Inside storyArab diplomat: Netanyahu-led gov't might complicate efforts

As Israeli-Arab Negev Forum prepares to reconvene, members try to bring in Jordan

Senior Israeli official optimistic Amman will be at table when UAE hosts working groups next month and Morocco hosts ministers in January, but Knesset elections present a curveball

Jacob Magid

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

Senior diplomats from Israel, the US, and regional Arab allies pose for pictures at their Negev Summit follow-up meeting in Bahrain, June 27, 2022 (Foreign Ministry)
Senior diplomats from Israel, the US, and regional Arab allies pose for pictures at their Negev Summit follow-up meeting in Bahrain, June 27, 2022 (Foreign Ministry)

WASHINGTON — As Negev Forum countries prepare for their next gatherings in the coming months, an effort to bring Jordan into the fold has intensified, US and Mideast diplomats told The Times of Israel.

Jordan has been noticeably absent so far at Negev Forum gatherings, which have brought together representatives from the US, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt. Amman was not at the table when foreign ministers met in southern Israel for the inaugural gathering of the forum in March, and it did not send a diplomat to a steering committee meeting in Manama in June.

While the dates have not been finalized, the UAE is readying to host the Negev Forum working groups — six panels tasked with advancing regional projects in the areas of regional security, food and water security, energy, health, education and tourism — in November while Morocco is preparing to host the second annual ministerial gathering in January, according to four US and Middle East diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jordanian officials have indicated that they are not prepared to join the Negev Forum as long as the Palestinians aren’t at the table as well. The Palestinian Authority itself has shown no interest in collaborating with a regional initiative it views as an attempt to sideline its diplomatic agenda.

Despite the uphill battle, Negev Forum members — and particularly the US — have not given up on convincing Jordan to join, the four diplomats said, arguing that the forum’s legitimacy is strengthened when additional countries join.

One Arab diplomat maintained that Jordan is particularly important because its addition would demonstrate that the Negev Forum is not looking to bypass the Palestinian issue. “Not all members care equally about the Palestinian issue, so having a country like Jordan at the table will ensure that they will constantly remain on the agenda, given [Amman’s] critical role in the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman, July 24, 2022. (WAFA)

But the diplomat did not sound particularly optimistic about the chances for success. “The bottom line is that Jordan won’t come without the Palestinians, and the Palestinians don’t seem interested in a forum that is an extension of the Abraham Accords — an initiative brought about by an [American] administration that sought to sideline them,” they said, knocking the Trump administration, which brokered the normalization agreements.

A Palestinian official seemed to agree, telling The Times of Israel that Ramallah “is prepared to work with our partners in the region, but the framework must remain the Arab Peace Initiative.” The 2002 Saudi proposal offered Israel normalized relations with all 22 Arab League members if it agreed to the a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines. While Riyadh continues to promote the formula, the initiative saw its legitimacy take a hit in 2020 when the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco agreed to normalize relations with Israel without waiting for a resolution to the Palestinian issue.

Nonetheless, a senior Israeli diplomat told The Times of Israel that he was optimistic that Jordan would come around and join the Negev Forum in some fashion.

Members have already laid the groundwork for this possibility, issuing a joint statement at the conclusion of the June steering committee meeting in which they said that “working group chairs, with the consensus of members, may invite non-member participants to participate in specific initiatives where their participation delivers a direct benefit to the initiative’s stated goal.”

Among the proposals weighed in recent months was to have representatives from Jordan and the PA join the working groups as observers — a limited step that might be more palatable to Amman and Ramallah, given the criticism they would likely face, an Arab and an Israeli diplomat said.

However, the idea has received pushback from some members who don’t think Jordan or the PA should be relegated to sub-status, an Arab diplomat said.

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

“Jordan and the Palestinians deserve to be full members like everyone else,” the diplomat asserted, acknowledging, however, that Israel has expressed opposition to having the Palestinians join the more senior steering committee.

The diplomat said Israel is “comfortable” with the current situation in which each of the working groups is tasked with advancing the Palestinian issue in their respective field where possible, while PA representatives aren’t at the table themselves.

While Negev Forum members are looking to move forward with the development of regional projects, they are slowed by next month’s Knesset election, which could produce an entirely new Israeli government for them to work with.

One Arab diplomat acknowledged that the formation of a hard-right government led by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu “might complicate” efforts to develop the Negev Forum, given the former prime minister’s less compromising approach to the Palestinian issue.

“There would be a lot less cover for these countries to be cooperating with a Netanyahu government which includes extremists like [Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir],” said a former senior US official.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro maintained that it’s in all of the parties’ interests for Jordan to join the collaborative. “There is no question that Jordan would miss out on some important opportunities, and the Negev Forum would be incomplete without their participation, so it is important that a formula be found that enables them to join.”

Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in Jerusalem on September 11, 2022 and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir (R) in Jerusalem on July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“Of course, that means finding a suitable role for the Palestinians, who, so far, are not showing much interest. That is complicated by Israeli elections, Palestinian succession politics, and the leverage Palestinians may feel they gain by holding out,” said Shapiro, who now serves as a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and as director of its N7 project, which works to advance cooperation between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

“If the Palestinians continue to say no and the Jordanians don’t feel they can join yet, that doesn’t mean the whole Negev Forum is put on hold,” he clarified. “The working groups can continue to meet and develop projects, and the door can remain open. It is important that parties who have not yet joined the Negev Forum do not have a veto over its work.”

Shapiro acknowledged that Jordan has thus far been able to take part in regional projects without joining the Forum. “But there’s no question they could miss some other opportunities when they don’t have a voice in the formation of these regional projects that the working groups are putting together.”

Asked for comment on US efforts to develop and expand the Forum, a State Department spokesman provided the following statement: “As President Biden said, building regional integration — in the Middle East and beyond — brings prosperity and security to all and remains a priority for the United States.”

Bahrain’s Undersecretary for International Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (Center) leads a meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee in Manama, Bahrain, June 27, 2022 (Bahrain Foreign Ministry)

“Following the inaugural meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee in June, the United States has been closely engaged with our Negev Forum partners on a variety of key issues, including further developing the work of the Forum, opportunities to enhance our cooperation, and encouraging additional participation.”

The spokesperson highlighted the steering committee’s formation of the working groups last June in order to address “the most pressing shared challenges the region faces, and enhancing and building cooperation on addressing them.”

“We will have more updates to share in the future, including on the meetings of the working groups,” they added, declining to elaborate any further.

Jordan’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

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