Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to cancel a planned whirlwind visit to the United Arab Emirates Thursday, Israeli officials said, because Jordan delayed approving his flight path over the Hashemite kingdom. A new date will be fixed for the visit, they said.
Sara Netanyahu was hospitalized with an appendix infection late Wednesday, but officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said this was not the reason for the cancellation.
The PMO said the trip was called off because Jordan delayed approving the prime minister’s flight path over the country to the Gulf state. The PMO said this was apparently in retaliation for the Jordanian crown prince’s canceled trip to the Temple Mount on Wednesday, which he called off amid a dispute with Israel over entry permits for his security detail.
Netanyahu’s visit “was postponed due to difficulties in coordinating his flight in Jordanian airspace. These difficulties apparently stemmed from the cancellation of the Jordanian Crown Prince’s visit to the Temple Mount due to a disagreement over security procedures at the site,” the PMO said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “Jordan recently announced that it would allow the prime minister’s flight to use Jordanian airspace but since the announcement was received late, the prime minister and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed agreed to coordinate on another date for the prime minister’s visit.
Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet the crown prince in his first official visit to the UAE since Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi forged diplomatic ties last year.
Reports on Wednesday suggested Netanyahu may have also been hoping to meet Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and/or Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during the trip, which was scheduled to be held 12 days before Israel holds its fourth national election in two years.
The trip to the UAE been planned for several months but postponed on numerous occasions, most recently in February. Netanyahu had originally been set to make the trip in November, then December, and then in January and February, but the pandemic, scheduling issues, and internal political crises led to repeated delays.
The Prime Minister’s Office said last month that the trip would be indefinitely postponed due to the closing down of air travel to and from Israel as part of a national lockdown aimed at preventing coronavirus variants from being imported from abroad.
Netanyahu has been seen as eager to make the trip before the March 23 elections.
Surveys show the prime minister struggling to muster the 61-seat Knesset majority that would enable him to form a coalition, though his rivals also have no clear route to power, and the timing of the trip could have bolstered Netanyahu’s campaign.
The trip was expected to be a celebration of Israel’s normalization deals as well as a move to boost Netanyahu’s diplomatic credentials ahead of the elections. Netanyahu may also have hoped to use the visit to consolidate a campaign against a US return to the Iran nuclear deal.
Emirati officials told the Walla news site Wednesday that there had been concerns the visit would be seen as an intervention in the Israeli elections, but in the end Abu Dhabi reluctantly agreed to the trip.
Netanyahu tasked Mossad intelligence agency chief Yossi Cohen with persuading the UAE to agree to the visit, Axios reported, and it was not clear what, if anything, was promised to the Emiratis in return for their consent. “The Emiratis sent signals that they’d rather postpone the visit until after the elections, but Netanyahu and Cohen pressed hard until the Emiratis agreed,” Axios said.
The Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday that there had been “advanced contacts” on setting up a meeting with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. The report, which did not cite a source, didn’t provide further details.
The Reuters news agency, however, cited an official Saudi source denying that Prince Mohammed bin Salman would visit the UAE Thursday or meet Netanyahu.
Separately, Channel 13 news reported Wednesday that Netanyahu might have met with his Sudanese counterpart Abdalla Hamdok while in the UAE. The report said Israel was in talks to make the meeting happen, but didn’t give further details.
Netanyahu met last year in Uganda with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council.
Channel 12 news reported Wednesday that the premier would only be at the airport in Abu Dhabi and Thursday’s trip wasn’t expected to last more than a few hours.
The network also reported that Defense Minister Benny Gantz was set to meet with the Abu Dhabi crown prince at the UAE arms fair last month before the Israeli delegation’s appearance was canceled over safety concerns.