By Lisa Barrington
DUBAI (Reuters) -Israel’s new foreign minister said on Wednesday his landmark visit to the United Arab Emirates was just the start of a road to wider peace in the Middle East, reaching out to Arab states still wary of normalising ties.
Yair Lapid, the first Israeli cabinet minister to visit the Gulf state since the countries forged ties last year, also reiterated Israel’s concern about the Iran nuclear deal being negotiated in Vienna.
The trip comes amid unease in Israel and Arab capitals about U.S. efforts to re-enter a 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers, which then President Donald Trump quit in 2018 in a move backed by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
“This visit isn’t the end of the road to peace, it is just the beginning,” he told reporters. “Our hand is outstretched … I hope this visit is the first of many and that together with our new friends we continue to make history in the entire region.”
The UAE and Bahrain normalised ties with Israel under so-called “Abraham Accords” brokered by Trump’s administration, creating a new regional dynamic based on mutual concern over Iran and Islamist groups. Sudan and Morocco followed suit.
Lapid declined to comment on whether Israel was coordinating with Gulf states over Iran, saying he did not want to “embarrass” his hosts by remarking on a neighbour while in the UAE, but noted his country was worried about the nuclear deal.
Gulf states have called for a stronger deal of longer duration that also addresses Tehran’s missiles programme and support for regional proxies that Iran has denied giving.
During his two-day visit, Lapid inaugurated Israel’s temporary embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai.
Israel and the UAE said they had begun talks on a free trade agreement in a statement carried on state news agency WAM. They have previously signed agreements on tourism, investment and cooperation in fields from energy to technology.
Lapid told WAM Israel-UAE trade in the ten months since normalisation exceeded $675 million and he expected more deals.
The UAE has said the accords, which challenged a decades-old allegiance to the Palestinian issue as a major driver of Arab policy, would ultimately benefit the Palestinians.
Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas condemned Lapid’s visit, saying it happened while Israeli authorities destroyed a Palestinian-owned shop in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and that Palestinians seek for a future state.
“Normalisation agreements will encourage the occupation (Israel) to escalate its aggression against our people,” Hamas said on Tuesday. Israel said the shop had violated zoning laws.
On Tuesday UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed told Israel’s Walla news site: “I believe that sooner or later Israel should resolve the Palestinian problem. This not only harms Israel’s image, but is also liable to raise doubts as to its future. This is a big challenge for you.”
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv, writing by Ghaida Ghantous, editing by William Maclean and Philippa Fletcher)