Israeli PM Naftali Bennett meets crown prince on first UAE visit

Bennett says returning home ‘very optimistic’ from a two-day trip to the UAE — the first official visit since the countries normalised relations.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the first prime minister to visit the UAE [Haim Zach/Government Press Office (GPO)/via Reuters]

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan hosted Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the first-ever public meeting between the United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler and an Israeli leader.

Bennett met Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on Monday at his private palace, Israeli officials said, following the PM’s arrival in the Emirati capital late on Sunday.

Bennett’s trip this week to the Gulf Arab federation comes against the backdrop of nuclear talks between world powers and regional archrival Iran over its nuclear program. Israel has watched with concern as Iran has pushed a hard line against negotiators meeting in Vienna, at once demanding sanctions relief while accelerating its nuclear program.

Bennett’s office said he met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and de facto ruler of the Emirates for some four hours, with more than half of the time spent in one-on-one talks.

In a joint statement, the two countries said the visit marked “another milestone in the development of warm relations and a tremendous partnership.”

It said they had discussed a number of areas of cooperation, including trade, technology, the environment and tourism, as well as forming a joint research and development fund. The countries already have struck up burgeoning trade ties.

The statement, however, made no mention of two critical issues — Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear program.

In a video statement before his departure, Bennett said he had held “meaningful, in-depth and straightforward talks” about the region.

“I’m flying back to Israel very optimistic that this relationship can set an example of how we can make peace in the Middle East,” he said.

His office also said the crown prince had accepted an invitation to visit Israel, though a date was not immediately announced.

Bennett’s visit comes just over a year after the wealthy Gulf state forged diplomatic ties with Israel under a series of US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords, with Arab countries that also included Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

The Palestinians, whose diplomacy with Israel has been stalled since 2014, have deplored the Israeli-Emirati rapprochement.

The Israeli prime minister praised the peace agreement for establishing a “new, deep and solid structure for diplomatic, economic and cultural relations” in the region, reported the UAE’s official WAM news agency.

“The relations between the two countries have strengthened in all fields, and I am very satisfied with that, as many cooperation agreements were concluded in the fields of trade, research and development, and cyber security, health, education, aviation and more, I look forward to the continued development and consolidation of relations.”

A statement on WAM said Sheikh Mohammed voiced hope for “stability in the Middle East”.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the region is witnessing a new reality [Haim Zach/Government Press Office (GPO)/via Reuters]

Releasing photographs of Bennett and Sheikh Mohammed smiling and shaking hands, the Israeli leader’s office described the meeting as “historic”.

Iran’s nuclear programme

Israel is making a diplomatic push against renewed international talks with Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme. Israel’s ambassador to Abu Dhabi said the issue of Iran was on the agenda for Monday’s talks.

Israeli Ambassador Amir Hayek declined to elaborate on any discussion of Iran but he told Israel’s Army Radio: “The prime minister did not only come here solely to address the Iranian issue.”

The Israel Hayom newspaper, quoting unnamed officials, said Bennett was expected to brief Sheikh Mohammed on intelligence regarding Iranian-supplied militias and drones in the region.

Israel and the UAE have long shared concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran says its nuclear program is meant for peaceful purposes, while Israel, which considers Iran its greatest enemy, says it will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Israeli industry sources say advanced Israeli air defence systems have yet to be offered.

“Israel is in cooperation with a new friend, with a partner for the long-term, and the considerations will be both considerations of defence and also considerations of how you work with a country which is very, very, very friendly to Israel,” Hayek said.

Israel has been outspoken in its criticism of the global nuclear talks with Iran, which are aimed at restoring a 2015 deal that placed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. The deal unraveled after then-President Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018, and Israel says it would be a mistake to return to the agreement.

Israel believes the deal does not have enough safeguards in it and fears that easing sanctions will revive Iran’s flagging economy. Bennett has accused Iran of “nuclear blackmail.”

While Bennett is the first Israeli prime minister to visit the UAE, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a landmark trip in June, opening an embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies