional dress. Not religious.
We arrived like this without coordination, as the men, academics, came wearing the Candora, which is the white gallabiyah of the locals, they told us. This is out of respect for you, our guests.
When I posted a picture on Facebook with two of the participants, I was asked again and again: how can it be that you dare to hug them? Well, I would not dare. They initiated, for the purpose of photography. And then there was also Somaya, who within a few months learned Hebrew and is already able to chat.
Tunisia once led the struggle for tolerant Islam and equality for women. Today it is the United Arab Emirates, with a respectable representation of women in parliament (fourth place in the world, ahead of Sweden!) and in government (about 30 percent).
Extremism isn’t welcomed in the UAE. I have already written here that the Emirates' foreign minister has warned Europeans against conciliation with radicals. In general, when walking around the streets of Dubai, young women are seen in shorts alongside women in traditional dress. Tolerance has become a guiding principle.
We were hosted one evening by a local businessman, Thani al-Shirawi, who also added his name on Twitter in Hebrew, devotes a considerable part of his time to promoting peace.
His government, he told me, contributed a great deal of money to the Palestinian cause. The government did not abandon them or neglected them. He cares. He wants them to enjoy a better life. But he studied at length their repeated mistakes.
Today he believes that perhaps, in their favor, they will change direction precisely because their supporters in the Arab world are changing direction. Al-Shirawi told us about those who oppose normalization. There are some. His proficiency in the details is his strongest weapon in arguments.
When we left Al-Shirawi's house, around midnight, a phone call came from Ahmed, a billionaire from the al-Habtur family, one of the richest in the Emirates, whose name was linked to negotiations to buy Israir and in cooperation with Mobilai.
Come over, he said. Now? Yes now.
We arrived at his castle, which is difficult to get around in one glance. Al-Habtur, who had already acquired a small and juicy vocabulary in Hebrew, seated us on a hookah-smoke covered sofa. What is the urgency? He found out from friends, he said, that Lorena Khateeb was in town.
"Thanks to your activism on the social media networks, people in the Arab world know Israel differently."
She told him that her dream is to complete a cadet course and return to the Emirates, this time as an ambassador. She deserves it.
You have peace with Egypt and Jordan, al-Habtur said. With us you have normalization, it's something deeper.
We have to say thank you to Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. Without them there would be no agreement.
And we have to thank people like Lorena, a 23-year-old woman, who helped topple walls between peoples.
The visit is just the beginning. The Emirates want to institutionalize the ties. And it is happening. An office of Deri’s NGO will soon open in Dubai to manage operations in the Gulf region. The building owner will rent it at a nominal price to encourage the connection. He wants more Israeli missions and more cooperation.
Palestinians are left behind, mainly because they always choose rejectionism to any peace initiative. It’s regretful.
There are those, including some Israelis, who want to resolve the conflict by turning Israel into a monster. The only result is strengthening of rejectionism and anti-Semitism. The Israeli Arabs who were in Dubai this week chose otherwise. Humanization of Israel instead of demonization.
You are terrible in public relations, Somaya told us. We need more delegations in order to know the real Israel and not the Israel depicted by the media.
She and her friends and many in the UAE are ready for change. She will take part in the soon-to-be-established office of Deri’s NGO. Lubna, Somaya and others we have met represent spirits of change in the Arab world. It takes a lot of work for them to win and we want them to win. Inshallah.
Ben-Dror Yemini is a senior columnist for Yedioth Aharonoth, Ynet's Hebrew-language sister publication, and the author of “Industry of Lies”