JERUSALEM/DUBAI (Reuters) - Israel and the United Arab Emirates will cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus, the two countries said on Thursday, a possible boost to Israeli efforts to normalise relations with Gulf Arab countries.
Two private companies from the United Arab Emirates and two Israeli companies will work together on medical projects, including those to combat the new coronavirus, the UAE’s state-run news agency WAM said.
The cooperation comes 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.
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.
“This scientific and medical partnership overcomes historical and political challenges in the region,” an Arabic statement from WAM said, adding that the priority was humanitarian action and constructive cooperation to safeguard people’s health.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said earlier on Thursday that a formal announcement about the partnership was imminent.
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.
Netanyahu said at a military ceremony that 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.
In May, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad made the first known flight by a UAE carrier to Israel, carrying coronavirus-related aid for 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 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; additional reporting by Lisa Barrington and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool