Announced in April 2019, long before the September 2020 Abraham Accords normalised relations between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, Israel's participation at Dubai Expo 2020 was never going to be straightforward.
While the primary purpose of Israel's pavilion is to promote the country's expertise on a global stage and to foster ties with other Middle East states, the fact that the country was not officially recognised by the UAE and most other Arab states prior to the signing of the accords gives its presence at the event a far deeper significance than is usual for expo delegations.
The recent deadly clashes in May between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza have only added to the political sensitivity of Israel's presence at Dubai Expo 2020.
"I have a very warm corner in my heart for [the previous expos]," said Israel pavilion comissioner general Elazar Cohen on 9 June in his opening speech to journalists at the pavilion's first press conference in Dubai.
"But as an Arab-origin Jew born in Syria, this expo has been one of the most challenging ones, not just as a World Expo but even in terms of the diplomatic responsibility I face."
Clearly aware of the sensitivities of the timing of the first press conference held in Dubai by the Israel pavilion, Cohen said that the latest escalation in political tensions had not changed his country's approach to the event.
"It hasn't affected our expo plans, as is evidenced by this media gathering today," said Cohen. "We are eager, more than ever, to continue our work."
Cohen said that the purpose of World Expos is to focus on "positive agendas" and this is what Israel's aim will be at the event.
Backed by three decades of diplomatic experience in foreign affairs that includes serving as commissioner general for Israel's pavilions at the Milan World Expo 2015 and Astana Specialised Expo 2017, Cohen's speech to journalists in Dubai resonated diplomatic experience.
"We are grateful to the UAE government and the expo organisers," said Cohen.
Cohen sees Expo 2020 as "an excellent platform" to establish ties with other Middle East nations and to deepen relations with the Abraham Accords signatories – the UAE and Bahrain, as well as Morocco and Sudan, who have also normalised relations with Israel.
Israel has already seen the benefits of formalising ties with the UAE, with a reported increase in tourist cross-flows, investments and trade partnerships.
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While there is no doubt that the politics of the Palestinian situation and the sensitive history of Arab-Israeli relations, in addition to the challenges of Covid-19, combined to make the first ever press conference by Israel's Dubai Expo team a nervous occasion, it is clear that its strategy is to be as open and collaborative as possible.
It is a positive approach. But as the team's interactions with regional and international media increase over the coming months, as well as its engagement with Dubai Expo visitors, it is one that could be tested by events back home.
Israel pavilion at Expo
Inspired by the 'Tent of Abraham', a Jewish symbol of openness and peace, the Israeli pavilion is designed like an open tunnel made up of LED screens rather than walls.
Providing edge-to-edge visibility, Israel's message for its visitors will be displayed in big bold letters at one end of the pavilion, stating 'Towards Tomorrow'. The letters are in Aravrit, an experimental writing system featuring hybrid letters merging Hebrew and Arabic.
"We will explore opportunities for collaboration," said Israel pavilion comissioner general Elazar Cohen.
Israel will highlight and share its expertise in areas such as food security, water resources, smart mobility, cybersecurity, medicine and more, which Cohen says are "human challenges" that need to be jointly addressed.
"We will also showcase our culture and heritage," he adds.
The Israel pavilion project is led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. It is produced by Israeli creative visual solutions specialist AVS and designed by Knafo Klimor Architects. The structural works are complete, while finishing interior works are under way.
The pavilion is designed to adhere to the Expo 2020 and UAE's Covid safety protocols.
Cohen is hopeful that come October 2021, the global pandemic situation will be well under control and is keen to welcome visitors.
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