Jan 28, 2021 - World

Israel's chief epidemiologist creates diplomatic incident with UAE

Israeli travelers arrive in Dubai. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

A remark by Israel’s chief epidemiologist suggesting the opening of direct flights from Dubai to Tel Aviv had led to COVID-19 deaths in Israel resulted in diplomatic protests from the UAE, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Direct flights were one of the main fruits of the Israel-UAE peace treaty, and around 130,000 Israeli tourists have taken advantage by flying to Dubai since December.

Israel’s chief epidemiologist, Sharon Alroy-Preis, remarked in a Zoom briefing to hospital directors earlier this week that “more Israelis died in two weeks of peace with Dubai than in 70 years of war with Dubai."

  • She was essentially criticizing the Israeli government, which opted against halting flights even when many Israelis tested positive after returning from Dubai.
  • Her remarks were published by Israel's Channel 13 and later reached Abu Dhabi.

Emirati officials interpreted them as an accusation that the UAE was responsible for Israel's high infection rate and called the prime minister's office to protest, Israeli officials tell me.

  • They expressed surprise that such a senior Israeli health official would speak in such terms.
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisers apologized for the remarks and stressed that Israel doesn’t hold the UAE responsible in any way for the rise in cases and deaths.

The big picture: The Israeli Ministry of Health wanted to halt flights from Dubai several weeks ago but was overruled by Netanyahu's office and the Foreign Ministry, which were concerned such a step would damage the new relationship with the UAE.

  • Eventually, all flights to Israel were stopped, including from Dubai.
  • According to Israeli Ministry of Health assessments, more than 900 Israelis who traveled to Dubai subsequently tested positive, infecting an estimated 4,000 contacts in Israel.
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