NETANYA, Israel — As he steps inside the busy cafe in his hometown here in central Israel, judoka Sagi Muki is recognized immediately. Not just by the cashier and the barista, but by random fellow customers, who smile and wave.
The image of the dark-haired, stocky fighter singing “Hatikva” (“The Hope”) that day atop a podium backed by an Israeli flag has been hailed here as doubly propitious — a big step toward equal treatment for Israel’s small pool of professional athletes, but also a sign of warming ties with the Arab world.
“Recognizing our identities this year was a huge victory, not just for me but also for my country,” said Muki, 26. “There are still so many countries that refuse to recognize our existence. Every achievement like this boosts our morale.”
The judoka, who is ranked ninth worldwide, recalled being frustrated the two previous times he competed in Abu Dhabi, when team members were required to cover the Israeli flag on their uniforms with a white patch. Last year, his teammate Tal Flicker was awarded a gold medal with no Israeli flag and no “Hatikva.”
This year, the Israelis competed openly, all their national symbols on display, returning home from the United Arab Emirates capital with five medals, including an additional gold won by Peter Paltchik.
Unequal treatment of Israel has long been the norm at major sporting events in Arab or Muslim countries. Often, its athletes are denied entry visas, unable to compete at all. If they are included, they are usually separated from other participants, shadowed by security and asked to keep their national symbols out of sight. Their nationality is often omitted from competition rosters.
Israel has few overt diplomatic ties with these countries, including the UAE, and in many places, its very name — not to mention its official symbol, the blue Star of David — provokes an intense reaction. Popular opposition runs high against any form of diplomacy or normalization of ties with the Jewish state until a solution is found for the Palestinians, a stance that has also drawn support from critics of Israel in Western countries.
But things appear to be changing, if ever so slightly. Last month, Oman hosted Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, who hopes to build a railway line from Israel to the Persian Gulf, and, in a separate visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who predicts increasingly closer relations between Israel and states in the region. Days later, there was the milestone in Abu Dhabi.
The man Israelis credit for that moment is Austria’s Marius Vizer, president of the International Judo Federation, who had threatened to cancel the Grand Slam if Israel did not receive the same treatment as the 60 other participating countries.
“I understand the political reasons, but this conflict, between Arabs and Israelis, is the legacy of past generations. We now need to show young people how to live together in unity, peace and friendship,” Vizer said in an interview. “Sport has to be kept far away from all political confrontation and debate.”
Former Israeli judoka Yoel Razvozov knows firsthand the hostilities Israeli athletes face when competing against Arab or Muslim opponents. At the 2001 World Judo Championships, an Iranian player forfeited a match rather than compete against him. Another time, he said, he was told, “Your country does not exist, therefore you do not exist, so why should I compete against you?”
“There is a phenomenon of Arab countries hosting important international sporting competitions using the platform to insult Israel politically. We need to put an end to this,” said Razvozov, now a member of Israel’s parliament.
As a lawmaker, Razvozov established a team of international legal experts, including the American lawyer Alan Dershowitz, to challenge such incidents in the global sporting arena. Dershowitz told The Washington Post that the White House backed the initiative and that U.S. teams would pull out of world competitions if Israel was excluded or not treated equally in the future. If necessary, formal complaints will be filed in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, he said.
Such efforts have been bolstered by Israel’s ultranationalist minister of culture and sports, Miri Regev, who has ramped up pressure on international sporting associations since she took office in 2015.
“Israeli athletes, all athletes, should be treated equally regardless of gender, nationality or anything else. That is the language of sport,” Regev said.
As part of her efforts, the minister joined the judo team in Abu Dhabi. Singing along teary-eyed to “Hatikva” as Muki and Paltchik received their medals, Regev also used the visit for some diplomacy. Wearing a traditional Arab abaya and headscarf, she visited the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque and made a point of writing in the guest book in Hebrew.
Despite the successes — a week after the judo tournament, Israeli gymnasts competed openly at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Doha, Qatar — Israel and its sports teams still face hostility and suspicion in many Arab countries.
Earlier this year, Tunisia was initially disqualified from bidding to host the 2022 Summer Youth Olympic Games because it remained unwilling to allow Israeli athletes to enter. And last December, Saudi Arabia came under fire for denying visas to seven Israeli chess players in a World Chess Federation tournament.
Even on the sidelines of the Grand Slam, the Israeli team was separated from other participants, and an Israeli journalist sent to cover the historic event was detained and interrogated for 13 hours. Emirati authorities accused him of spying.
“It’s clear that both sides want to get closer and maybe achieve peace someday, but I think my experience should be a wake-up call as to who it is we are dealing with,” said Gilad Shalmor, a reporter for Channel 2 News.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst based in the UAE, said the Israeli team’s presence at the judo tournament did not signify a new era of diplomatic relations.
“Netanyahu’s government is making a big deal out of it for domestic Israeli political purposes,” he said. “They came as part of an international sporting event, invited by the judo federation. The UAE was just caught in the middle because it was a venue for the event.”
“For me, personally, this was one of the worst days. To see someone really outrageous in her hatred of the Arabs, to see such a person visiting the UAE, was abhorrent,” Abdulla said of Regev. “Hearing the national anthem played only added to the insult.”
Loveday Morris in Istanbul contributed to this report.