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Repeatedly delayed, Netanyahu’s trip to Gulf states postponed indefinitely

PM’s office says he appreciates invitations to Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, but won’t make journey because of Israel’s ban on air travel amid pandemic

From left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani stand on the Blue Room Balcony during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
From left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani stand on the Blue Room Balcony during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned trip next week to Gulf states that have recently normalized ties with Israel has been postponed, the Prime Minister’s Office said Thursday, and no new date has been fixed.

The Israeli leader had planned to travel to Abu Dhabi and Manama ahead of the March 23 elections, in what would have been his first official visit since the establishment of official diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last year. The trip was tentatively scheduled for early January, and then for later in the month, but was pushed off by COVID-related considerations.

The PMO said in Thursday’s statement that the decision to indefinitely postpone the trip was made due to the closing down of air travel to and from Israel as part of a national lockdown aimed at preventing coronavirus infections arriving from abroad.

“Despite the importance of the trip to Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to postpone the visit at this stage due to the closing of the skies,” the PMO said.

Netanyahu “very much appreciates the invitations of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and the historic peace that has been established between our countries,” the PMO added.

The development came after earlier in the week it was reported that the three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had been cut down to just three hours with a greatly reduced itinerary.

On Sunday Hebrew media reported that instead of a planned tour of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Bahrain, Netanyahu would only briefly visit Abu Dhabi, with the other legs canceled. The shortened itinerary was said to include a meeting with the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at his palace.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, smiles during a meeting at the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The reports were not confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu had originally been set to make the trip in November, then December, and then in January, but the pandemic, scheduling issues, and internal political crises led him to postpone repeatedly.

The trip was expected to be a celebration of Israel’s normalization deals as well as a move to boost Netanyahu’s diplomatic bona fides ahead of elections. Netanyahu may also have hoped to use the visit to enlist Arab leaders in a joint campaign against a US return to the Iran nuclear deal.

Netanyahu has reportedly also been struggling to squeeze in a visit to Egypt before the election, with Cairo conditioning the trip on the Israeli leader making a gesture affirming the two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is thought to have visited various Gulf capitals in secret as the countries maintained an under-the-radar relationship brought into the open amid a flurry of diplomatic activity over the last several months. In 2018, he visited Oman, but only confirmed the visit after the fact.

Israel established diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain in September as part of a US-brokered group of agreements known as the Abraham Accords. Last week saw the arrival of Israel’s first ambassador to the UAE.

In addition to the two Gulf states, Israel has also reached normalization agreements with Sudan and Morocco.

As part of a national coronavirus lockdown, Israel last month banned international flights and closed its land borders.

The closure is due to expire on February 7, but members of Netanyahu’s government were to meet on Thursday to debate a possible extension of the closed skies and other lockdown measures.

Netanyahu has said the travel ban is a necessary weapon in the “arms race” against coronavirus variants.

Israel has registered over 670,000 coronavirus cases, among them 4,947 deaths.

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