PM to make first official visit to UAE by Israeli premier
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has made a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates, the first visit by an Israeli premier, as part of a blitz of regional diplomacy against the backdrop of struggling nuclear talks with Iran.
Israel has watched with concern as Iran has pushed a hard line against negotiators meeting in Vienna, demanding sanctions relief while accelerating its nuclear programme.
In recent weeks, Israel has fanned out its top diplomat and its defence and spy chiefs to meet allies in Europe, the US and the Middle East to push for a firmer approach to Iran.
Mr Bennett’s one-day trip to Abu Dhabi, where he will meet Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, is a milestone for both Israel and its new leader.
Israel and the UAE last year signed a normalisation deal brokered by the Trump administration under the so-called Abraham Accords, which saw similar agreements signed with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Israel and the UAE have long shared common anxiety over Iran’s nuclear programme. The deal to establish ties between the countries only increased tensions with the Islamic Republic.
Mr Bennett was received by an honour guard and welcomed by the UAE’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. “I am very excited to be here, on the first official visit by an Israeli leader,” Mr Bennett said. We look forward to strengthen the diplomatic relations between the countries.”
Mr Bennett’s trip comes on the heels of a visit by the UAE’s national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Tehran, where he met Iran’s new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi in a bid to ease tensions.
It was a major visit for the Gulf Arab federation that has long viewed Iran as its main regional threat. Several other regional political visits, by Syria’s foreign minister and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have also taken place recently, all with an eye on the negotiations.
Israel, which is not a party to the talks in Vienna, has turned to its allies to work together and lobby negotiators seeking to rein in Iran’s nuclear programme.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently visited Europe and Egypt, and Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea flew to the US to discuss the talks with leaders there.
Earlier this year Mr Lapid visited the UAE and inaugurated Israel’s embassy there, a trip seen as further cementing bilateral ties.
Israel sees the UAE as a crucial part of that outreach. Under Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince and long the de facto ruler of the Emirates, the UAE has embarked on a rapid expansion of its military forces to counter what they see as the threat posed by Iran.
The Emirates also hosts US and French forces and its Jebel Ali port is the US Navy’s busiest port of call outside of America.
The Vienna negotiations are working to revive the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers. That agreement, launched by President Barack Obama, granted Iran relief from stifling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
But three years later, President Donald Trump, with strong encouragement from then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, withdrew from the deal, causing it to unravel.
Since then, the US has reimposed sanctions and Iran has stepped up its nuclear activities – amassing a stockpile of highly enriched uranium that goes well beyond the bounds of the accord.
Prominent voices in Israel, including a former defence minister and former intelligence chief, are now indicating that the US withdrawal, especially without a contingency plan for Iran’s continuously developing nuclear plan, was mishandled.
Talks resumed earlier this month in Vienna after a five-month hiatus that followed Mr Raisi’s election.
But negotiators ended the round disappointed, claiming Iran had backtracked on progress made in previous rounds and had dug in with new demands on sanctions relief.
Iran is also not slowing down advances in its atomic programme, further raising the stakes in talks.
In the midst of the negotiations, the UN’s nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 20% purity at its underground facility at Fordo – a site where enrichment is not permitted under the deal.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and it strongly opposed the 2015 deal.
It says it wants an improved deal that places tighter restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme and addresses Tehran’s long-range missile programme and its support for hostile proxies along Israel’s borders.
Israel also says the negotiations must be accompanied by a “credible” military threat to ensure that Iran does not delay indefinitely.
Iran says its nuclear programme is intended for peaceful purposes.
If successful, Mr Bennett’s visit to the UAE could give him a boost at home at a time when he is under fire for a recent trip by his family abroad amid Covid travel restrictions and when the legitimacy of his leadership is still being questioned by opposition politicians and the voters who support them.
Mr Bennett, who leads a small nationalist party in parliament, rose to the prime minister post following a deal concocted by a panoply of political factions working to oust Mr Netanyahu, a long-serving leader who portrayed himself as the ultimate statesman and defender of Israel.
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