Diplomatic relations: Israeli delegates and the UAE - part 2
‘When we first considered the idea of this conference in the middle east, one of the crucial guarantees was to ensure that our Israeli delegates would be permitted to come,’ says IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis, speaking to IBA Global Insight. ‘But after the assassination, and as we got closer to the conference, additional conditions were imposed which we felt were problematic.
‘We had concerns about whether the Israeli delegates would have freedom of movement and security, and negotiations on these and other issues involved scores of emails back and forth.’
‘The interaction of the Israeli lawyers with lawyers from the Arab region was one of my highlights of the conference,’ said IBA Secretary-General David Rivkin.
‘Before the Management Board committed to holding the conference in Dubai, we made sure to have a written commitment from the UAE Government that it would admit any Israeli lawyer who wished to attend, and the government met that commitment.’
Specifically, four additional conditions were imposed by the UAE on top of their original visa arrangements, two of which were deemed unacceptable to IBA management: that all delegates must arrive and depart on the same flight as a group, and that no spouses would be permitted to attend.
The authorities were acting ‘in good faith’, Ellis believes, to ensure the safety of the delegates – who themselves requested tougher safeguards following a warning by the Israeli National Security Agency that there was ‘a real risk’ to their safety in the region. Indeed, the Israeli Bar itself requested all delegates’ names be removed from the programme and the list of participants, and for their hotel arrangements to be kept secret.
Following weeks of discussion, the UAE officials eventually relaxed its position on flights and spouses. However, they took no risks, and their final conditions were as restrictive as they were generous. The Israelis came as their guests and they paid for their hotel, transport and bodyguards. As many as 13 men and two women accompanied the lawyers everywhere, from their hotel rooms to the lobby, from the lobby to lavatory, and all external phone lines in the rooms were disconnected. At lunch, the security guards – two from the Chamber of Commerce and the remainder from the security services – would sit at a separate table just beyond earshot, while in the evening they would lurk within a metre or two, ready to pounce if need be. ‘Plus, during the night two guards would sleep in the hotel corridor outside the room,’ says Kaplan. ‘It was as if the Mossad was coming to kidnap us. I have never experienced anything like it.’
For one of the lawyers, who wishes to remain anonymous, the restrictions were oppressive and frustrating. He – as is the right of any non-Israeli delegate – wished to register five companions for the conference, including his brother and girlfriend, but they were all denied visas. He is currently around US$3,000 out of pocket due to cancellation and registration fees. ‘I felt they were very suspicious of us,’ he says, speaking to IBA Global Insight. ‘Especially because of the Hamas assassination. They made difficulties. They were very gentle and kind, but I sometimes felt imprisoned. I am not used to that.’
Mark Ellis said: ‘All of the Israeli delegates who decided not to attend the conference, for whatever reason, were given full refunds on their registration fees. Also, in this particular case, the Dubai government had information about the non-lawyer guests that made it problematic to provide visas. Considering the sensitivity of the situation, I thought the government’s concerns were reasonable.’
The Israeli delegate believes the IBA’s decision to hold the conference in Dubai was the right one, and he, along with the other Israeli attendees, is keen to stress how hospitable the security guards were. They bought the group SIM cards when their phones did not work, and they were always polite and eager to please. They even gave their new Israeli friends a gift each when they left: a picture of Dubai’s towering Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
Levitan, Sharon & Co advocate Rachel Levitan describes the trip as a ‘tremendous adventure’. ‘I am certain that the IBA was right in choosing Dubai,’ she says. ‘The IBA’s condition that all delegates from any country should be able to attend the conference shows the strength and the importance of the Association, which really can go beyond borders.
‘While diplomatic relations is an issue which is influenced by various political considerations, an exchange of ideas can sometimes be detached from diplomatic considerations. If our visit was even a small step towards such a situation, it was worthwhile.’
Kaplan also believes it was worthwhile (‘I will never forget the experience’), but is convinced the real security risk to the delegates was negligible. In his view, the UAE’s concerns were more political than safety-orientated, but the government was forced into ‘over-playing the security risk’ in order to justify their initial hard-line stance to the IBA.
‘I think they are more worried of the Jordanians, the Palestinians, the Iranians, than of us,’ he says. ‘Dubai has 230,000 citizens and 700,000 foreign workers, so the feeling is that they are under attack all the time from foreigners, not Israelis.’
Such a view, however, is ‘clearly wrong’, says Ellis, who stresses that security was as much a concern for the Israeli Government as for the UAE. ‘The facts speak for themselves,’ he says. ‘Only a year earlier there had been an assassination, and you can imagine what would happen if an Israeli was killed in Dubai.’
Indeed, Kaplan’s wife, who finalised arrangements for her will before leaving for the trip, evidently had a certain amount of anxiety about the trip – as did the nine delegates who chose to cancel their registration on the advice of the Israeli authorities.
The drop-out was regrettable, Ellis says, but he stresses it was the lawyers’ decision, and neither enforced nor encouraged by the UAE. ‘I think that, despite the conflict that exists in the region between the Israeli Government and other Arab governments, we achieved something quite remarkable.
‘We were able to facilitate for the first time, in a convention of this type, Israeli delegates attending and participating openly side by side with Arab lawyers.’
Of the 13 who registered, seven have said they supported the decision to hold the conference in Dubai, while one believes it should have been held elsewhere and five were unavailable for comment. Of those who cancelled and spoke to IBA Global Insight, all cited security concerns issued by the Israeli Government as the reason for their absence.
Levitan, Sharon & Co advocate Dror Zamir, who decided to cancel, feels the IBA was wrong to go to Dubai. ‘I think the decision is problematic in view of the fact that it was very difficult for citizens from Israel to attend the conference,’ he says. ‘International conferences, in my point of view, should be held in countries that do not have limits in respect of attendance by citizens all over the world.’
Janet Levy-Pahima, partner at Herzog, Fox & Neeman, in Tel Aviv, believes the IBA was ‘right’ to hold the conference in Dubai, but says she chose not to attend because she was unaware of the extent of the security provided by the UAE. ‘I am really disappointed we did not go. I think, knowing now about the security arrangements, that we made the wrong decision and should have gone. It would have been a fantastic opportunity for us to be in Dubai.’
Iman Jamal, managing partner of Eiman Jamal & Co law office, who withdrew his registration after the visa conditions changed, agreed. ‘To be honest with you, I wish I had not cancelled my trip. I heard from my friends who travelled to Dubai that the conference was impressive.
‘I, and so many lawyers, would love to travel there.’