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Israel Moves to Expand Diplomatic Relations in Arab World - 2004-06-20

Israel is planning to open an office in the United Arab Emirates for the first time, in the hope of establishing future official diplomatic ties. The move is part of efforts by Israel to improve its relations with the Arab world following the cabinet's approval of the disengagement plan from some Palestinian areas.

Israeli officials say they are holding talks with representatives of the United Arab Emirates on opening an office in Abu Dhabi.

The Israeli office would not establish full diplomatic ties. Instead it would be a center similar to one already established in the Gulf State of Qatar that represents Israeli interests.

Under the proposed move, Abu Dhabi would allow Israeli diplomats to operate from the center, but it would officially operate like a corporate office, not an embassy.

Israeli officials believe the time is right to establish such a presence because of the international goodwill they say has been generated by the preliminary approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

Under the plan, Israel would withdraw settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year. Four settlements in the West Bank would also be evacuated.

The cabinet approved the plan only after a crisis that nearly brought down Mr. Sharon's government. But further approvals are needed from the cabinet, and from the entire parliament, before the plan can be implemented.

Israeli officials say special envoys may also be dispatched soon to visit various Arab countries with messages from the Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, explaining the disengagement plan in greater detail.

The messages would express the hope that Israel could upgrade its relations with the Arab countries, now that it has agreed to hand over more territory to Palestinian rule.

Among the countries being considered for a visit by Israeli envoys are Qatar, Morocco, Bahrain, Tunisia and Oman. All of those countries have some ties with Israel, but not full diplomatic relations.