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Op-edAn unprecedented Negev summit, in the shadow of terrorism

Rather than deter Arab FMs in Israel, Hadera terror seems to bolster their resolve

While Lapid speaks of ‘making history,’ his UAE counterpart says he wants to correct it — to make up for 43 years of ‘lost time’ since Egypt broke the Arab taboo on peacemaking

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

The opening roundtable begins at the Negev Summit, as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, clockwise from left, makes opening remarks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
The opening roundtable begins at the Negev Summit, as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, clockwise from left, makes opening remarks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Sunday’s terrorist attack in Hadera, coinciding with a meeting of Israeli and Arab foreign ministers in the Negev, cast a dark shadow over what were intended to be the festive opening hours of this unprecedented get-together in the Negev.

But whether or not the deadly attack — claimed by Islamic State, and hailed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a “heroic response to the summit of humiliation and shame in the occupied Negev” — was planned to derail the summit or deter its Arab participants, it evidently had the opposite effect.

One after another, in their public statements at the formal conclusion of their talks on Monday afternoon, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his four Arab counterparts condemned the latest instance of the deadly terrorism with which all of their countries grapple, and then swiftly moved on to stress their shared determination to build a unified front against extremism.

Rather than accepting the Hadera attack as a blow to that effort, they portrayed this first multilateral gathering of its kind inside Israel as the beginning of a new and concerted effort to build a very different Israeli-Arab narrative and relationship.

Three of the four Arab foreign ministers — Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry and Morocco’s Nasser Bourita — took a few moments in their brief speeches to highlight the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also mentioned the Palestinians, encouraging “all the peoples of the region, including the Palestinians… to replace the way of terror and destruction with a shared future of progress and success.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken went further, declaring that the Abraham Accords that brought these ministers together were “not a substitute” for progress on the Palestinian front.

Closing their talks at 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, U.S. 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)

But this gathering, determinedly undeterred by terrorism, was a confident, unabashed display of normalization with Israel — of acceptance of Israel, legitimization of Israel — held adjacent to the final resting place of Israel’s first prime minister.

And it was thus an act of defiance by its Arab participants of the ongoing opposition — not only by Palestinian terrorist groups, but by the Palestinian Authority as well — to straightforward, functional relations with Israel.

The suspects in a terrorist attack in Hadera, March 27, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the copyright law)

Rather than tearing them apart, it was terrorism — especially state terrorism, as advanced by the ayatollahs in Iran — that brought these leaders together in the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker. And just as Blinken appeared to be reading from a somewhat discordant script with his familiar comments about the Palestinian conflict, he was also the rather off-message participant when it came to confronting Iran. In Jerusalem on Sunday, he reiterated the Biden administration’s position that Iran will “never acquire a nuclear weapon.” But his president has been disinclined to voice even Barack Obama’s declared preparedness to resort to a military option if necessary to stop Tehran.

The Negev Summit, and the open new alignment of these four Arab countries with Israel, is principally designed to facilitate better cooperation — practical, life-saving cooperation — to tackle the Iranian threat, catalyzed in part by concern that the United States, closing in on an old/new and wildly flawed nuclear deal with Tehran, may not prove as determined to do so as necessary.

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Acknowledging the focus on Iran, Lapid, in his speech, said the summit was building “a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation.

“This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies,” he said. To that end, he said, the partnership established in the Negev would become “a permanent forum.”

Perhaps the most striking articulation of the fresh openness to being in Israel, delighting in the unfamiliar experience, and recognizing Israel as a partner against the extremist forces in the region came in the brief speech by the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, who appeared to be speaking off the cuff rather than from prepared notes.

He didn’t mention Iran. He didn’t mention the Palestinians. Rather, he expressed easy pleasure in partnering with Israel and in simply enjoying Israel — noting that for him and his Moroccan and Bahraini colleagues, “this is our first time.”

“We are curious,” he said happily. “We want to learn… to catch up… to build a stronger relationship… That’s the way we can go after the narrative of hate, of incitement, of terror.

“We will prevail,” he said. “No doubt it’s going to cost us, but it matters.”

And while Lapid referred to the summit as “making history,” Al Nahyan talked about correcting or reorienting history. For toward the end of his remarks he thanked Shoukry and Egypt for having “showed us leadership 43 years ago” in legitimizing Israel, in making peace with Israel — an Israel, he stressed with a sweeping historical reference, that “has been part of this region for a very long time.”

“We lost those 43 years” since Egypt took that bold step to make peace with Israel, said the foreign minister of the UAE, looking across to Shoukry. Now, “we are just trying to follow your footsteps.”

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