Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a surprise visit to Sharm e-Sheikh to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) on Monday.
The trilateral meeting is about “shared security interests, of which there are quite a few, in all their aspects,” a diplomatic source said.
The United Arab Emirates and Israel have opposed the US move toward removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Some in the UAE “are in great shock,” and they view the possibility of the IRGC’s designation being removed in the same way as Israel does, a source in Abu Dhabi said.
Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid released a statement on Friday saying they “find it hard to believe that the IRGC’s designation... will be removed in exchange for a promise not to harm Americans.... We believe the [US] will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists.”
It has been difficult for the UAE to work with the Biden administration on defense issues, and the relationship has deteriorated, the source added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly canceled a planned trip to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He is expected to visit Israel in the coming weeks.
MBZ and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declined to take calls from US President Joe Biden to discuss energy issues stemming from US sanctions on Russia, over their dismay with US policy in the Gulf, The Wall Street Journal reported. Prior to that, the UAE and Saudi Arabia did not sign on to a US-backed UN Security Council resolution last month condemning Russia for invading Ukraine for the same reason.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been repeatedly targeted by the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels in recent months, and they were disappointed with the US response, which they view as too restrained. They are also concerned that the Iran nuclear deal the US is involved in negotiating does not address their security needs.
The US removed the Houthis from its list of foreign terrorist organizations last year.
Bennett also continued speaking out against the possible delisting of the IRGC, calling it “delusional” at a Yediot Aharonot conference.
The IRGC is “the biggest terrorist organization in the world, which is state sponsored, attacks the Emirates and others and tries to hurt Americans and Israelis,” he said.
At the same conference, Lapid said the US and Israel “have a complex dialogue... We don’t hide the fact that we have differences of opinion with the [Biden] administration.”
“We publicized our vigorous protest over the weekend,” Lapid said. “But what is more important... is that even if the US removes the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, for Israel, practically and on the security and military level, the IRGC is a terrorist organization, and we will continue to treat it as such.”
Bennett said Israel had success in campaigning against the closure of two International Atomic Energy Agency probes of possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. IAEA Secretary-General Rafael Grossi did not agree to end the investigations as part of the Iran nuclear talks, in contrast to the IAEA’s behavior after the original Iran deal was signed in 2015.
Asked why he has been less vocal in his opposition to the Iran deal than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett said it is clear the US wants a deal.
“The Americans are fully determined to sign an agreement,” he said. “They will sign the agreement... I fight when I can win and for an appropriate goal. The difference between 2015 and 2022 is not the agreement [with Iran] but what Israel will do. We are going from words to actions. This time, unlike in 2015, we made a massive move to build up our force... Iran sees that when it sends its proxies to attack us, there is a more forceful response.”
Israelis should “not have terrible anxiety” about Iran, Bennett said, adding: “There is reason to be concerned... we are on it.”
Speaking at the same conference, Defense Minister Benny Gantz stressed that the IRGC should remain on the terrorist blacklist and that Washington should not delist it.
“I want it to be clear: This is a terror organization, and as such, they should remain [on the list],” he said. “We need to coordinate our moves with the United States, as well as our positions, and we will continue to voice them unequivocally.”
The strategic relations between Jerusalem and Washington, as well as with other Western countries, “are not managed on Twitter,” but rather through face-to-face between officials, Gantz said.
“I am in contact with American officials, and I travel to all regional countries, some that we have relations with and even those that we don’t,” he said. “Iran is a global problem, a regional problem and a potential existential threat to the State of Israel, so we must not be first in line, but we must harness the world.”
According to Gantz, Israel is “mobilizing” neighboring countries for regional cooperation in the face of Iran’s aggression.
“We must put forth our intelligence capabilities, as well as offensive and defensive,” he said, adding that the deal set to be signed between Iran and Western countries is not a good one.
“This agreement is not good,” Gantz said. “It has holes in it, and we are making it clear during working groups with the Americans, and we need to make sure that in the coming years that we do everything we can to make up for the holes that exist [in the agreement].”
While Israel is not a party to the agreement being negotiated in Vienna, Jerusalem will not stop the ongoing dialogue with officials in Washington, he said.
“The prime minister said this, and so do I: We will keep our destiny in our hands and not in the hands of the fate of the world,” Gantz said.
The US and Iran have been indirectly negotiating in Vienna to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal for the past 11 months. The deal placed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear deal in exchange for the gradual lifting of sanctions. Most of those restrictions expire at the end of 2025.
In addition, in recent years, Iran has far surpassed the deal’s limit of 3.67% uranium enrichment, enriching to 60% – weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90% – and has converted some of it to a format that is hard to dilute or transport.
In addition, critics of the Iran deal say lifting sanctions on the regime would allow money to flow to the IRGC and its proxies, while it does not limit their malign behavior in the region or Iran’s ballistic-missile program.
Bennett and Sisi met last September in Sharm e-Sheikh to discuss bilateral ties on security, geopolitical and economic matters between the neighboring countries.
It was the first public meeting in Egypt between an Israeli prime minister and an Egyptian president in a decade.
“We created a foundation for deep ties in the future,” Bennett said after the September visit.
A “very important” bond was created between the two leaders, a diplomatic source said.
One of the agreements discussed during the September meeting was a new flight route between Tel Aviv and Sharm e-Sheikh. The route is set to be inaugurated on the intermediary days of Passover, the Prime Minister’s Office said last week.