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Analysis'Desperate times call for desperate measures'

Lapid’s flagship Negev Summit sets sail on a sea of regional fears

In a diplomatic achievement for Israel, Arab partners join the foreign minister and US envoy in Sde Boker, but they come to address a series of worrying developments

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Smoke billows from an oil storage facility in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah after airstrikes by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, March 25, 2022. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP)
Smoke billows from an oil storage facility in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah after airstrikes by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, March 25, 2022. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP)

The Negev Summit hosted by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday and Monday is being touted as a show of force against Iran.

The foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt are joining Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and there is no question that Iran will sit at the forefront of the agenda.

But the gathering in Sde Boker isn’t a show of confident unity. In fact, quite the opposite.

After witnessing a series of worrying developments, the diplomats are rushing to Israel to try to shift US policy before they are forced to fend for themselves.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University in Herzliya.

“The summit is primarily an indication of the countries’ sense of urgency in light of several processes coming together and turning into a multi-dimensional threat — to their internal stability, to their regional posture,” Albo said.

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

The primary threat is Iran and its proxies. The network, led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, has become more aggressive and shown dangerous new capabilities in recent weeks.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels launched missile and drone attacks in January and February targeting the UAE, including a January 31 ballistic missile attack while President Isaac Herzog was in the country.

They have also continued to fire on Saud Arabia. A week ago, Houthi rebels targeted a range of water and energy plants. On Friday, they hit Saudi Arabia with a wave of drone and missile attacks, including against an oil plant near the Formula One race track in Jeddah, two days before the race.

Also this month, Iran fired 12 missiles toward the US consulate in Iraq’s northern city of Erbil, with several missiles hitting the building.

A damaged building after an overnight attack in Erbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, March 13, 2022. (Safin Hamed/AFP)

At the same time, nuclear talks in Vienna seem to be headed toward a successful conclusion, with the IRGC, tied to the attacks against the Gulf states, likely to be removed from US terror blacklist.

“The Gulf states are saying, ‘Just a minute here,'” said Albo. “We have a strategic pillar that is supposed to support us on regional stability, that is also leading the effort to renew the nuclear deal with Iran. This makes Iran more daring in the region, and therefore the scope of the Iranian threat is growing.”

“The Americans are determined to sign [the nuclear deal], and the countries here are very concerned,” explained Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The aim of the Negev Summit for the Abraham Accords nations and Egypt, then, is to do what they can to firm up American support. They understand that there is no other power they can rely on to provide weapons, military and intelligence support, and deterrence against Iran.

Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran’s nuclear agency (left), and Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharib Abadi, leave the International Atomic Energy’s General Conference in Vienna, Austria, September 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

Blinken, on the other hand, is coming to “calm everyone down,” said Inbar.

Ideally, the Americans will be able to offer diplomatic and security guarantees that assuage the worst fears of their regional partners.

“This process is complex, and it won’t end in just a declaration against a state,” said Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

But if the foreign ministers head home disappointed, the regional diplomatic flurry in recent weeks could turn into a storm as local actors understand they have to fend for themselves without the US.

It’s hard to know how any potential rebalancing would shake out. The UAE and Saudi Arabia will likely continue their quiet overtures toward Iran to try to guarantee some sort of stability.

But they could also show both Iran and the US that they know how to get along without them. A regional framework for maritime security is a possibility, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has pushed for a regional air defense network.

Or the US-allied Arab nations could move to shape the direction of the Middle East themselves.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi during a meeting in Amman on March 25, 2022. (Mohamed Al Hammadi / Iraqi Presidential Affairs office)

“A surprise could come from Syria or Iraq,” said Zaga.

Recent high-level meetings in the region could support this idea.

On Friday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II hosted leaders from Egypt, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates for talks. The week before, Syrian President Bashar Assad was hosted by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the UAE’s de facto ruler.

The Gulf states, Jordan, and Egypt could be positioning themselves to elbow Iran out of Syria and Iraq, promoting regional stability while disrupting Tehran’s ability to support proxies. It would also send a message to the US that their regional allies are taking matters into their own hands.

If Syria accepts increased Gulf involvement in its reconstruction, it may be willing to support them in Lebanon as well. Though the Assad regime was happy to accept Iranian support to stay in power, it has long been at odds with Iran over its vision for the region, especially in Lebanon and Iraq.

Economic pressures

The second threat facing the countries gathering in Sde Boker is economic. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have made the economic situation in many Arab countries precarious.

Grain prices are rising, especially wheat, as Ukraine and Russia fight. The two countries — both in the world’s top five producers — provide close to 80 percent of Egypt’s wheat.

Cairo and other countries also face spiraling oil and natural gas prices. The value of the Egyptian pound continues to drop while the country faces double-digit inflation.

Shoppers crowd a street in Cairo, Egypt, April 14, 2020. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

Jordan’s economy, battered by COVID, is feeling the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war as well. Prices are rising sharply, and unemployment hovers around 25%.

Egypt and Jordan, both Israel’s neighbors, need economic support from Gulf countries.

Amid these concerns from its Arab partners, Israel has an important role to play.

On the diplomatic front, Lapid has to show his Arab counterparts that Israel can influence American positions in ways they cannot.

Israel is also growing in importance economically.

Egypt and Jordan are relying on increased natural gas supply from Israel. With Passover less than a month away, Cairo is also eagerly hoping for the arrival of tens of thousands of Israeli tourists, a desperately needed infusion of foreign currency into Egypt’s economy.

The summit carries great potential for Israel. But it also comes with risk.

“I am concerned that it will be a summit of the deaf,” said Inbar.

If the parties return home on Monday with the understanding that the Americans can’t be moved and the Israelis are ineffective, regional realignments will gain momentum, and could head in ways that are hard to predict.

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