Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has conducted a surprise visit to the United Arab Emirates as efforts to salvage a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme remain stalled amid a deepening standoff with Tehran.
Bennett’s visit on Thursday was his second public trip to Abu Dhabi since Israel and the UAE formally normalised ties in 2020 after years of quiet cooperation.
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A statement from Bennett’s office said the Israeli leader will meet UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and that the two will discuss “various regional issues,” with Iran likely to top the agenda.
In a video statement recorded before departing, Bennett commended countries at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in the Austrian capital, Vienna, on Wednesday who voted to censure Iran over its transparency about nuclear activities.
“We see here a firm stance by the countries of the world regarding the distinction between good and evil, as they clearly state that Iran is concealing things. We will not let up on this issue,” he said before boarding a plane to the UAE.
The IAEA said on Thursday that Iran plans to ramp up its uranium enrichment.
Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to the nuclear deal, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord and stepped up sanctions against Iran, raising tensions across the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.
Underpinning UAE-Israel ties is a shared concern over Iran’s nuclear reach in the region. Israel says it is determined to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, while Tehran insists its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes.
Israel strongly opposed the 2015 deal. It says it wants an improved deal that places tighter restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme and addresses Iran’s long-range missile programme and its support for hostile proxies along Israel’s borders.
Talks in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal have been stalled since April.
Israel and the UAE announced in August 2020 that they had agreed to thaw ties under the US-brokered agreements known as the “Abraham Accords,” which saw similar deals struck with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Since then, Israel and the UAE have deepened ties in tourism and trade, to the dismay of the Palestinians who long relied on an Arab wall of support to serve as leverage against Israeli occupation.
At the end of May 2022, Israel signed a free trade agreement with the UAE, its first big trade accord with an Arab state and a move aimed at boosting trade between the two nations.
Bennett’s latest trip comes as Israel is on the cusp of another political crisis, with members of his fragile coalition threatening to bolt unless the government can pass a law over the legal status of its settlers in the occupied West Bank.