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Pompeo, Netanyahu hopeful more Arab states will forge Israel ties

Israel’s prime minister and Washington’s top diplomat voiced hope Monday the Jewish state would soon build ties with more Arab countries, following its landmark move to normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was starting a Mideast tour in Jerusalem, both praised the US-brokered deal as a major step toward stability to the turbulent region.

“I’m very hopeful that we will see other Arab nations join in this,” said Pompeo, who was also set to visit Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE on his five-day trip.

Netanyahu hailed the Israel-UAE agreement as “a boon to peace and regional stability” which “heralds a new era where we could have other nations join”.

“I hope we’ll have good news in the future, maybe in the near future,” he said.

Washington and its close ally Israel hope that more such ties with other regional countries traditionally hostile to the Jewish state will help forge a stronger regional alliance against their common foe, Iran.

Pompeo again stressed US President Donald Trump’s goal that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon” and urged world powers to maintain an arms embargo on the Islamic republic.

– ‘Legacy of hostility’ –

Israel has existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan which, unlike the UAE, share borders with the Jewish state and have fought wars with it.

Under the US-brokered agreement with the Emirates 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 slammed the UAE’s move as a “stab in the back” while their own conflict with the Jewish state remains unresolved.

The Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, charged Monday that the Israel-UAE deal helps “maintain crimes and violations” against the Palestinians.

It urged regional and world leaders to “break their silence to bring an end” to the Gaza blockade.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab arrived Monday evening in Jerusalem, where he is scheduled to meet with Pompeo, according to diplomatic sources.

He is due to meet Netanyahu the following day, before going on to Ramallah to talk to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

“Israel’s suspension of annexation is an essential step towards a more peaceful Middle East,” Raab said, according to a statement by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “It is important to build on this new dynamic.”

An Israeli foreign ministry official said Raab would be asked to coax the Palestinians back to peace talks with the Jewish state, which stalled in 2014.

“We will ask the British FM to be a bridge between us and the Palestinians, in order to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table,” the ministry’s deputy chief for European Affairs Anna Azari told reporters.

– Who’s next? –

The Israel-Emirati pact has sparked speculation on which country in the region might be next, with frequent mention of Bahrain and Sudan.

Israel is technically at war with Sudan, which for years had supported hardline Islamist forces but which is turning its back on the era of strongman Omar al-Bashir who was ousted last year.

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 talks with UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, it said.

Saudi Arabia, in keeping with decades of policy by most Arab states, says it will not follow the UAE’s example until Israel has signed a peace deal with the Palestinians.

– ‘Outlaw’ –

Netanyahu has meanwhile denied reports that the UAE deal hinges on the sale of US F-35 stealth fighter-jets to the Emirates, saying he opposes a move that could reduce Israel’s strategic edge in the region.

“This deal did not include Israel’s acceptance of any arms deal,” he said Monday.

Pompeo said the US was determined to help the Emirates defend itself against Iran “in a way that preserves our commitments to Israel”.

“The United States has a legal requirement with respect to (Israel’s) qualitative military edge. We will continue to honour that,” he said.

But he also noted Washington’s long-running security relationship with the UAE, saying the US would “continue to make sure that we’re delivering them the equipment that they need to secure and defend their own people…from the Islamic republic of Iran.”

And in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Pompeo said: “I hope one day that the Iranians will normalise with Israel as well.”

But in a tweet, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described Pompeo as an “outlaw”.

“Standing next to World’s #1 nuclear threat, he declares his desire to flood our region with even more US weapons,” he wrote.