Israel's Netanyahu Says He Plans More Visits to Arab World

(Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he would build on his recent surprise trip to Oman with further visits to the Arab world “very soon.”

Israeli media reported that efforts were being made to normalize diplomatic relations with the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain.

Netanyahu disclosed his plans, without giving any details, as he welcomed Chad’s President Idriss Deby to Israel. Chad severed ties with Israel in 1972, and Deby is the first leader of his Muslim-majority African country to visit the Jewish state.

Israel's Netanyahu Says He Plans More Visits to Arab World

The president’s trip was announced only hours before he arrived, and he said in a joint press appearance with Netanyahu that they “hope to enter a new era of cooperation and ultimately, to restore diplomatic relations.”

Netanyahu has worked hard in recent years to expand his country’s circle of allies, driven by the prospect of trade deals, shared enemies including Iran and Islamic radical groups, and intensified European Union criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said he spoke to the African leader about “the great changes” taking place in the Arab world’s perception of Israel.

“This was manifested in my recent visit in Oman,” he said, referring to a Gulf Arab state that also doesn’t have ties with the Jewish state. “There will be more such visits in Arab countries very soon.”

An employee in the prime minister’s office suggested in an interview last week with Israel Radio that a visit to Bahrain is next. The prime minister’s office said those comments weren’t based on official information, but Israel’s Channel 10 TV, citing an unidentified senior government official, reported late Sunday that Israel is making efforts to normalize ties with Bahrain.

Shared concerns over Iran are making Israel a more palatable partner to Gulf states, though in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, cooperation has largely taken place behind the scenes. Still, there have been some overt signs of warming, and in Bahrain’s case, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa wrote on Twitter in May that Israel has the right to defend itself against Iran.

Netanyahu’s outreach campaign has sent him to Africa twice in three years, and he hinted on Sunday that he planned a third trip to Central Africa. Chad was one of a string of African nations to cut relations with Israel after the 1967 Middle East war, but Netanyahu said Sunday that contacts were maintained under the radar. Former Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold visited Chad in 2016.

Channel 10 said Deby’s visit was expected to warm Israel’s ties with other Muslim-majority countries in Africa, including Mali and Niger. The Haaretz newspaper reported that efforts were also underway to normalize relations with Sudan.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.