Morocco has decided to cancel plans to host the second ministerial gathering of the Negev Forum next month in response to a pair of Israeli moves to significantly expand its settlements in the West Bank, a US and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
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 amid escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians as well as discomfort among Arab participants over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government.
Over the past week, Rabat had agreed to finally hold the meeting next month. A date had not been finalized but it was “pretty locked up” for taking place in mid-July, the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But then came a pair of Israeli settlement moves on Sunday that derailed the process once again, the US official said.
The first was an announcement from Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that the Defense Ministry body in charge of authorizing settlement construction would be meeting next week to advance plans for over 4,500 new settlement homes.
Hours later, the Netanyahu government passed a resolution that gives practically all control over planning approval for construction in West Bank settlements to Smotrich, a settler and an impassioned advocate of the nationalist movement.
The decision approved at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, which takes immediate effect, also dramatically expedites and eases the process for expanding existing West Bank settlements and retroactively legalizes some illegal outposts.
Israeli efforts to further entrench its presence in the West Bank are also considered an obstacle to further normalization deals in the Middle East, including with Saudi Arabia.
The US official said that the settlement moves might not directly impact the Biden administration’s efforts to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and the Saudis, “but does the whole atmosphere get tainted by all the stuff? Absolutely.”
“I would be singularly focused on doing absolutely nothing that would prevent the Saudi deal from getting done, but they haven’t been able to do that,” the US official lamented.
The Moroccan Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.