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Israeli leader returning home from UAE ‘very optimistic’

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister on Monday said he was returning home “very optimistic” from a two-day trip to the United Arab Emirates — the first official visit to the Gulf country by an Israeli leader since the countries established relations last year.

Naftali Bennett’s trip this week to the Gulf Arab federation comes against the backdrop of nuclear talks between world powers and regional archrival Iran over its nuclear program. Israel has watched with concern as Iran has pushed a hard line against negotiators meeting in Vienna, at once demanding sanctions relief while accelerating its nuclear program.

Bennett’s office said he met Monday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and de facto ruler of the Emirates for some four hours, with more than half of the time spent in one-on-one talks.

In a joint statement, the two countries said the visit marked “another milestone in the development of warm relations and a tremendous partnership.”

It said they had discussed a number of areas of cooperation, including trade, technology, the environment and tourism, as well as forming a joint research and development fund. The countries already have struck up burgeoning trade ties.

The statement, however, made no mention of two critical issues — Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear program.

In a video statement before his departure, Bennett said he had held “meaningful, in-depth and straightforward talks” about the region.

“I’m flying back to Israel very optimistic that this relationship can set an example of how we can make peace in the Middle East,” he said.

His office also said the crown prince had accepted an invitation to visit Israel, though a date was not immediately announced.

Israel and the UAE last year signed an deal to normalize relations that was brokered by the Trump administration under the “Abraham Accords,” a series of diplomatic agreements with Arab countries that also included Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Israel and the UAE have long shared concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says its nuclear program is meant for peaceful purposes, while Israel, which considers Iran its greatest enemy, says it will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Israel has been outspoken in its criticism of the global nuclear talks with Iran, which are aimed at restoring a 2015 deal that placed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. The deal unraveled after then-President Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018, and Israel says it would be a mistake to return to the agreement.

Israel believes the deal does not have enough safeguards in it and fears that easing sanctions will revive Iran’s flagging economy. Bennett has accused Iran of “nuclear blackmail.”

Bennett took office as prime minister six months ago at the head of a coalition of eight parties united in their opposition to longtime former leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

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