Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the United Arab Emirates on Thursday in an opportunity to showcase new Gulf ties before a closely contested election in Israel, public broadcaster Kan reported.
An Israeli official confirmed the historic trip meant to cement new diplomatic ties between the Middle East nations, and boost the embattled Israeli leader’s re-election hopes. Netanyahu is locked in a tight race against a field of challengers and is sure to use the visit to his advantage.
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Kan reported Netanyahu would hold talks with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) might join them. However, it later said an unnamed Saudi official denied MBS would be there.
According to the Israeli reports, Netanyahu will meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed at Abu Dhabi’s airport.
Israel established formal relations with the UAE and Bahrain last September – only its third and fourth normalisation deals with Arab states in more than 70 years – as part of a US-brokered agreement. The three countries share common concerns about Iran.
The US-brokered deal under former President Donald Trump required Israel to halt its contentious plan to annex occupied West Bank land sought by the Palestinians for their future state.
Israel and the four Arab nations agreed to announce deals such as tourism and direct flights, and open embassies.
Saudi Arabia, a Gulf powerhouse and Islam’s birthplace, encouraged the rapprochement but has stopped short of recognising Israel itself.
It was not immediately clear if Netanyahu, on what Israeli media said would be a one-day visit, would also go to Bahrain, as he planned to do during a previously scheduled one-day trip to the Gulf in February, which he postponed because of the coronavirus crisis.
Regional enemy Iran
Netanyahu, running in politically polarised Israel’s fourth election in two years largely on his role in its rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme, has also made his drive to forge new relations in the Gulf region a centrepiece of his campaign.
The most detailed of the accords was with the UAE. The nations agreed to approve bilateral deals on 15 areas of mutual interest, including finance, trade, aviation, energy, telecommunications, health, agriculture and water.
The two countries had nurtured clandestine security ties for years over a shared distrust of regional foe Iran.
Netanyahu’s visit on Thursday comes after both countries have exchanged ambassadors and set up embassies.
In an interview with Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday, Netanyahu called on voters to re-elect him on March 23 so he could achieve “more peace agreements” in the area while ensuring Iran “doesn’t arm itself with nuclear weapons”.
Iran denies its nuclear programme is aimed at developing atomic weaponry.
Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a seasoned statesman uniquely qualified to lead his nation through turbulent times.
Thursday’s visit, which has been delayed several times because of coronavirus restrictions, could help Netanyahu divert attention from his upcoming corruption trial and Israeli anger over the economic fallout from the pandemic.
While Netanyahu has led Israel to one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, unemployment remains high and many businesses are struggling to survive.
Since August, the US has brokered deals to initiate diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Until then, Egypt and Jordan were the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel, in 1979 and 1994, respectively.