JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, citing a diplomatic disagreement with Jordan in an embarrassing setback to his re-election campaign just days before the vote.
Netanyahu had hoped to use the audience with the UAE’s crown prince – their first public meeting since relations between the countries last September – to boost his campaign ahead of the March 23 elections. Instead, he must explain to the public why his trip was canceled and do damage control to protect Israel’s fragile relationship with the Jordanians.
Netanyahu’s office said it was struggling to coordinate the flight over Jordanian airspace after Jordan’s crown prince canceled a visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, a sensitive holy site under Jordanian custody, over disagreements over security arrangements.
At a press conference, Netanyahu said there had been a misunderstanding. When it was settled, he said it was too late to fly.
“I can fly through the sky of Jordan,” he said. “Today’s visit was not possible until the coordination.”
He said he spoke to the UAE Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan over the phone and they agreed he would visit “very soon”. He also said the Emiratis informed him of plans to invest $10 billion in Israel.
There was no immediate comment from the UAE.
With Israel now embroiled in its fourth election campaign in two years, Netanyahu is once again attempting to portray himself as a seasoned statesman uniquely qualified to guide the country through its many diplomatic and security challenges.
A key pillar of this strategy, Netanyahu’s close ties to ex-President Donald Trump, is no longer relevant now that a new administration is in the White House. But Netanyahu continues to point to Israel’s deals to establish ties with the United Arab Emirates and three other Arab countries, all brokered by Trump, as one of his proudest achievements.
However, these agreements came at the expense of the Palestinians and neighboring Jordan, which became the second Arab country after Egypt to make peace with Israel in 1994.
The immediate reason for this week’s row was Jordan’s role as guardian of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount, and has long been a flashpoint for tensions in the Middle East.
Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah II had planned to visit the mosque to pray on the Muslim holiday marking the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad from the site. However, he turned back at the border because of disagreements with the Israeli authorities over the number of armed escorts who could accompany him, Israeli media reported.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi accused Israel of altering agreed arrangements “at the last minute” and forcing the crown prince to cancel the visit.
“His Highness decided that he did not want to disrupt this peaceful night of prayer,” Safadi said at a summit in Paris. “We cannot accept Israeli interference in Al-Aqsa affairs.”
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, said the altercation reflected a deeper deterioration in ties in recent years.
“The main problem is that there is no dialogue between the No. 1 in Jordan and Israel, that is between the Prime Minister and the King of Jordan,” he said.
This lack of confidence was illustrated by Israel’s plans over the past year to annex parts of the Israeli-held West Bank. Israel suspended the annexation plan as part of its deal to establish ties with the United Arab Emirates, but Eran said Jordanians remained deeply suspicious.
Jordan, which is home to a large Palestinian population, views the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the neighboring West Bank as a key interest, and any Israeli annexation would likely shatter any remaining hopes for Palestinian independence. Israel and the Palestinians have not held substantive peace talks in over a decade.
“At the very least, they need a political process and a movement towards a solution,” said Eran, now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank. “The process itself is very important to Jordanians and if it’s not there there are certainly concerns.”
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu’s office announced that his wife Sara had been hospitalized with an appendicitis. It was said that she would remain in the hospital for several days.
The canceled trip and medical emergency seemed to create unwanted distractions for Netanyahu’s campaign, at least for the day. The Israeli leader has focused his campaign on his successful efforts to vaccinate the Israeli public against the coronavirus.
In just over two months, Israel has vaccinated about 80% of its adult population, allowing authorities to begin reopening schools, shops, restaurants and museums just before Election Day.
However, opinion polls continue to show that Netanyahu is in a tight race against a crowded field of challengers. According to the projections, Netanyahu’s Likud is expected to emerge as the strongest party, but without enough support from allies to form a governing majority coalition.
The trip to the United Arab Emirates could have helped breathe life into the campaign. It could also help divert attention from Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, which began on May 5.
Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Netanyahu suffered a setback on Thursday but still had time to control the agenda and put things in order.
For example, Netanyahu could still find a way to visit the UAE ahead of the election, Rahat said. And the vaccination campaign could help him more as the economy revives.
Late Thursday, Netanyahu hosted leaders of Hungary and the Czech Republic for talks on working together on their coronavirus strategies.
The Czech Republic also opened a diplomatic office in Jerusalem and offered rare backing to Israel’s claims to the embattled city. The Palestinians want to make East Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, the capital of their future state. Most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv because of the dispute.
“You can call it a bad day for Netanyahu, but no more,” Rahat said.