World

Israeli Leader Is to Meet Emirati Prince, Showcasing Deepening Ties

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is set to become the first Israeli leader to make an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, after Israeli officials said he would fly to Abu Dhabi on Sunday to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto Emirati leader.

The visit is the latest sign of deepening ties between Israel and parts of the Arab world, a process that accelerated in the fall of 2020 when Israel signed diplomatic agreements with four countries, including the United Arab Emirates, that had previously avoided formal relations with Israel because of its conflict with the Palestinians.

The meeting also highlighted how those 2020 agreements — which were brokered by President Donald J. Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Bennett’s predecessor as prime minister — have endured beyond the demise of the Trump and Netanyahu administrations.

By visiting Abu Dhabi, Mr. Bennett will achieve a foreign-policy laurel that was denied to Mr. Netanyahu, who was forced to cancel three trips last winter, partly because of coronavirus restrictions and partly because Emirati leaders balked at the prospect of becoming props in his re-election campaign.

Israeli cabinet ministers have since visited the Emirates, but never a prime minister.

Prince Mohammed’s invitation to Mr. Bennett underscored the shifting priorities of Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates, for whom the threat of a nuclear Iran is now of far greater concern than a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For decades, only Egypt and Jordan had formal relations with Israel, with most Arab leaders preferring to delay a détente until the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Having long maintained clandestine ties, the Emirates finally forged a formal relationship with Israel in September 2020 after Israel promised to postpone its plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Deals with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan soon followed.

Since then, Emirati officials had said little about the Palestinians, with mutual fears over Iran’s nuclear program forming the bedrock of the Israel-Emirati relationship instead.

The value of trade between the Emirates and Israel has also rapidly increased: In the first seven months of 2021, bilateral trade was worth more than $600 million, according to statistics cited in September by an Israeli official — about $550 million more than during the equivalent period in 2020. Banks, universities, airlines and technology firms in the two countries have signed partnership deals, and their armies have conducted joint exercises. The Emirates also set up an investment fund, worth $10 billion, for projects in Israel.

Ties with Bahrain and Morocco have also continued to improve, but questions have been raised about the sustainability of the deal with Sudan. Little momentum has been created since Israel and Sudan formally signed a normalization deal in January, the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors, and a recent coup in Khartoum cast doubt over the entire arrangement.

No new rapprochement has been announced since the Sudanese deal in January, despite hopes that Saudi Arabia, which has close ties with the Emirates and which shares an antipathy for Iran, would become the fifth country to sign up to the Abraham Accords, as the deals are known. Mr. Netanyahu was reported to have met in secret in November 2020 with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, but Saudi officials denied the meeting took place.

And even in the Emirates, there are signs of caution about attracting too much attention to its relationship with Israel. Mr. Bennett’s office invited dozens of Israel-based journalists to accompany him on his flight to Abu Dhabi, but Emirati officials declined to organize a news conference for them or to host them at the prince’s palace. The journalists were later uninvited from the mission entirely, officially because of rising concerns over the new coronavirus variant.

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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