Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says he will travel to the United Arab Emirates as part of a blitz of regional diplomacy, amid a backdrop of struggling nuclear talks with Iran.
Israel has watched with concern as Iran pushes a hard line against negotiators meeting in Vienna, at once demanding sanctions’ relief while accelerating its nuclear program.
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 with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, is seen as a milestone for both Israel and its new leader.
Israel and the UAE last year signed a normalisation deal brokered by the US Trump administration under the so-called Abraham Accords, which saw similar agreements with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Israel and the UAE have long shared common anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program.
The deal to establish ties between the countries only increased tensions with the Islamic Republic.
Mr Bennett’s office said he will be discussing “economic and regional issues that will contribute to prosperity, welfare and strengthening stability between the countries” during his meeting with Mr bin Zayed.
The Prime Minister will be the first Israeli leader to visit the UAE while in office.
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 with Iran’s new 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.
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 program.
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.
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 it sees 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 then-US president Barack Obama, granted Iran relief from stifling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
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.
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 lawmakers and the voters who support them.
Mr Bennett, who leads a small nationalist party in parliament, rose to the prime ministership 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.