Inside story

US aims to fold Palestinians into expanded cooperation between Israel, Arab states

Effort an uphill battle as PA welcomes effort to boost regional standing, but not in context of Abraham Accords; UAE and Bahrain less enthusiastic and Israel not fully on board

Jacob Magid

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

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

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration wants the Palestinian Authority to be included in regional cooperation schemes being developed between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors, Middle Eastern diplomats have told The Times of Israel.

The goal has been vocalized by senior US officials publicly since US President Joe Biden took office, but last month’s Negev Summit provided Washington with an opportunity to take practical steps toward that end. Palestinians, however, insist that any effort to integrate them be decoupled from the Abraham Accords, which formed the basis of the agreements.

“One of the issues we discussed today was how countries involved in the Abraham Accords and normalization, as well as those that have longstanding diplomatic relationships with Israel, can support the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people in concrete ways and have a positive impact on the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month at the Negev Summit, which brought together the foreign ministers of Israel, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt for the first-ever meeting of its kind.

The summit saw the formation of a permanent forum of the participant countries, with the US aiming to include representatives from Jordan and the PA at future gatherings, said an Israeli official. “This will likely be easier to pull off when it’s not hosted in Israel,” they said.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas hosted Jordan’s King Abdullah in Ramallah on the same day as the Negev Summit. Jordan has long tied development in its relations with Israel to the Palestinian issue. The last time Abdullah visited Israel was in 2004, when he held talks with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon about the latter’s plans to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The meeting participants also agreed to establish six working groups to bolster regional cooperation on national security, education, health, energy, food security and tourism. Blinken proposed a seventh working group focus on the Palestinian issue, but the idea was rejected by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who instead suggested that the Palestinians be incorporated into all six working groups, two Middle East diplomats confirmed to The Times of Israel. Lapid also feared a committee specifically dedicated to the Palestinian issue would draw pushback from some of the more right-wing members of the fragile Israeli coalition, one of the diplomats said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (R) welcomes King Abdullah II of Jordan (L) accompanied by Crown Prince Hussein (C), ahead of a meeting in Ramallah in the West Bank, on March 28, 2022. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

This would allow the Palestinians to be partners in economic agreements Israel signs with its neighbors — likely essential as the Mideast prepares for impending wheat shortages due to Russia’s invasion of the region’s main wheat supplier, Ukraine.

Abbas told Blinken when they met in Ramallah, hours before the secretary of state headed to Sde Boker, that he welcomes opportunities to incorporate the Palestinians into the broader regional alliances, a Palestinian official said, clarifying that this cannot be through the platform of the Abraham Accords.

The normalization agreements brokered by the Trump administration between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco were seen by the PA as an effort to bypass the Palestinian issue. Ramallah reacted furiously when the first Abraham Accords agreements were signed and claimed the Negev Summit was a “cover-up for annexation.”

“Any regional efforts to expand our sovereignty will be welcome, but we will not be partner to efforts that are used as cover to maintain occupation,” the Palestinian official said.

Apprehension in Ramallah also stems from the volatile situation on the ground. The official pointed to a growing number of incidents where “trigger happy” Israeli troops have shot dead Palestinians, as Jerusalem remains on high alert due to the recent terror wave.

And it’s not just Ramallah that has given a lukewarm response to US efforts, but other Negev Summit participants as well. The UAE, which saw ties with the PA sour rapidly since it normalized relations with Israel in August 2020, was the least enthusiastic about creating linkage between their relations with Israel and the Palestinian issue, said one Middle East diplomat.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan was the only top diplomat not to mention the Palestinians during the press statements at the conclusion of the Negev Summit.

(Responding to this story, a senior Emirati diplomat told The Times of Israel on Thursday that his country is eager to take part in regional initiatives that incorporate the Palestinians.

The opening roundtable begins at the Negev Summit, as Israel’s 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, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Bahrain, a close ally of the UAE, views the issue in a similar light, said the Mideast diplomat, while agreeing that disinterest in Ramallah is much more salient in Abu Dhabi than it is in Manama.

Egypt, on the other hand, “excitedly welcome[d]” the US effort to keep the Palestinian issue at the top of the agenda, both at the summit and moving forward, a Middle East diplomat said, adding that Morocco feels similarly.

Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry discussed “next steps to build off the successful Negev [Summit],” when they met on Wednesday, according to a readout from the State Department.

In Israel, reactions are mixed. Lapid’s Foreign Ministry is more open to the idea of bringing the Palestinians into the fold.

“Together with our closest friend and ally, the United States, we are today opening a door before all the peoples of the region, including the Palestinians, and offering them to replace the way of terror and destruction with a shared future of progress and success,” Lapid said at the Negev Summit.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is more hesitant due to his opposition to anything that could even be misconstrued as a precursor to diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians, said an Israeli source familiar with the matter.

The White House has raised the possibility of hosting a trilateral meeting between senior Israeli, Palestinian and US officials, an Israeli official said, confirming an Axios report. The official clarified that the idea is in its very early stages, but that the goal would be to “build off of the momentum from the Negev Summit.”

IDF soldiers are seen operating in the West Bank on April 13, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli official said that Bennett’s office has not ruled out the idea, but speculated that efforts to make progress on the Palestinian issue are unlikely, as the Biden administration is exhausting most of its political capital on other foreign policy issues, namely building a global coalition against Russia and re-entering the Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, the splintering of Bennett’s coalition and the escalation of violence in Israel further complicates efforts to achieve any diplomatic breakthroughs, the official noted.

Responding to a query on the matter, a State Department spokesperson said, “We hope that as Israel and other countries in the region join together on a common effort to build bridges and create new avenues for dialogue and exchange, these efforts contribute to tangible progress towards the goal of advancing a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

In a Thursday statement responding to The Times of Israel’s reporting, a senior Emirati diplomat objected to the characterization that Abu Dhabi is not interested in regional initiatives to assist the Palestinians.

“We welcome any American-led initiative to incorporate the Palestinians,” said the diplomat. “We were very actively involved” in “the conversation in the Negev Summit about the Palestinians.”

“We are ready to engage whenever the Palestinians are open to a broader cooperation initiative,” the diplomat added.

Lazar Berman contributed to this article.

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