Negev Summit partners to meet in Bahrain on keeping cooperation going
First meeting of steering committee looks to formalize commitments made in unprecedented March gathering between Israel and regional partners, including on security initiatives
Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter
Senior diplomats from Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, and the US will convene in Manama on Monday to formalize commitments made at a March summit aimed at remaking the Middle East’s geo-political fault lines, the Foreign Ministry announced Sunday.
The meeting in the Bahraini capital, the first since the so-called Negev Summit Steering Committee is slated to formalize commitments to turn a summit of regional leaders in Israel months ago into an ongoing forum, Foreign Ministry official Oded Joseph told reporters Sunday.
Israel will be represented by Joseph and Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz, who took off Sunday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert will lead the US delegation.
In late March, Israel hosted an unprecedented summit of regional leaders in the Negev town of Sde Boker, where they announced that the gathering would be the first iteration of a permanent regional forum.
Joseph, who heads the ministry’s Middle East section, said the meeting was timed to take place shortly before US President Joe Biden’s July 13-16 visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia.
“We see in this meeting the potential to formulate the regional architecture a bit ahead of time,” he said. “The presence of the American delegation will be very important, as well as the arrival of President Biden to this region, and specifically his visit to Israel from our view will be an important part of what has been taking shape in the region for the past year and a half.”
A senior US official, discussing Biden’s visit, hinted last week that more Arab nations were looking to make gestures to improve relations with Israel.
“We are working, in the space that is not in the public domain, with a couple of other countries. And I think you’ll see some interesting things around the time of the president’s visit,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told a congressional subcommittee.
One of the topics of Monday’s Manama meeting will be regional security, said Joseph. “Many of the things that have been done, including in the years we didn’t have these diplomatic relations and things were done quietly, were done bilaterally. What we’re trying to do now with the Negev Forum is trying to create a situation in which there are multilateral activities on this issue.”
An official close to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said during the March summit that Lapid and his Arab counterparts were discussing “advancing a regional security architecture.” The regional architecture will deal with threats by “air, sea, and piracy,” the official said.
A report in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday indicated that some defense cooperation may already be underway, detailing a US-sponsored March meeting between defense chiefs from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE during which they discussed cooperating against Iran.
Last week, during a briefing to lawmakers at the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel and its regional allies — under US leadership — were developing a joint defense pact to protect against the threat of drones and missiles by Tehran and its regional proxies.
In Manama, the countries will decide on how the six working groups set up during the summit — regional security, food and water security, energy, health, education and tolerance, and tourism — will operate, and intend to produce a memorandum detailing what they determine on Monday.
Each of the six Negev summit countries will head one of the working groups, which will meet two or three times a year.
“These will become permanent frameworks for cooperation between us and countries in the region,” Joseph said.
The steering committee itself is meant to guide the working groups and track their ongoing work, and help set the agenda for the annual summit of the six foreign ministers.
Jordan, which declined an invitation to the Negev Summit, was not invited to Manama, but will be asked to attend next year’s summit, Joseph said.
The Saudis are also not participating. “I’d assume the Saudis are following closely,” said Joseph.
“Much of what will be done in the working groups is very, very relevant to the Palestinians,” he added, though the Palestinians will also not be invited.
Still, said Joseph, many countries around the world are interested in participating in Negev Summit initiatives. He pointed at Germany’s interest in water security projects as an example.