Netanyahu to visit UAE Thursday in run up to Israeli election - Israel's Kan

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks to the media in Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the United Arab Emirates on Thursday in an opportunity to showcase new Gulf ties before a closely contested election in Israel, its public broadcaster Kan said.

Kan also said Netanyahu may meet Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman there. It said he would hold talks with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and that the Saudi crown prince might join them.

The report was not immediately confirmed by Netanyahu's office or by the UAE. A Saudi official source denied the report and told Reuters that Prince Mohammed would not be visiting the UAE on Thursday and would not be meeting Netanyahu.

Israel’s Channel 12 TV said Netanyahu would spend two hours in the UAE, entirely at an Abu Dhabi airport.

Israel established formal relations with the UAE and Bahrain last September - only its third and fourth normalisation deals with Arab states in over 70 years - as part of a U.S.-brokered agreement. The three countries share common concerns about Iran.

Saudi Arabia, a Gulf powerhouse and Islam's birthplace, encouraged the rapprochement but stopped short of recognising Israel itself. In November, Israeli officials and sources familiar with the matter said Netanyahu and Prince Mohammed met covertly in the kingdom but Riyadh publicly denied the meeting.

It was not immediately clear if Netanyahu, on what Israeli media said would be a one-day visit, would also go to Bahrain, as he had planned to do during a previously scheduled one-day trip to the Gulf in February which he postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.

Netanyahu, running in politically polarised Israel's fourth election in two years largely on his role in its rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme, has also made his drive to forge new relations in the Gulf region a centrepiece of his campaign.

Israeli tourists and business executives flocked to the UAE before a national lockdown in Israel largely closed its main international airport, in Tel Aviv, in late January. Restrictions were eased on Sunday.

In an interview with Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday, Netanyahu called on voters to re-elect him on March 23 so that he could achieve "more peace agreements" in the area, while ensuring that Iran "doesn't arm itself with nuclear weapons".

Iran denies its nuclear programme is aimed at developing atomic weaponry.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Rami Ayyub, Mark Heinrich, Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)