Delayed Negev Forum meet would have included 2 countries without ties to Israel – FM

Minister predicts in testimony to Knesset committee that the two unnamed countries will still attend, whenever the regional gathering ends up reconvening

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

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)
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)

Two countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Jerusalem were set to take part in a regional forum of Arab countries allied with Israel next month, before it was delayed by host Morocco, following a pair of Israeli settlement announcements, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Monday.

In testimony before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Cohen predicted that both countries — which he did not name — will attend when the Negev Forum eventually does convene, potentially in September.

The forum, made up of the US, Israel, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, is focused on the development of regional projects.

In his Knesset testimony, Cohen focused on Israel’s efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, which the Negev Forum grew out of.

“I’m happy to say that we’re in touch with a number of countries, which, as of today, we don’t have ties with, in order to expand the Abraham Accords,” he said, according to a readout from the Knesset panel discussion, which was held behind closed doors.

A US official told The Times of Israel earlier this month that the Biden administration has been working to expand the Negev Forum beyond the current list of countries, including encouraging Jordan to join along with the PA. The US official recognized that Ramallah will be harder to convince, as it has long viewed the effort to advance Israel’s integration in the region as an effort to bypass the Palestinian issue entirely.

Most of the effort to coax additional countries is taking place in Washington, however, as the superpower is more equipped to offer deliverables to potential Negev Forum participants than Israel is.

The US official also said that the administration sought to have several African countries join previous Negev Forum gatherings and will continue those efforts in the future.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at the Knesset on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Cohen used most of his testimony to review the government’s foreign policy goals and achievements since it was established six months ago. He updated the committee on the effort to double the number of countries with embassies in Jerusalem and to reach 100 embassies operating in Israel as a whole by the end of the year.

Cohen hailed Russia’s decision to open an embassy branch office in Jerusalem, while also stressing Israeli efforts to support Ukraine. He also praised the decision by Azerbaijan to become the first Shiite Muslim country to open an embassy in Israel.

He highlighted his recent visit to Sudan in order to solidify the normalization agreement that was announced in 2020, and also noted the decision by Oman to allow Israeli overflights. He pointed to trade agreements with the UAE, improved ties with Poland and Turkey and progress in the effort to add Israel to the US Visa Waiver Program by the end of the year.

Cohen revealed that UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly had informed him that London was working to pass legislation to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

On Sunday, Cohen said the Negev Forum meeting had been “postponed, but not canceled,” and acknowledged that the reason was the “decision to expand construction” in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

On Friday, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita confirmed Rabat’s decision to postpone the Negev Forum until at least after the summer, citing the need for an “appropriate political context,” given escalating West Bank settlement activity and anti-Palestinian violence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, speak during a news conference at the Foreign Ministry in Rabat, Morocco, March 29, 2022. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The gathering of foreign ministers from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the US was originally slated to take place in March, but has been delayed several times, in light of escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians as well as discomfort among Arab participants over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government.

US officials have warned that government moves to bolster settlement building or allow settler violence to fester could harm Israel’s ability to normalize with regional neighbors or form an alliance to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Nonetheless, Israeli authorities okayed some 5,700 new homes in the settlements Monday, though most are still in preliminary planning stages.

On Sunday, Cohen said Israel had a “window of opportunity” until 2024 for a coveted, US-brokered normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, “after which the political system in the US will focus on the presidential elections” later that year, Cohen said.

He said Jerusalem was optimistic about a potential deal that would be separate from the 2020 Abraham Accords and added that talks were ongoing through various channels, but mainly via Washington.

“We are very optimistic about the possibility of achieving such an agreement. This is an achievable agreement, after which more countries will follow,” said Cohen without specifying. Israel signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in 2020.

The foreign minister said the Saudis “were also interested in such an agreement.”

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