As Israel-Arab ties chill, one regional cooperation confab avoids chopping block

Experts, private sector executives from Israel, West Bank and nearly a dozen Muslim countries meet in Abu Dhabi to discuss joint ventures in field of food and water security

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The Atlantic Council's N7 Initiative senior director Will Wechsler addresses a gathering of the program in Abu Dhabi on March 14, 2023. (Courtesy)
The Atlantic Council's N7 Initiative senior director Will Wechsler addresses a gathering of the program in Abu Dhabi on March 14, 2023. (Courtesy)

In just three months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government has managed to chill relations that he helped kindle less than three years ago with the signing of the Abraham Accords.

His invitation to visit the United Arab Emirates was rescinded, Negev Forum gatherings have ground to a halt, and not a week has gone by without one of Israel’s Arab neighbors issuing a fierce condemnation of the his government — be it for National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, deadly IDF raids in the West Bank, advancement of settlement construction and outpost legalization, or incendiary remarks by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who on March 1 called to wipe out a Palestinian town and on Sunday claimed the Palestinian people don’t exist while standing behind a map of “Greater Israel” that included modern-day Jordan.

Despite that backdrop, one gathering did take place last week in Abu Dhabi, bringing together experts and private sector executives from Israel, the West Bank and nearly a dozen Arab and Muslim countries — including ones that don’t have diplomatic ties with Jewish state — to discuss cooperation in water and food security.

The conference was organized by the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation’s N7 Initiative, which seeks to broaden and deepen normalization between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries.

It was the second such N7 gathering, coming three months after experts from a similar list of countries met in Morocco to discuss joint ventures in the field of education and coexistence. Both track-two N7 confabs were intended to mirror the focus of a different Negev Forum “working group” — the track-one teams of government officials that met in January to discuss regional projects in water and food security, education and coexistence, regional security, tourism and energy.

N7 director Dan Shapiro speculated that his initiative’s conference was able to move forward with the UAE’s blessing, despite the “caution that has crept into the posture” of Israel’s new Arab neighbors because of the apolitical nature of the topic, along with the fact that participants were largely from non-governmental organizations.

National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (L) addresses a gathering of the Atlantic Council’s N7 program in Abu Dhabi on March 14, 2023, as N7 director Dan Shapiro looks on. (Courtesy)

“The current environment is probably not one in which you’d expect new countries like Saudi Arabia to join [the Abraham Accords], given what’s happening in Israel and between Israel and Palestinians,” explained Shapiro, who previously served as US ambassador to Israel.

Just a week before the N7 gathering, the UAE asked the US embassy in Abu Dhabi to hold off on an event for journalists from Abraham Accords countries, according to US and Emirati officials. N7 organizers also invited government officials from participant Arab countries to take part in its conference last week but received no affirmative responses, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Nonetheless, “it’s interesting that [Abraham Accords countries] see value in the convening ability of a bipartisan think tank in Washington to sustain and in some ways even expand contacts between Israeli and Arab experts,” he said.

“It tells me that they still see value in finding channels where constructive work to build a more integrated region can continue.”

Shapiro said the goal of the gathering was to provide ideas to the official Negev Forum working group on food and water security for when it next meets. Such was the case when the education and coexistence working group met in January and discussed some of the proposals that were born out of the N7 conference on the same topic last year in Morocco.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) addresses a gathering of the Atlantic Council’s N7 program in Abu Dhabi on March 15, 2023, as N7 director Dan Shapiro looks on. (Courtesy)

However, N7 proposals can also be taken on by smaller groups of countries, who prefer not to wait for initiatives to make their way through the slower bureaucratic process required in the Negev Forum, Shapiro noted. “Maybe it’s a private sector-funded or philanthropically funded initiative, which only later governments decide to take a look at once it’s up and running. We think we’re complementary to the Negev Forum working groups, but not exclusively that.”

Shapiro was hesitant to offer details of the proposals for regional projects on water and food security that were discussed at last week’s N7 conference but summarized them as “attempts to take either technologies, strategies or policies that have proven themselves to be effective in at least one country… and tailor them so they can be applied more broadly across the seven countries” — Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan.

The ideas discussed included irrigation techniques, food storage, prevention of food waste and trade liberalization, he said.

In addition to the seven member countries, there were also Palestinian experts in attendance as well as representatives from Tunisia and Indonesia — which don’t have formal ties with Israel. Water and food security experts from the West African country of Burkina Faso, which does have ties with Israel, were also present. However, organizers declined to share the identities of participants, ostensibly due to concerns some might have over the publication of their cooperation with Israel.

Still, Shapiro expressed his desire to see the initiative grow. “We hope N7 will eventually become N8, 9, or 10.”

Most Popular
read more: