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Desert dialog: Blinken lands in Israel ahead of Negev Summit with Lapid, Arab FMs

Countries plan show of regional unity aimed at Iran; seeking informal atmosphere, top diplomats from UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and likely Egypt will gather in Sde Boker

From left: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan take part in a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images)
From left: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan take part in a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will head down to Sde Boker in the Negev desert Sunday to host US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and foreign ministers from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.

Blinken landed in Israel on Saturday night ahead of the conference.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is expected to attend the “Negev Summit” as well, joining the countries that signed the US-brokered agreements known as the Abraham Accords in 2020.

The summit, which will take place at the Isrotel Kedma, will begin Sunday afternoon. The senior diplomats are slated to dine together at the hotel on Sunday evening.

The goal is for a less formal atmosphere than typical meetings between senior officials, according to a diplomatic source, referencing the US Camp David presidential retreat.

On Monday, the foreign ministers will hold bilateral working meetings and will give statements to the press afterward.

The gathering is a “Lapid-led initiative,” a diplomatic source with knowledge of the preparations for the summit told The Times of Israel. “Obviously the secretary being in Israel was the trigger.”

Logo for the Negev Summit, March 27-28, 2022 (Courtesy)

All countries involved were eager to participate, according to the source. “This wasn’t a hard sell,” he said.

Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion lived at Kibbutz Sde Boker, and he and his wife Paula are buried there, overlooking the Zin wilderness.

A view of the Zin Valley from David and Paula Ben-Gurion’s grave in Sde Boker. (Sarah Schulman/Flash 90)

The focus of the summit, according to the official, will be on regional threats, challenges, and opportunities. Among the issues expected to be at the center of the meetings are the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, and the Russia-Ukraine war.

The summit is also seen as a display of diplomatic unity intended for Tehran.

On Saturday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that a new deal on Iran’s nuclear program would likely be sealed within days.

Lapid and Blinken will hold a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Sunday morning before heading south to Sde Boker.

Shoukry will arrive in Israel on Sunday, joining Blinken, the UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al- Zayani, and Morocco’s Nasser Bourita for the gathering.

According to a Saturday report by Channel 13, the region’s diplomats are expected to implore the US to project strength toward Iran, both in the nuclear arena and on its regional expansionist and destabilizing actions.

The report also claimed, without citing a source, that though Saudi Arabia is not publicly taking part in the conference — Riyadh has clandestine ties with Jerusalem, but not open relations — it is strongly involved behind the scenes, as the subjects under discussion also represent the kingdom’s interests.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita takes part in a virtual meeting with his US and Israeli counterparts, at his office in the capital Rabat, on December 22, 2021. (AFP)

Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain Eitan Na’eh tweeted Saturday that March 26 marked the 43rd anniversary of Israel’s historic peace agreement with Egypt, signed in 1979. “43 years later, foreign ministers from at least 4 Arab countries + [the US] will gather in [Israel] tomorrow, to talk regional co-op,” he wrote, including the flags of Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and the United States in the tweet.

Efforts were underway to draw Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi to the summit as well, according to reports carried by Channel 12, Ynet, and other Hebrew outlets.

The summit is the latest indication of the Biden administration’s determination to throw its weight behind the Abraham Accords, after initially hesitating to even call them by name.

President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At a September 2021 Zoom event to mark the one-year anniversary of the signing, Blinken laid out three main lines of effort to support the agreements — fostering Israel’s ties with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, as well as Sudan and Kosovo; deepening Israel’s existing relationships with Egypt and Jordan; and encouraging more countries to join the Abraham Accords.

Israel has also made strengthening the Abraham Accords a top priority, scheduling regular diplomatic meetings with participant countries. Initial desires to finalize the normalization deal between Israel and Sudan have been complicated due to the military coup that spiraled the latter country further into crisis late last year.

Sunday’s meeting of foreign ministers will take place less than a week after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for the first-ever trilateral summit with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — another development likely made possible by the Accords.

The State Department said Thursday that Blinken will use his trip to coordinate with US allies on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Iran’s destabilizing activities,” the Abraham Accords, and efforts to improve Israeli-Palestinian ties.

Blinken will meet with Bennett, Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and President Isaac Herzog in Israel, and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas along with representatives from Palestinian civil society in Ramallah.

A Channel 12 report on Friday linked the upcoming Israeli summit to an effort to present a united regional front against Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The TV network’s Ben Caspit, a columnist and political analyst, said Israel has much to offer on the military technology front and summit participants could also address a possible initiative to set up regional anti-missile warning systems.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, right, speaks at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

On Friday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II hosted the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates for talks on regional and international developments. The meeting in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba was “consultative,” according to state television.

A statement from the royal court said others in attendance included Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein and Saudi Minister of State Prince Turki bin Mohammad bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz.

Abbas is slated to host Jordan’s King Abdullah II next week.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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