As Negev Forum confab wraps, officials vague on plans for joint projects

After largest meeting between Israel and regional partners since 1991, delegations expected to confer with capitals regarding proposals for initiatives harnessing normalization

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Negev Forum participants hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2022. (UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry)
Negev Forum participants hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2022. (UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry)

The Negev Forum of Israel, the US and four Arab allies wrapped up two days of meetings in Abu Dhabi between interagency teams aimed at promoting joint regional initiatives Tuesday.

The gathering of some 150 government officials was touted as the largest meeting between Israel and its regional partners since the Madrid peace conference in 1991.

Officials from the US, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt were broken up into six working groups tasked with advancing projects in the fields of regional security, education and tolerance, water and food security, tourism, and energy.

The Negev Forum’s intermediate-level steering committee also met to further coordinate the regional effort and prepare for a planned second meeting of foreign ministers in Morocco slated for the spring.

While it was the first time the working groups met in person, the countries have been preparing for the Abu Dhabi gathering for months and had last year’s ministerial gathering in Sde Boker and two steering committee meetings off which to build.

Nonetheless, US and Israeli officials offered little details regarding the projects they plan to advance after the Monday and Tuesday meetings.

The Negev Forum steering committee poses for a photo in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2022. (Foreign Ministry)

“We don’t quite have projects yet, but that’s what the next working group session will be [for],” said US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, who was the co-chair of the regional security working group.

Delegations are expected to confer with their governments in the coming weeks to see what projects might be scalable and feasible, said Acting Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Liz Allen, who was the US representative on the education and tolerance working group.

The working groups committed to meeting three times each year and foreign ministers at the Morocco summit later this year “will check our homework and ensure that we came up with tangible projects but also set the agenda for the future,” Chollet said.

“Coming out of this meeting, we’ve accomplished our bottom-line objective which was to have some tangible outcomes, to have more than just statements about a good meeting and a good meal,” he added.

When pressed to provide a bit more specificity, the State Department counselor said that officials in his regional security working group “discussed broadly issues related to capacity building and information sharing” in order to build on the military cooperation that already exists between their countries.

“We think that there’s real room to create venues with which the Negev Forum countries can come together to talk about threat perception… border security… climate change, disaster preparedness,” he said, adding that the US planned to host Negev Forum members to share how it handles various security threats.

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

In the education and tolerance working group, members discussed building on existing educational exchanges, such as study abroad, research collaboratives and academic partnerships, Allen said.

US Ambassador to United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture Cindy McCain, who was the US representative on the water and food security group, was similarly vague about what projects were advanced.

“What we began in these past few days was a dialogue about cooperation and about the need to remind the world that food and water security is the most important issue,” she said.

“I think the most important element that I can say to all of you on the phone is that we were in the room talking about specific issues that people die from unless you deal with it,” added McCain, without providing further details on projects discussed.

In his own statement on the Abu Dhabi meetings, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he expected “to see the fruits of [these] meeting[s] in the coming months reflected in the joint projects from member states.”

The US officials reiterated the Biden administration’s stance in favor of expanding the Negev Forum, created as a mechanism to launch joint initiatives between Israel and Arab countries that have normalized ties in US-brokered deals. Jordan, the only Israeli ally in the region to refuse to participate, says it will only do so if the Palestinians also join the forum.

Closing their talks at the Negev Summit, (from left) Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, 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, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Amman’s stance has led to a dead-end, given the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to openly cooperate with an initiative designed to foster ties with Arab countries that normalized with Israel despite the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

“The United States [is] fully supportive of the Palestinians joining, of the Jordanians joining and others,” Chollet said. “But I’m confident that… By having such productive meetings… that countries that are not yet part of the Negev Forum… will be incentivized to join.”

Allen noted that in her education working group “every one of the countries talked about having Palestinian participants in the programs that we were contemplating.”

Later on Tuesday, the steering committee released its Negev Forum framework document that codifies the structure and goals of the initiative. It notably affirmed members support for harnessing their cooperation in order to “create momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations toward a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

While five of the six Negev Forum countries are long-time supporters of the two-state solution, this is not the policy of the new right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose aides likely pushed back against such wording. A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the negotiations that led to the framework’s publication.

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