Group of Kuwaiti businessmen said to visit Israel, with approval by PM’s office

TV report says Kuwaitis toured religious and cultural sites last week, in new sign of warming ties between Israel and Muslim world

Illustrative: A picture of Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, is displayed with surrounding Kuwaiti flags in Kuwait City, on February 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell/File)
Illustrative: A picture of Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, is displayed with surrounding Kuwaiti flags in Kuwait City, on February 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell/File)

A group of Kuwaiti businessmen visited Israel last week in a trip approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, in another sign of warming ties between Israel and Gulf states, Israeli television reported Thursday.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the group spent a few days in Israel and toured mostly religious, educational and cultural sites, including the Mahmood Mosque in Haifa, the University of Haifa and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The group arrived in a private capacity in order to learn about Israel from up close, according to the broadcaster, and received special permission to enter the country from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Kuwait maintains a hostile relationship with Israel. Unlike other Gulf states, Israelis are barred from entering Kuwait and foreigners who have an Israeli stamp in their passport may be turned away.

The report did not specify how many were in the group, provide details on their identities or say whether they met with Israeli officials.

The rare visit comes amid a series of recent developments between Israel and Muslim countries that indicate a thaw in ties that have long been frosty, among them the re-establishment of relations with Chad last month.

Kuwaiti TV personality Fajr Al-Saeed in a video interview on Kan TV news following her new year’s tweet calling on Arabs to normalize ties with Israel, January 8, 2019 (Screenshot, Kan)

The visit also comes after a Kuwaiti television host was interviewed by Kan last month and called for a normalization of ties between the countries.

Last month, the Foreign Ministry announced that three Iraqi delegations visited Israel in 2018, prompting demands for a probe by Iraqi lawmakers.

Baghdad does not recognize Israel, and is technically in a state of war with the country.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the 15 Iraqi visitors were “influential Shiite and Sunni personalities in the country,” but did not give names.

The ministry said the Iraqi travelers had visited “Israeli officials and universities,” as well as the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

A significant Iraqi Jewish community lives in Israel, and regularly calls for a normalization of ties between Baghdad and the Jewish state.

Iraqis Kurds carry the Kurdish and the Israeli flags in the streets of the northern city of Kirkuk on September 25, 2017 following a referendum on the independence. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

But the question remains sensitive and Israel’s support for an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in late 2017 provoked Iraqi officials’ ire.

Israel was the only country to back the vote, which Baghdad deemed illegal.

Iraq has been in a formal state of war with Israel throughout the modern history of the state, and its forces participated in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. In 1981, Israel’s air force destroyed the nuclear reactor Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein had been building at Osirak. A decade later, in the first Gulf War, Saddam fired over 40 Scud missiles into Israel.

Nonetheless, Channel 12 news asserted, amid overall regional hostility to Israel, the Iraqi populace is “relatively supportive” of the Jewish state, and this was a factor that helped enable the recent visits.

Last May, the Foreign Ministry launched a Facebook page uniquely dedicated to fostering ties with Iraq. Diplomats in Jerusalem said the Arabic-language page would serve as “some sort of digital embassy” to the war-torn country.

AFP contributed to this report.

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