US State Secretary Mike Pompeo visited Jerusalem on Monday to start a five-day Middle East tour focused on Israel's normalising of ties with the United Arab Emirates and pushing other Arab states to follow suit.
Pompeo, wearing a face mask in the colours of the American flag, met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was in coming days also due to visit Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE, the State Department said.
Washington and its close ally Israel hope that the Jewish state will soon be able to normalise ties with other regional countries traditionally hostile to Israel — including several that share the US, UAE's and Israeli animosity toward Iran.
In Jerusalem, Pompeo and Netanyahu were due to discuss “regional security issues related to Iran's malicious influence” and “establishing and deepening Israel's relationships in the region,” the State Department said.
Pompeo was also to meet his counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is also Israel's alternate prime minister under a power-sharing deal.
Netanyahu said earlier he and Pompeo would talk about “expanding the circle of peace in our region [...] We're working on peace with more countries, and I think there will be more countries — and in the not-so-distant future”.
Israel had previously only signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which unlike the UAE share borders with Israel and had technically been at war with the Jewish state.
'Legacy of hostility'
Most Arab League members still do not recognise Israel, which was founded in 1948 — but some of them have sent signals of a potential thaw.
Oman and Bahrain were among those who greeted the US-brokered Israel-UAE agreement.
The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom said on Sunday that direct talks with the UAE on the wording of the deal were close to starting and that “a full agreement could be reached within a month” with a signing at the White House.
Under the US-brokered agreement announced on August 13, Israel pledged to suspend its previous plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, without saying for how long.
The Palestinians have slammed the UAE's move as a “stab in the back” while their own conflict with the Jewish state remains unresolved.
The militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, on Monday charged that the Israel-UAE deal helps “maintain crimes and violations” against the Palestinians and urged regional and world leaders to “break their silence to bring an end” to the Gaza blockade.
In the latest upsurge of violence, Israel has bombed the coastal strip almost daily since August 6, while balloons carrying fire bombs and, less frequently, rocket fire have hit Israel from Gaza.
The UAE ambassador to Washington, writing in Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper, argued that closer Israel ties would “help move the region beyond the ugly legacy of hostility and conflicts, towards a destiny of hope, peace and prosperity”.
Bahrain, Oman, Sudan?
The Israel-Emirati pact has sparked speculation on which regional country might be next, with frequent mentions made of Bahrain and Sudan, which is turning its back on the era of strongman Omar al-Bashir who was ousted last year.
Israel remains technically at war with Sudan, which for years had supported hardline militant forces. The State Department said Pompeo would meet Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during his tour, to “express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship”.
Pompeo will also meet Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa before meeting UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to discuss the Israel deal, it said.
Saudi Arabia, in keeping with decades of policy by the majority of Arab states, has said it will not follow the UAE's example until Israel has signed a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Israel and the UAE say they want to promote trade, especially the sale of Emirati oil to Israel and Israeli technology to the UAE, establish direct air links and boost tourism.
Key to that plan would be persuading Saudi Arabia to open its airspace to Israeli commercial airlines.
Netanyahu has denied reports that the agreement hinges on the sale of US F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Emirates, saying he opposes such a move as it could reduce Israel's strategic edge in the region.
“The Emiratis are saying there was a promise there, the Israelis are saying no,” said Joshua Teitelbaum of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, adding that in the past such objections had been finessed, citing the US sale to Saudi Arabia of F-15 fighters.