JERUSALEM, June 25 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus - a possible boost to Israeli efforts to normalise relations with Gulf Arab countries.
Netanyahu said a formal announcement on working together with the UAE on confronting the COVID-19 pandemic was imminent and would be made by the UAE and Israeli health ministers. There was no immediate confirmation from the UAE about an agreement.
Such cooperation would come at a time of strong Arab opposition to Israel’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank - territory Palestinians seek for a state - under a U.S. peace plan.
Last week, the UAE’s minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said it could work with Israel on some areas, including the battle against the coronavirus and on technology, despite political differences.
Addressing a military ceremony in southern Israel, Netanyahu said Israel and the UAE would collaborate in research and development and technology “to improve the well-being of the entire region”.
He said the agreement stemmed from intensive contacts with the UAE over recent months.
Israel has no diplomatic relations with Arab countries in the Gulf, but common concerns about Iran’s regional influence have led to a limited thaw in relations.
In May, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad made the first known flight by a UAE carrier to Israel, carrying coronavirus-related aid for the Palestinians.
Speaking to a conference of the American Jewish Committee advocacy group on June 16, Gargash said Israel cannot expect to normalise relations with the Arab world if it annexes West Bank land. He also said cooperation with Israel on the COVID-19 pandemic would not affect the UAE’s opposition to annexation.
Israel is due on July 1 to begin a cabinet debate on extending Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. (Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem with additional reporting by Lisa Barrington and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai Editing by Mark Heinrich)