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Inside story'We oppose joining aggressive, public campaign against Iran'

For Israel, the Negev Summit was all about Iran. For other participants, not so much

Foreign diplomats involved say Tehran wasn’t what brought them to Sde Boker, as each country has its own concerns that justify participation in first-of-its-kind gathering

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, makes remarks at the Negev Summit, with from left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, makes remarks at the Negev Summit, with from left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Like it did with the recent trilateral meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh between the leaders of Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Jerusalem sought to frame this week’s expanded forum in Sde Boker as the establishment of a regional front against Iran.

Hebrew media presented the Negev Summit accordingly, with all three major news channels running variations of the chyron “The summit against Iran” throughout their coverage of Sunday and Monday’s meetings between the foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

“The conference is a message to Iran that as it continues to spread chaos throughout the region, the response of those it is targeting will only become more united,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What we are doing here is making history, building a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said during a joint press appearance at the end of the summit. “This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies.”

While Iran may have been the “first and foremost” issue for Israel, that did not appear to be the case for the other participating countries, whose foreign ministers either did not mention the Islamic Republic at all during the closing press appearance or only did so rather nominally. Arab diplomats who spoke to The Times of Israel insisted that Iran, while it is a concern, was not what drew them to the Negev summit.

A matter of priorities

“If you asked each minister at the table, they might come with a different priority,” said Dan Shapiro, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East program who previously served as US ambassador to Israel and until last week as senior adviser to the US special envoy on Iran.

“For the UAE, it might be investment in clean energy; for Bahrain, it might be maritime security; for Morocco, it might be education and agriculture; for Egypt… [it might be] all of those,” he added.

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, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

A diplomat representing one of the participating Arab countries speculated that part of the reason for the more general statements from the foreign ministers at the joint press appearance was that the most notable aspect of the summit was “simply that it took place” — indeed a feat unimaginable before the previous US administration brokered normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco known as the Abraham Accords.

As for the US, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared intent on using the opportunity to assure allies in the region that the Biden administration has their backs and will assist them in addressing the threats they face and support their efforts to grow closer to one another.

“The United States has and will continue to strongly support a process that is transforming this region and beyond,” the secretary said of the Abraham Accords.

Blinken also assured the other participants that the US would help them in combating “Iran and its proxies,” a message directed at Israel and the UAE in particular, given Jerusalem’s frustration over US efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and Emirati anger over Washington’s refusal to take a harsher stance against the Houthis amid the Yemeni rebels repeated attacks on Gulf allies.

Keep us out of your fight

On the face of it, the Negev Summit presented an excellent opportunity for Israel and its newest allies to come together to discuss the joint threat of Iran, even if Jerusalem’s concerns are primarily regarding Tehran’s nuclear program, whereas the other participants are more worried about its ballistic missile program and support for proxies throughout the region.

But a senior Emirati official told The Times of Israel that Iran still was not what brought Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to visit Israel for the first time.

After meeting for the Negev Summit, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, left, walks with Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

“For us, it’s about regional integration and better economic, security and energy cooperation,” said the senior official.

The senior Emirati official agreed that each participant arrived in the Negev with their own unique interests. “The question is how will this new realignment benefit each country individually while at the same time address regional issues? I don’t have the answer for that yet but this meeting is a good start.”

Anwar Gargash, who serves as diplomatic adviser to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed, further echoed that sentiment, saying “the UAE’s participation in the ‘Negev Summit’ stems from our belief in adopting a regional approach that deepens economic cooperation in the region and bridges gaps through a discourse of tolerance and communication.”

Noting the Gulf states’ close proximity to Iran and the power imbalance from which they suffer compared to the Islamic Republic, an Arab diplomat who participated in the summit said the UAE and Bahrain, in particular, are not interested in joining “an Israeli campaign that is too publicly aggressive” against Tehran.

The Arab diplomat added that contrary to Israel, the remaining participants at the summit are all more open to the idea of a revived nuclear deal, calling the current reality in which Iran is able to accelerate its nuclear activity with no agreement in place “not sustainable.”

The opening roundtable begins at the Negev Summit, as Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, clockwise from left, makes opening remarks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

This isn’t to say that Israel’s Arab allies support an entirely passive approach toward Iran.

While not mentioning Iran by name, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Monday that the summit represented a message to “those who are enemies of this positive dynamic — here in your region, also in North Africa, acting directly or through their proxies… that we are here to defend our values.”

The elephant not in the room

For Egypt as well, Iran appeared relatively low on the agenda in Sde Boker.

An Egyptian official said Cairo is particularly concerned about the ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Egypt’s food supply, given that it imports the vast majority of its wheat from the two countries currently at war.

“We hope that by discussing these matters at the summit, we will reach a regional solution to this problem,” the official said, adding that “the same goes for the energy crisis.”

The Egyptian official added that Cairo was also eager to play a role in ensuring that the sides did not neglect the Palestinian issue.

Indeed, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was quick during the joint press appearance to express his country’s support for a two-state solution along the pre-1967 borders while cautioning Israel against unilateral measures that “might agitate the current situation.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (third from left) leads a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah (second from right) in Ramallah on March 28, 2022. (Wafa new agency)

Shoukry found an ally in Blinken at the summit, with the latter repeatedly raising the Palestinian issue along with possible steps the parties can take to strengthen prospects for a two-state solution during the summit’s closed-door meetings, according to a diplomat familiar with the matter.

This likely was not enough to coax Jordan into sending its foreign minister to join his counterparts in Sde Boker. Ayman Safadi was just across the Green Line in Ramallah, accompanying King Abdullah to a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday.

Safadi has either hosted Israeli counterparts in Amman or met them at the Allenby Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, as part of longstanding Jordanian policy to avoid more far-reaching gestures absent significant progress on the Palestinian file. While he has hosted senior Israeli officials intermittently over the years, the last time Abdullah visited Israel was in 2004, when he held talks with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon about the latter’s plans to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

But with participants announcing that the Negev Summit was the first iteration of a permanent regional forum that will rotate between the countries, Jordan may find it easier to join fellow Mideast allies at future meetings going forward.

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