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Israel's PM Bennett to make landmark visit to UAE

The trip will be the first by an Israeli prime minister to any of the Arab countries that normalised ties with Israel last year
The Emirati, Israeli and US flags at Abu Dhabi airport heralding the arrival of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE on 31 August 2020 (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will travel to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday and meet Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in the highest-level visit since the countries formalised relations last year.

Bennett will meet the UAE’s de facto ruler on Monday to discuss "deepening the ties between Israel and the UAE, especially economic and regional issues," Bennett's office said. 

"This is the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to the UAE," it added in a statement.

The trip comes amid heightened regional tension as world powers resume negotiations to renew a nuclear deal with Iran, with Israel and the United States ramping up pressure on Tehran by talking about the possible economic or military consequences if diplomacy fails.

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Bennett has called for the Vienna talks to be halted, accusing Iran of "nuclear blackmail" and charging that it will use any revenue from sanctions relief to bolster a military arsenal that can harm Israel. 

Israel has broached setting up joint defences with Gulf Arab states that share its concern over Iranian activities. 

Yet, the UAE has recently been reaching out to neighbouring Iran, sending its National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Tehran last Monday.

The visit by the top Emirati official was the first of its kind since relations between the two countries were downgraded in 2016.

Commercial deals

Last year, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalised ties with Israel under a US-sponsored initiative. Bennett’s trip on Sunday would be the first by an Israeli prime minister to any of those four countries. 

The rapprochement has been condemned by Palestinians, whose diplomacy with Israel stalled in 2014.

Bennett's visit "violates the Arab consensus that is supposed to support the Palestinian cause amid the challenges imposed by the [Israeli] occupation," Wasel Abu Youssef of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation told Reuters.

'[Bennett's visit] violates the Arab consensus that is supposed to support the Palestinian cause amid the challenges imposed by the occupation'

- Wasel Abu Youssef, PLO

Bennett and Sheikh Mohammed will discuss deepening ties, with an emphasis on economic issues that will contribute to prosperity, welfare and strengthening stability between the countries, the Israeli statement added.

Israel-UAE normalisation has led to a series of economic and trade deals, including a private contract to offload Gulf oil in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

That deal has been challenged in Israel's Supreme Court by environmentalists and is opposed by Bennett's energy minister. His government is expected to decide this week whether to allow it to go ahead.

In November, Israeli weapons maker Elbit Systems launched a new venture in the UAE, after Emirati and Israeli air force commanders visited each other's nations.

In a landmark visit to the UAE in June, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid opened an embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai, while the UAE established an embassy in Tel Aviv.