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Israel says Netanyahu's first UAE visit postponed, stirs rights spat with Jordan

JERUSALEM/AMMAN (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he postponed a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday because Jordan delayed granting overflight rights drew a rare rebuke from Amman over a contested Jerusalem holy site.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adjusts his mask during a news conference after his meeting with the Israeli citizen no. 5,000,000 to get the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 8, 2021. Miriam Alster/Pool via REUTERS

A high-profile first visit to Abu Dhabi in the build-up to an Israeli election on March 23 would have allowed Netanyahu to put his imprimatur on Israel-UAE normalisation ties that were formalised last year.

A hold-up in permission for Netanyahu’s plane to overfly Jordan “apparently” stemmed from the cancellation of a visit by Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque compound on Wednesday over a dispute regarding security arrangements at the site, according to a statement issued by Netanyahu’s office.

Permission eventually came through but too late for Netanyahu’s itinerary, which included meeting his visiting Hungarian and Czech counterparts back in Jerusalem later on Thursday, the statement said.

The UAE had not formally confirmed the planned visit, which leaked to Israeli media on Wednesday.

Netanyahu later said that he and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had since spoken, and had agreed to reschedule and to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus and on huge investment projects.

The UAE, Netanyahu told a news conference, intended “to invest a gigantic sum of $10 billion...in various projects...and we are already discussing these specific projects.”

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Netanyahu did not elaborate on the nature of such projects or mention a timetable for their funding and implementation.

He said he would visit the UAE “very soon” and that Israel and the Gulf state wanted to create a “green passport” between the two countries, citing a programme to ease passage for those who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Commenting on the friction with Jordan, Netanyahu said there had been a “misunderstanding, difficulties in coordinating (my) flights (to the UAE) because of an incident yesterday” related to the planned Jordanian visit to the Al Aqsa mosque.

“It took us a few hours to put things right...I can now fly over Jordan, but until this coordination was achieved, it was not possible to visit (the UAE) today,” he said.

Jordanian officials were not immediately available for comment on the overflight issue. But Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi confirmed the crown prince’s cancelled al Aqsa visit - which would have been the first there by Jordan’s future king.

ISRAELI “RESTRICTIONS”

State TV quoted Safadi as saying Israeli authorities had tried to change a programme agreed with Amman in a manner that it deemed harmful to Palestinian and Muslim rights of worship.

“The crown prince did not want to allow Israel to impose restrictions on Muslims,” Safadi was quoted as saying.

Jordan’s ruling Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Al Aqsa compound, an icon of the Palestinian statehood struggle and the third holiest site in Islam. Israel, which made peace with Jordan in 1994, maintains security control around the site, which Jews revere as the vestige of their two ancient temples.

Jordan says Israel, which captured East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City where al Aqsa is located, in the 1967 Middle East war, has no sovereign rights over the compound and has long chafed at organised visits there by religious Jews.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital and annexed its eastern sector after the 1967 conflict, in a move that has not won international recognition.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mark Heinrich

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