Israel, UAE agree to visa-free travel as ties deepen

Tel Aviv (AFP) –


Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed Monday to visa-free travel, an unprecedented arrangement between Israel and an Arab state, signed after the first ever official UAE delegation landed in Tel Aviv.

The visit, hailed as a "glorious day for peace" by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came after Israel and the Gulf state agreed to normalise ties in a deal inked at the White House last month.

With their economies hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE and Israel are hoping for rapid dividends from the normalisation deal -- which broke years of Arab consensus that there should be no relations with the Jewish state until it makes peace with the Palestinians.

Palestine Liberation Organisation senior member Wassel Abu Youssef told AFP the Emirati visit was a "another stab in the back" of the Palestinian cause.

The UAE became the third Arab state to establish ties with Israel, followed soon after by Bahrain.

While Israel has peace deals with neighbouring Egypt and Jordan, it requires citizens of both countries to obtain visas before entry.

Shortly after greeting the UAE delegation at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, a mask-wearing Netanyahu vowed that visa-free travel will "offer a huge boost for business (and) tourism".

- 'Making history' -

Israel and the UAE also signed accords on investment protection, science and technology, and a civil aviation deal authorising 28 flights a week between the two countries.

Israeli carrier Arkia later announced plans to run seven weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai, beginning in January.

"Today, we are making history in a way that will stand for generations," Netanyahu said at the opening of their one-day meeting.

During the talks, the UAE formally requested permission to establish an embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The UAE and Bahrain have faced criticism from within the Arab and Muslim world over their decision to forge ties with Israel.

The head of the Emirati delegation at the Tel Aviv meeting, minister of state for financial affairs Obaid al-Tayer said his country was committed to being a "regional leader in terms of economic reform... international trade, political stability and peacemaking".

In return for formal ties with the UAE, Israel agreed to freeze plans to annex Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank, although Netanyahu has said that annexation remains on the table.

The right-wing premier has claimed that more Arab states want relations with Israel as regional priorities have shifted, with economic opportunities now valued above a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.

- $3-billion 'Abraham Fund' -

Israel's agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, known jointly as "The Abraham Accords", were brokered by US President Donald Trump's administration, seen by some experts as a move to secure a foreign policy achievement before the US presidential election on November 3.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who travelled to Tel Aviv with the UAE delegation, said Israel's deals with Gulf states "create a tremendous foundation for economic growth".

During Tuesday's talks, Israel, the UAE and the US announced the launch of a $3-billion "Abraham Fund," which aims to mobilise "private sector-led investment and development initiatives to promote regional economic cooperation", a US embassy statement said.

Due to Covid-19, however, direct Israel-UAE flights, slated to begin in October, are to be postponed until January, Jerusalem's deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told AFP last week during a visit to Dubai,

"When I speak to officials here and there, we're looking at the first of January," said Hassan-Nahoum, who is also co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council.

The Israeli parliament ratified the UAE normalisation deal last week.

The Emirati and Bahraini governments ratified their agreements with Israel on Monday, state media reported.