AnalysisForum to meet once or twice a year, in somebody's desert

At Negev Summit, allies calmed somewhat by US recommitment to the region

The Biden administration clearly can’t quit the Middle East, and though determined to sign a deal with Iran, it is once again playing an active role

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Kedma Isrotel hotel worker carries flags out of the Negev Summit after its conclusion, March 28, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
A Kedma Isrotel hotel worker carries flags out of the Negev Summit after its conclusion, March 28, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

With statements by the six foreign ministers and a visit to David Ben-Gurion’s grave by Yair Lapid and Antony Blinken, the inaugural Negev Summit came to an end on Monday afternoon.

On the surface, it appeared to be a stunning success, for Israel as the host and for its regional allies. But the ambitious event took place amid deep worry on the part of America’s Middle Eastern partners, and even with the public display of unity, fundamental disagreement remains.

In Israel’s eyes, there were in effect two parallel gatherings in Sde Boker: the bilateral Israel–US meeting between Lapid and Blinken, and the hexalateral Negev Summit.

Israeli officials had wanted to put together such an event for some time now, but needed to have the US secretary of state in the country to get its Arab partners to come at the same time. Blinken had twice delayed his latest trip, and only confirmed it with Lapid last Wednesday.

With WhatsApp messages between the principals themselves, the event quickly came together, led by Lapid. Sde Boker as the host site was comfortable in many ways for Israel – it avoided the political questions that hosting in Jerusalem would invite, and made for a dressed-down, informal atmosphere that could spark forthright, open conversation.

The focus of the bilateral Israel-US talks was, not surprisingly, the Iran nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Like the other attendees, Israel is supremely concerned that the Biden administration is more likely than not to cut a bad deal, one that includes delisting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps from its terrorism blacklist.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) sits next to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Foreign Ministry situation room in Jerusalem, March 27, 2022 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

But the Foreign Ministry also made a point of doing what it could to gain understanding from the US for its public position on the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Shortly after he arrived in Israel, Blinken was brought to the Foreign Ministry’s situation room in Jerusalem for the Ukraine crisis, where Israel’s humanitarian aid to the country is coordinated. He was able to speak directly to Israeli officials and doctors at Israel’s Shining Star field hospital in Ukraine, underscoring that Israel’s government is doing much in the humanitarian realm, even as it avoids alienating Russia.

The ministry also brought in Keren Shachar, the diplomat responsible for Israel’s inter-ministry sanctions monitoring body — made up of the Foreign, Energy, Economy, and Finance ministries, the Bank of Israel, the Airports Authority and other relevant bodies. Ministry sources indicated that Blinken left quite satisfied by the presentation and expressed an appreciation for Israel’s efforts in making sure the country isn’t used to bypass Western sanctions.

Sameh Shoukry, sourpuss

The Iran nuclear talks were also one of central issues in the six-way Negev Summit discussions.

Morocco’s Nasser Bourita, Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and staff at a summit for foreign ministers at the Kedma Hotel in Sde Boker, March 28, 2022 (Foreign Ministry/GPO)

The five Middle Eastern foreign ministers came to Sde Boker deeply concerned. They have front row seats – and some are on the front lines – as Iran and its proxies display new brazenness and new capabilities in their missile and drone attacks. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE are being hit by Houthi attacks, and Iraq by Iranian missiles, the US is seriously considering removing the terrorist group enabling such attacks from its foreign terrorist organization list.

The Moroccans are also alarmed by the proliferation of terrorist groups across western Africa — not to mention robust and growing Algeria-Iran ties — many of which are backed in some way by the IRGC.

The foreign ministers were able to present a unified message, and judging by their statements throughout the event, their concerns didn’t fall on deaf American ears.

Beyond Iran, each country brought its own worries to the table. The Egyptians and Moroccans are intensely concerned about food security in the wake of the Ukraine-Russia war, and made sure the issue gained the necessary attention.

In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, firefighters try to extinguish a blaze at an Aramco terminal in the southern border town of Jizan, Saudi Arabia, early on March 20, 2022. Yemen’s Houthi rebels unleashed a barrage of drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia early Sunday that targeted a liquified natural gas plant, water desalination plant, oil facility and power station, Saudi state-run media reported. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Israel has been spooked by friction between the Biden administration and Gulf countries over oil production. With fuel prices rising sharply in the wake of COVID and the war in Europe, and with the president ideologically opposed to increasing domestic production, the US has unsuccessfully tried to convince countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ramp up their output. Jerusalem isn’t especially comfortable with ongoing tensions between its closest global partner and its new regional partners, and has done what it could to soothe the tensions.

The issue came up at the summit, according to sources with knowledge of the meetings, and the fact that Blinken was in the Middle East speaking with the UAE directly about the issue was certainly a positive development in Israel’s eyes, even if no solution was ever going to be reached in Sde Boker.

Other energy-related issues were on the agenda. With the US withdrawing support for the EastMed gas project in January, Egypt is vying to position itself as an alternative venue to get Mediterranean – including Israeli – natural gas to Europe. That conversation becomes even more urgent as the Russian invasion of Ukraine underscores how dangerously reliant Europe has become on Russian natural gas in the wake of its turn toward renewable energy and away from nuclear energy in key countries.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed leaves the Negev Summit after delivering a statement, March 28, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The Emiratis came to the table in something of a spat with the US beyond the disagreements over oil production. With Houthi rebels in Yemen firing at the UAE, destroying infrastructure, killing civilians, and blasting away the sense of security in a country without civilian rocket shelters, the US response was disappointingly tepid.

