Israel, most Arab partners meet in UAE to prepare for Negev Forum summit in Morocco

Over 20 Israeli officials join delegation led by Foreign Ministry Director Alon Ushpiz for Abu Dhabi gathering of Abraham Accords countries, Egypt and US; Jordan stays away again

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The steering committee of the Negev Forum meets in Abu Dhabi, January 9, 2023 (UAE Foreign Ministry)
The steering committee of the Negev Forum meets in Abu Dhabi, January 9, 2023 (UAE Foreign Ministry)

The steering committee of the Negev Forum — bringing together Israel, its Abraham Accords partners, Egypt and the US — met Monday in Abu Dhabi to prepare for its second multilateral summit, scheduled for the spring in Morocco.

No final date has been set for the Morocco gathering.

Israel’s delegation is headed by Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz. Over 20 senior officials from the agriculture, defense, health, tourism, intelligence, energy, economy and education ministries flew with Ushpiz, as did representatives from the Water Authority and National Security Council.

The meetings, which will run through Tuesday, are the steering committee’s third gathering since the inaugural Negev Summit last March. The committee previously met in Bahrain in June, and on Zoom in October.

The six Negev Forum working groups are also meeting in the UAE — on regional security, education and tolerance, water and food security, tourism, and energy.

Israel leads the education and tolerance group, and co-chairs the water and food security team alongside Morocco.

After meeting for 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, pose for a photograph Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called the Abu Dhabi meetings “another step in advancing and deepening the Abraham Accords, and a joint response to joint challenges.”

He added that the Israeli delegation would present projects with the potential to improve quality of life for Israelis and the rest of the region.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who as foreign minister initiated the Negev Summit, called images from Abu Dhabi “extremely moving.”

“Our vision of a ‘statesmanship of connections’ is taking form,” Lapid tweeted on Monday, “and is bringing the Middle East to new achievements of regional stability and cooperation.”

Last year’s inaugural meeting — with Israel’s ideologically diverse government headed by Naftali Bennett and then Lapid — brought to the Israeli desert the foreign ministers of Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel; the US; and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which normalized relations in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at a press conference in Berlin on March 10, 2021. (Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

Jordan is the only Arab country with full diplomatic relations with Israel that did not send a delegation to Abu Dhabi, though it was invited. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was not at the table for the inaugural gathering of the forum, and Amman did not send a representative to the June steering committee meeting.

“There’s an empty chair at the table because Jordan obviously has a peace agreement with Israel,” lamented a senior US official, briefing The Times of Israel days before the working group meetings.

The goal of the working groups is to identify joint initiatives that all the countries can participate in, according to a Foreign Ministry official.

The official added that the condemnations last week by participating countries over National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount had had no impact on the Negev Forum process.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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