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OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday and will meet its de facto ruler in the highest-level visit since the countries formalised relations last year.

Before taking off from Tel Aviv, Bennett said he and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan would meet on Monday to discuss ways to bolster cooperation and strengthen economic and commercial ties.

There was no immediate comment from Abu Dhabi on the visit, which comes at a time of heightened regional tension as world powers try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Israel has broached setting up joint defences with Gulf Arab states that share its concern over Iranian activities. Yet the UAE has also reached out to its Iran, sending its senior national security adviser there last Monday to meet his Iranian counterpart and President Ebrahim Raisi.

A spokesperson for Bennett confirmed the Israeli leader’s arrival in Abu Dhabi. A flightracking app showed that his El Al Israel Airlines plane flew over Saudi Arabia, a country that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel, en route to the UAE. Since August 2020, the UAE, followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, have moved to normalise ties with Israel under a U.S.-sponsored initiative dubbed the “Abraham Accords” after the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Bennett’s UAE trip is the first visit by an Israeli premier to any of those countries since the accords. Saudi Arabia agreed last year to allow Israel-UAE flights to cross despite the absence of official ties. “In just one year since normalising our relationship, we’ve already seen the extraordinary potential of the Israel-UAE partnership,” Bennett said. The rapprochement has been condemned by Palestinians, whose diplomacy with Israel stalled in 2014.

Bennett’s visit “violates the Arab consensus that is supposed to support the Palestinian cause amid the challenges imposed by the (Israeli) occupation,” Wasel Abu Youssef of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization told Reuters.

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