Bennett to meet with UAE Crown Prince in historic first

The visit is the first-ever by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf state, and comes as tensions with Iran continue to grow.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, December 12, 2021. (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, December 12, 2021.
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett departed to Abu Dhabi on Sunday to meet with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on the first trip by an Israeli prime minister to the United Arab Emirates.

Bennett was greeted by an honor guard and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. 

“I’m excited to be here, on the first official visit of an Israeli leader here,” Bennett said. “We look forward to strengthening the relations between the countries.”

Bennett said on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport that Israel-UAE relations are “excellent and extensive,” and called to “nurture and strengthen them, and build the warm peace between the two nations.”

Bennett is set to meet with MBZ, as the Emirati leader is known, on Monday, as well as with other ministers and senior officials.

 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen leaving for his flight to Abu Dhabi in the UAE, on December 12, 2021. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen leaving for his flight to Abu Dhabi in the UAE, on December 12, 2021. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Relations between Israel and the UAE were officially established in August 2020, in what became known as the Abraham Accords.

The meeting comes at an important juncture for relations between the countries, which grew closer in the years before the accords were signed, over shared concern about the Iranian nuclear threat.

World powers returned to negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program two weeks ago, and Western parties to the talks have lamented an impasse, with Iran presenting unrealistic proposals.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has taken steps to warm relations with Tehran, including an invitation to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit the UAE and meet with MBZ. Last week, Emirati National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed met with Raisi in Tehran.

A senior Israeli diplomatic source said that last week’s meeting is “not a big drama; this was expected,” because the UAE and Iran are neighbors, and continued being trading partners even when the Emiratis were especially concerned about threats from Iran.

At the same time, the source said that “the Emiratis hedging their bets is not a good sign” in terms of the negotiations with Iran in Vienna.

“They see a danger of returning to the 2015 normalization of Iran, so they’re being careful,” the source added.

Loay Alshareef, an Abu Dhabi-based expert on Israel-Arab relations, put the Tehran meeting in a broader context not related to Vienna. He pointed to recent visits by Sheikh Tahnoon to Qatar and Turkey, countries with which the UAE had tense relations in recent years.

“The UAE is making sure to keep good ties with key players in the region to minimize tension and achieve peace,” Alshareef said.

Other than the topic of Iran, Bennett and MBZ plan to discuss “economic and regional issues that will contribute to the prosperity, welfare and strengthening the stability between the two countries,” read the Prime Minister’s Office statement.

Economic ties are a big part of Israel and the UAE’s new relations, including the launching of negotiations toward a free trade agreement last month. Trade in goods between the countries surpassed $500 million in 2021, up from $125m. in 2020.

Due to the spread of the Omicron variant of corona, the prime minister’s trip will be more limited than originally planned, with the meeting with MBZ the only item on the agenda. Bennett will not go to Dubai and visit the Israeli pavilion at Expo 2020, or meet with business leaders to promote trade with Israel.

In addition, Bennett will be traveling with a smaller entourage than usual, and the press corps that had been originally invited on the trip were disinvited on Saturday night. He will still be staying in Abu Dhabi overnight.