Israel said to up air defense, fearing attack on Negev Summit

Several air force jets said sent up to patrol southern skies as foreign ministers of UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and US head to Sde Boker for confab hosted by Lapid

An air traffic controller directs an Oron spy aircraft down a runway at the Nevatim air base in southern Israel on April 4, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: An air traffic controller directs an aircraft down a runway at the Nevatim air base in southern Israel on April 4, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel has reportedly raised its defense readiness in the south of the country amid concerns of aerial threats during an unprecedented diplomatic summit in the southern Negev desert.

The Israeli Air Force has put several planes in the air ahead of the expected arrival of the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday.

Though the report did not specify the nature of the threats, the use of aircraft could indicate worries of a potential drone attack to be intercepted by the planes.

The UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al- Zayani, and Morocco’s Nasser Bourita are to arrive for the gathering. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is expected to attend as well, joining the three Arab countries that signed the US-brokered normalization agreements known as the Abraham Accords in 2020.

The two-day event will be hosted by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is already in Israel, will also participate.

Foreign ministers were expected to land at Nevatim air force base and from there head at the Isrotel Kedma Hotel in Kibbutz Sde Boker. The senior diplomats are slated to dine together at the hotel on Sunday evening.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, lived at Sde Boker, and he and his wife, Paula, are buried there, overlooking the Zin wilderness. Lapid wants to take his guests to visit the gravesite, though that has not been confirmed as part of the itinerary, Kan reported.

The graves of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and his wife Paula at Kibbutz Sde Boker in southern Israel. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The focus of the summit, according to officials, 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.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (R) welcomes his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan at Sde Boker in southern Israel on March 27, 2022, ahead of the Negev Summit. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

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 [Blinken] being in Israel was the trigger.”

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 said, 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.

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

Israel has 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 that followed the signing of the Accords.

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