By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has cancelled plans to participate in a major defence expo in the United Arab Emirates next week due to COVID-19 curbs on air travel, Israeli officials said on Monday.
Dozens of Israeli defence firms had been due to take part in the IDEX conference in Abu Dhabi from Feb. 21-25 - a first for both countries, which last September established formal relations after closing ranks given their shared worries about Iran.
But officials from Israel's Defence Ministry and Regional Cooperation Ministry said the plan was cancelled. They cited Israel's Jan. 26 ban on international air travel, which is still in force as it tries to reverse a surge in COVID-19 contagion.
A Defence Ministry spokeswoman said it requested special permission for the firms to fly out to the UAE capital, but was refused by a Regional Cooperation Ministry authorisation panel.
A Regional Cooperation Ministry spokesman said the request "had to be denied, despite the desire to advance and promote defence activity, and given the need to making unprejudiced decisions".
Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis has also cancelled his participation in Dubai's Gulfood trade exhibition, his spokesman said, adding: "No one is flying out."
That suggested travel permission will not be forthcoming for any Israeli food security experts hoping to attend the Feb. 21-25 conference.
The business newspaper Globes quoted an unidentified senior representative of an Israeli defence firm as saying that cancellation of participation in the defence expo would spell "huge" losses of deals to competitors.
"The Emirati hosts were supremely friendly and rolled out the red carpet. We were meant to have been the focus of the expo, with several top-of-the-line products and exhibits," the representative was quoted as saying. "All that, for nothing?"
Israel and the UAE had, as part of their U.S.-backed rapprochement, proposed defence and military cooperation.
But anticipated exchanges of defence delegations have yet to happen - a byproduct, Israeli sources said, of coalition feuding between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz as they prepare to contest a March ballot.
(Reporting by Dan Williams,; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Ed Osmond and Bernadette Baum)