Negev summit highlights Israel’s new regional partnerships

Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates pledged at the end of an unprecedented meeting on Monday to strengthen security and economic cooperation and try to bring more countries on board.

Why it matters: Although most participants didn’t say it directly, the summit in the Negev desert was another means of strengthening regional cooperation against Iran and of increasing engagement with the Biden administration amid concerns of a U.S. retreat from the region.

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  • The meeting at a resort in southern Israel, initiated by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, marked the first time the foreign ministers of all six countries sat together and the first visit to Israel by foreign ministers from both the UAE and Morocco.

  • Blinken said such a meeting would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. He pledged to encourage other countries to strengthen their relations with Israel but noted that “the regional peace agreements are not a substitute for peace with the Palestinians.”

  • Flashback: In late 2020, Israel signed peace and normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco as part of the Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration.

Behind the scenes: As the gathering began on Sunday evening with an informal dinner. Lapid was updated about a terror attack in the city of Hadera in central Israel.

  • Lapid updated the other foreign ministers, who told Lapid he could release a statement in their name condemning the attack, two Israeli officials told Axios.

  • Blinken joined the other ministers shortly after, and their discussion focused on the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran and the implications of the Ukraine crisis for the region, the Israeli officials said. Those conversations continued on Monday during a two-hour plenary meeting,

  • After the conclusion, Lapid said the parties had decided to turn the Negev summit to an annual forum that will rotate between the countries, and to form six working groups to focus on security issues, energy, tourism, health, education and food and water security.

The foreign ministers also discussed establishing a regional framework for cooperation against ballistic missiles, drones and piracy in the Red Sea, two senior Israeli officials told Axios.

What they’re saying: Lapid said the objective was to establish “a new regional architecture that will deter Iran.”

  • The foreign minister of Bahrain, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, was the only Arab minister who mentioned Iran by name. He said the summit became urgent because of the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the threat from Hezbollah and the Iranian nuclear program.

  • Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said his country thinks the new normalization agreements are positive and that they represent a continuation of the path Egypt started on four decades ago when it made peace with Israel.

  • Shoukry also raised the Palestinian issue and stressed the need to avoid unilateral measures that can lead to an escalation, particularly ahead of the sensitive holiday period.

  • Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said the participation of four Arab foreign ministers in the summit was the best answer to Sunday’s terror attack in Israel. He said he will visit Israel again soon to announce an upgrade of Morocco’s diplomatic representation in the country.

  • UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed called the summit historic. “We are trying to change the narrative and create a better future for the region,” he said.

Worth noting: Jordan declined to participate in the summit. While it was taking place, King Abdullah II made his first visit to Ramallah since 2017 to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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