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Israel team in UAE; Pope rebuffs deal

DUBAI: Israel Start-Up Nation team poses before the start of the first stage of the UAE Tour from the Pointe to Silicon Oasis yesterday. – AFP

DUBAI: An Israeli cycling team raced through Dubai yesterday, taking part in the UAE Tour for the first time in the latest overture between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, Pope Francis yesterday warned against “inequitable solutions” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying they would only be a prelude to new crises, in an apparent reference to US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace proposal.

Gulf Arab nations have made a number of recent moves hinting at warmer ties with the Jewish state, with Israeli athletes and officials increasingly allowed to visit. “Israel Start-Up Nation will make history on Sunday by competing in the UAE Tour, becoming the first Israeli team to participate in the Middle East’s top cycling race,” the team said in a statement.

“The participation in this race by our Israeli team in a Middle Eastern nation is emblematic of how cycling can be a force for diplomatic openness and progress,” its co-owner Sylvan Adams said. Like all Arab countries, except for Jordan and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates has no official relations with Israel. But Israel Start-Up Nation’s members, with their country’s name emblazoned on their blue and white shirts, posed on stage before the week-long race kicked off in Dubai.

“I’m very excited, it’s a nice country. We come here with a good team,” Israeli cyclist Omer Goldstein told AFP ahead of the race. “It’s special that I’ve arrived here because normally Israelis cannot (come) to this country… I invite all the Israelis to this country.” The team said they were surprised by the warm reception they received in the UAE, where expatriates make up about 90 percent of the population. “After the initial shock to see the ‘Israel Startup Nation logo,’ some of them waved with friendly smiles and even asked for selfies,” the team said after a visit to a Dubai cycling park.

Israel has been quietly moving closer to some Gulf Arab countries on the basis of shared security interests and a common rival – Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Oman in 2018, frequently voices confidence that a decades-old Arab boycott – over treatment of the Palestinians and occupation of Arab lands – is thawing. Since then there have been other milestones in relations with the Gulf nations. Israeli Sports Minister Miri Regev toured the UAE’s famed Sheikh Zayed mosque, Israel’s communications minister delivered a speech in Dubai, and the Israeli national anthem was played at a judo competition in Abu Dhabi.

Pope Francis made his comments in the southern Italian port city of Bari, where he travelled to conclude a meeting of bishops from all countries in the Mediterranean basin. “The Mediterranean region is currently threatened by outbreaks of instability and conflict, both in the Middle East and different countries of North Africa, as well as between various ethnic, religious or confessional groups,” Francis said.

“Nor can we overlook the still unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with the danger of inequitable solutions and, hence, a prelude to new crises,” he said. The participants included Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whose jurisdiction includes Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. It was believed to be the first time the pope, who has often defended both Palestinian rights and Israel’s need for security, has spoken in public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Trump announced the plan on Jan 28.

The plan would recognize Israel’s authority over West Bank Jewish settlements and require Palestinians meet a series of conditions for a state, with its capital in a West Bank village east of Jerusalem. Although Trump’s stated aim was to end decades of conflict, his plan favored Israel, underlined by the Palestinians’ absence from his White House announcement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side.

The Palestinians and Arab League foreign ministers have rejected the plan and the Palestinian Authority has cut all ties with the United States and Israel. Palestinians, with broad international backing, want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, while Israel views the whole city its “united and eternal” capital.

The pope expressed concern in 2018 when the United States announced the moving of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying the city’s “status quo” should be respected. Francis has called for all to honor UN resolutions on the city. “There is no reasonable alternative to peace, because every attempt at exploitation or supremacy demeans both its author and its target. It shows a myopic grasp of reality, since it can offer no future to either of the two,” Francis said, speaking in general about the Middle East.

Francis again warned against populist politicians who he said used “demagogic terms” such as “invasion” when talking of migration. “To be sure, acceptance and a dignified integration are stages in a process that is not easy. Yet it is unthinkable that we can address the problem by putting up walls,” he said. – Agencies

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