Participation in the event was most difficult for the Egyptians. They’ve long had a Janus-like approach to their relationship with Israel. The security/intelligence cooperation is intimate, and Israel often conveys Egyptian concerns to corners of the Washington establishment that are closed to Cairo. At the same time, the Egyptian government is deeply committed to the Palestinian cause, and thinks long and hard before offering any public show of fraternal affection with Israelis.

After meeting for 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)

What’s more, they had to send their foreign minister, long associated with the Palestinian cause, instead of the security officials who handle cooperation with Israel. The 69-year-old diplomat Sameh Shoukry was sure to make his discomfort apparent for all to see. While the other senior officials smiled in the photographs from the various meetings, Shoukry appeared almost pained to be there.

His stance was even more dissonant in the public statements made to close out the summit. While all five other officials clearly condemned Sunday night’s Hadera attacks, Shoukry made do with a general statement opposing violence, incitement, and terrorism in general.

He stressed “the importance of restricting any unilateral activity that might agitate the current situation” during Ramadan, a clear warning to Israel over moves in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, a year after tensions in Sheikh Jarrah spiraled into a major Gaza conflict during the holy month for Muslims.

The dour Egyptian also made sure to speak at some length about the importance of a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Members of the forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) gather in the coastal city of Sirte, east of the capital Tripoli, prior to their military operation to clear the Islamic State group’s (IS) jihadists from the city on August 28, 2016. (AFP/Mahmud Turkia)

He added a curious condemnation of “extra-regional interventions,” assuring his counterparts and the reporters covering the statements that Egypt and other regional partners can meet the challenges facing them, in cooperation with the US. Here, Shoukry was likely referring to the Libyan conflict just over Egypt’s western border, a war that Cairo sees as a tangible threat to its national security. Turkey, a regional rival of Egypt that backs the opposing side in Libya, has sent proxies and even its own troops to the war-torn country, a development that clearly continues to vex Egypt.

Bahrain, on the other hand, seemed quite happy to be there. Long suspicious of Iran, it is eager to see a robust security architecture emerge, backed by the US.

At the end of the summit, Bahrain and Israel signed a broad agreement covering the next nine years of their relationship, focusing primarily on economic ties, but also touching on security and food technology.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) and his Bahraini counterpart shake hands after signing a framework agreement on future bilateral cooperation, on the sidelines of the Negev Summit at Sde Boker, southern Israel, March 28, 2022. (Boaz Oppenheim/GPO)

The fatal terrorist attack in Hadera didn’t derail the summit, though it did immediately alter the convivial tone apparent at the outset of the event on Sunday afternoon.

Lapid’s advisers informed him of the attack before the six ministers sat down to dinner, and upon hearing about it from him, all five guests quickly agreed to a joint public statement condemning the shooting. Notably, this consensus was reached even before it was clear that the attackers were supporters of the Islamic State, and didn’t kill the two Border Police in Hadera for reasons connected to Palestinian nationalism.

The best desert

In the end, the priorities and concerns of the participants were addressed in the six working groups that emerged from the summit – security and counterterrorism; education; health; energy; tourism; and food and water.

All of the countries, including Egypt, evidently saw enough utility in the meeting to agree to turn the forum into a permanent gathering, meeting once or twice a year in one of the participating countries.

The Kedma Isrotel in Sde Boker, hours after the end of the Negev Summit. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The ministers agreed that the meetings will always take place in a desert setting. That discussion led to a light-hearted argument between the participants over which country possessed the “best” desert, a debate won handily by Blinken when he pointed out that Las Vegas is very much in the Mojave.

Much as US President Joe Biden wanted to escape the Middle East, it is clear to America’s allies here that the US can’t leave. The May 2021 Gaza conflict, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Iran deal, and the effects of the Ukraine crisis all sucked the US back into the region. With Blinken’s presence in Sde Boker, and his central role in organizing the event, it is apparent to Washington’s jittery partners that the Middle East remains a central concern on the US foreign policy agenda, whether Biden likes it or not.

The statements about regional security architecture that include the US have to be calming to the Gulf states as they face missile and drone attacks on infrastructure and on their ships. But vexing issues will continue to strain relationships between the six countries.

(L to R) Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid delivers opening remarks during a roundtable alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Sde Boker in the Negev Desert on March 28, 2022 (Jacquelyn MARTIN / POOL / AFP)

Egypt will continue to insist more be done for the Palestinians, something this Israeli government is quite limited in its ability to provide. Jordan, whose foreign minister decided to stay away from the event, will be an even more cautious partner, especially with its unique determination to maintain its position in Jerusalem.

It is probably no coincidence that none of the Arab ministers made the trip to Ben-Gurion’s grave with Lapid and Blinken. Openly paying homage to Israel’s first leader might have been a step too far for Arab politicians who still have to keep public identification with the Palestinian cause in mind.

The US relationship with Morocco is currently under some strain as well. Congressional legislation and hearings target US-Morocco military cooperation, and senior senators from both parties are doing all they can to keep the State Department from opening a consulate in Western Sahara, something Donald Trump pledged to Rabat to facilitate the normalization agreement with Israel.

And then, of course, we return to Iran.

No amount of polite but firm pushing from Israel and its Arab partners is going to keep Biden from signing a deal with Tehran. Nor is it going to keep Washington from offering the Islamic Republic significant concessions like the IRGC delisting if that’s what it takes.

Still, with the five foreign ministers presenting an impassioned and united case to Blinken, the US is more likely to offer other guarantees and compensation to its regional allies to offset some of the effects if a deal is reached in Vienna.

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