After US request, Jerusalem may change name of Negev Forum to make it less Israeli

Washington passes along Arab wish; Foreign Ministry weighing new titles in possible attempt to bring Jordan into the fold

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) is greeted by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, January 30, 2023. (Sivan Shahor/GPO)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) is greeted by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, January 30, 2023. (Sivan Shahor/GPO)

Israel is inclined to go along with a recent US request to change the name of the Negev Forum for regional cooperation to a title that is less specifically identified with the Jewish state, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

A diplomat from an Arab country confirmed that the request was made, calling it a positive development that could open the way for more countries to join.

On Monday, Channel 13 reported that the US had passed on a request from the Arab members of the group — Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates — for a more generic name.

Last March’s inaugural Negev Summit — initiated by then-foreign minister Yair  Lapid — brought to the Israeli desert the foreign ministers of Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel; the US; and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which normalized relations in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords.

The Negev Forum grew out of that initial meeting, and includes six working groups that were agreed upon there.

Jordan was invited, but chose to stay away, and has not joined the subsequent working groups.

Israel’s willingness to change the name could be an attempt to get Jordan to join and to get the countries to commit to a summit this year.

It could also reflect a desire by the current government’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, to move beyond the name coined by Lapid, now leader of the opposition.

United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, makes remarks at the Negev Summit, with from left, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Morocco, Bahrain, and the UAE declined to comment on the report.

Taking to Twitter on Monday night, Lapid blasted the Netanyahu government for considering the name change, saying that “folding like this is a disgrace, and this government doesn’t understand what national pride is.”

No date has been set for the second summit, slated to take place in Morocco. It was initially expected to convene in March, but was pushed off over concerns about violence in Jerusalem during the month of Ramadan.

In the preceding weeks, it had appeared that the March summit was on track. The Negev Forum steering committee met in person for the first time in January, bringing together dozens of officials in Abu Dhabi to plan the second meeting of the six foreign ministers.

The steering committee of the Negev Forum meets in Abu Dhabi, January 9, 2023 (UAE Foreign Ministry)

The US request comes amid signs of moderate discord in Israel’s ties with its Arab partners. There have been no high-level visits in either direction, and the two Gulf countries – the UAE especially – have repeatedly and openly condemned Israeli leaders and policies under the new government.

Ambassadors from Israel’s Gulf allies avoided an iftar dinner hosted by the Foreign Ministry in April to send a message to Jerusalem.

The data also shows a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s newly allied nations.

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