JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday 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, at once demanding sanctions relief while accelerating its nuclear program.
In recent weeks, Israel has dispatched its top diplomat and its defense and spy chiefs to meet allies in Europe, the United States, and the Mideast to push for a firmer approach to Iran. The Israeli outreach has been accompanied by repeated threats to take military action against Iran if diplomacy fails.
Bennett’s trip to Abu Dhabi, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, is a milestone for both Israel and its new leader. Israel and the UAE last year signed a normalization deal brokered by the Trump administration under the “Abraham Accords,” a series of diplomatic accords with Arab countries that also included Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Israel and the UAE have long shared common anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program.
Bennett was received by an honor 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,” Bennett said. “We look forward to strengthen the diplomatic relations between the countries.”
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, 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 program.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently visited Europe and Egypt and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea flew to the United States to discuss the talks with leaders there. Earlier this year Lapid visited the UAE and inaugurated Israel’s embassy there.
Israel sees the UAE as a crucial part of that outreach to its allies. 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 it sees as the threat posed by Iran. During the recent Dubai air show, Sheikh Mohammed visited the pavilion of Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel’s largest state-owned defense contractor.
The Emirates also hosts U.S. and French forces and its Jebel Ali port is the U.S. Navy’s busiest port of call outside of America.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and it strongly opposed the 2015 nuclear deal. It says it wants an improved deal that places tighter restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and addresses Iran’s long-range missile program 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.