TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel announced a new partnership with the United Arab Emirates on Thursday to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus, the latest advance in the Jewish state’s efforts to build stronger ties with Arab states.
The partnership, announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an air force base near Tel Aviv, would represent a significant step toward normalization between two key United States allies in the Middle East.
“This will bring a blessing to many in our area,” he said. “The stronger we are, the more powerful we are at deterring our enemies and bringing our friends closer.”
Emirati officials did not immediately comment on the announcement.
The announcement, which fell well short of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, comes at a time when Israel is drawing up plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, a move that Arab countries, including the Emirates, have said would thwart the improved relationships.
Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to annex up to 30 percent of the occupied West Bank as soon as July 1, a move that much of the world views as a violation of international law and a new barrier to the establishment of a future Palestinian state.
As recently as two weeks ago, the Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, wrote a landmark article in a leading Israeli newspaper warning Israelis directly that “annexation will definitely, and immediately, reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and the United Arab Emirates.”
“It’s Either Annexation or Normalization,” the headline said.
The announcement of the new cooperation agreement on Thursday — without any public concession from Mr. Netanyahu on annexation — could indicate that Emirati leaders have decided to forge ahead with increased ties anyway. But it was unclear whether the Emirates had softened its position on annexation, or if it would scuttle the joint anti-virus program if Israel went ahead with annexation.
If confirmed by the Emirates, the public partnership would be a political coup for Mr. Netanyahu, who has sought to build ties with Arab countries without making progress on a peace accord with the Palestinians. While some Arab leaders reject the possibility of any ties with Israel, others have long considered an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement a prerequisite for any warming of ties.
Persian Gulf monarchies have shifted away from seeing Israel as the oppressor in its conflict with the Palestinians and instead view it as a valuable partner in trade, security and their rivalry with Iran.
The new partnership will include formal cooperation in research and development between the Israeli and Emirati health ministries in medical projects related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and other health issues in the Middle East, Mr. Netanyahu said.
The extent of that cooperation was not immediately clear, but the agreement appeared to formalize collaboration that had already begun covertly in recent months, when the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, quietly acquired some equipment Israel needed to fight the coronavirus from Gulf states, according to European news media reports.
Israel’s warming ties with the Emirates mark a broader erosion of the longstanding Arab antipathy toward Israel and support for the Palestinians.
After the Jewish State was founded in 1948, Arab countries waged repeated wars that failed to wipe it off the map and refused to establish diplomatic and trade ties, viewing Israel as a usurper of Arab lands.
Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan 1994, but relations with other Arab countries remained cold and no other countries followed suit.
More modest efforts to establish Israeli trade offices in some Arab countries collapsed more than a decade ago because of Arab outrage over Israel’s efforts to crush Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While Israel remains deeply unpopular across much of the Arab world, the Palestinian cause has diminished in importance to the region as Arab states have turned inward to deal with economic crises, popular uprisings and the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
Persian Gulf countries such as the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have come to see Iran as a primary threat to regional stability and recognized Israel as a potential partner in confronting it.
“The U.A.E. has changed its approach to relations with Israel only in light of the Iranian danger, which they also perceived as threatening to them,” said Eli Avidar, who ran an Israeli mission in Qatar in 1999-2001 is now a member of the Israeli parliament.
That led to a gradual ramping up of covert dealings with Israel among Gulf States on issues including security, technology, agriculture and most recently health.
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. David M. Halbfinger contributed reporting from Jerusalem.