JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday made a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates, the first visit by an Israeli prime minister, as part of a regional diplomacy blitz amid troubled nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Israel has observed with concern that Iran has taken a hard line against negotiators meeting in Vienna, demanding both sanctions relief while speeding up its nuclear program.

In recent weeks, Israel has sent its top diplomat and defense and espionage chiefs to meet with allies in Europe, the United States and the Middle East to push for a firmer approach to the United States. ‘Iran. 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 Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, is a milestone for Israel and its new ruler. Israel and the United Arab Emirates last year signed a normalization deal brokered by the Trump administration as part of the “Abraham Accords,” a series of diplomatic agreements with Arab countries that also included Bahrain, Sudan. and Morocco. Israel and the United Arab Emirates have long shared a common anxiety about Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement to establish ties between the countries has only increased tensions with the Islamic Republic.

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

“I am very happy to be here for the first official visit of an Israeli leader,” Bennett said. “We look forward to strengthening diplomatic relations between the countries.”

Bennett’s trip follows a visit by UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Tehran, where he met the new Iranian president outright, Ebrahim Raisi, with the aim of ‘calm tensions down. It was a major visit for the Arab Gulf Federation which has long viewed Iran as its main regional threat. Several other regional political visits, by the Syrian foreign minister and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have also taken place recently, all with an eye on negotiations.

Israel, which is not a party to the Vienna talks, has turned to its allies to work together and put pressure on negotiators seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently visited Europe and Egypt, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea traveled to the United States to discuss talks with the leaders there. Earlier this year, Lapid visited the United Arab Emirates and inaugurated the Israeli embassy there.

Israel sees the United Arab Emirates as a crucial part of this communication with its allies. Under Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi and long 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. At the recent Dubai Airshow, Sheikh Mohammed visited the pavilion of Israel Aerospace Industries, the largest Israeli state-owned defense contractor.

The Emirates are also home to US and French forces, and its port of Jebel Ali is the US Navy’s busiest port of call outside of the United States.

The Vienna talks aim to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. The deal, launched by President Barack Obama, granted Iran stifling sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

But three years later, President Donald Trump, heavily encouraged by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, withdrew from the deal, causing it to fail. Since then, the United States has reimposed the sanctions and Iran has stepped up its nuclear activities – building up a stockpile of highly enriched uranium that goes well beyond the limits of the agreement.

Prominent voices in Israel, including a former defense minister and former intelligence chief, are now indicating that the US withdrawal, especially without a contingency plan for Iran’s ever-evolving nuclear plan, has been mismanaged.

Talks resumed earlier this month in Vienna after a five-month hiatus following Raisi’s election. But negotiators ended the round disappointed, saying Iran had reversed progress made in previous rounds and embarked on new demands for sanctions relief.

Iran is also not slowing the progress of its atomic program, further raising the stakes in the talks. Amid negotiations, the UN nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran has started enriching uranium to up to 20% purity at its Fordo underground facility – a site where enrichment does not is not allowed under the agreement.

Israel views Iran as its greatest enemy and has strongly opposed the 2015 deal. It says it wants an improved deal that places tighter restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and addresses the missile program at Iran’s long range and support for hostile proxies along Israel’s borders. Israel also says the negotiations must be accompanied by a “credible” military threat to ensure Iran does not delay indefinitely.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

If successful, Bennett’s visit to the United Arab Emirates could give him a boost at home at a time when he comes under fire from his family’s recent trip overseas amid travel restrictions COVID and where the legitimacy of his leadership is still questioned by opposition lawmakers and voters who support them.

Bennett, who heads a small nationalist party in parliament, rose to the post of prime minister following a deal struck by a panoply of political factions working to oust Netanyahu, a longtime leader who presented himself as the statesman and the ultimate defender of Israel.

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