On Friday I received a WhatsApp message from PR consultant Rani Rahav: “This is a picture of the foreign minister of Bahrain,” together with an official photograph of the guest, who will visit Israel on Sunday together with his counterparts from Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Rahav signed the announcement as the PR director of the Bahraini Embassy in Israel. Here’s a twist in the winding path of the peace process: The partners to the political agreements also want to look good in the Israeli media, not only to make brief diplomatic jaunts, as they once did.
The “Sde Boker Summit” that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will host Sunday, like the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh last week of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his Egyptian and Emirati counterparts, fulfill the vision of the initiators of the peace process, 30 years ago. This is how Shimon Peres imagined the “new Middle East”: open partnerships between Israel and the countries of the region on the basis of common interests, detached from the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation or a comprehensive solution of the conflict. Even before Peres, in January 1992, Israel launched the multilateral negotiations to advance regional security and economic projects, alongside bilateral talks with the Palestinians and with Syria.
The multilateral talks provided part-time employment to diplomats and consultants, but they crashed on the rocks of the difficult bilateral reality. On the security track, Israel wanted to talk about joint military exercises and Egypt insisted on beginning with dismantling Israel’s nuclear program. The economic summits launched by Peres were dropped after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the rise to power of Benjamin Netanyahu. Any expression of normalization from the Arab side required intensive diplomatic efforts, and of course no one even imagined dozens of weekly flights from Israel to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Morocco, joint air force exercises and high-profile visits by top Israeli military officials to Arab states.
Sunday’s summit in the desert belongs to this category of unprecedented events. The level of the participants shows that “its significance lies in its very existence” and that no practical decisions will be made there. But the symbolism of the location should not be discounted. Will the Arab foreign ministers pay a visit to David Ben-Gurion’s grave, as Lapid has proposed? After all, to the Palestinians, Ben-Gurion is not the lovable “Old Man” and “father of the nation,” as he is seen in Israel, but rather the principal perpetrator of the Nakba in 1948, the man who orchestrated the removal of the refugees from Israel, the expropriation of their land and the subjugation of those who remained. A visit to his grave will symbolize the turning of a new page in relations between Israel and the Arab world, without the Palestinians. As in the Abraham Accords, which ignored them.
The agreements that then-U.S. President Donald Trump and then-Prime Minister Netanyahu brought about in summer 2020 changed the regional dynamic and pulled from the darkness relations that had been conducted in secret and that continue to develop even after their originators left office. Bennett is not as charismatic or popular as his predecessor, and in the absence of political power or the motivation to lead social and economic changes, he is focusing, successfully, on foreign policy. So far he is demonstrating an ability to take advantage of political opportunities, as seen in his efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, the patching-up of relations with Turkey and the advancing normalization with Egypt. Israel manages to be popular, to keep the Palestinian arena relatively quiet and to demonstrate an independent position vis-à-vis Washington regarding both the Ukraine war and the renewal of the nuclear agreement between the powers and Iran. While U.S. President Joe Biden ignores Bennett, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s participation in Sunday’s summit shows that the Biden administration is willing to give Israel some leeway.
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Of course the very fact of the summit expresses its participants’ fears of Iran’s strengthening as a result of the nuclear deal in process, and of Iran’s rapprochement with the West at the expense of America’s longtime allies in the region – Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In this sense, Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi are no less the patrons of the Sde Boker conference than its organizers and participants are. It is also clear that Blinken came to reassure and console, just as President Isaac Herzog stopped to stroke the Greeks and Cypriots on his way to Ankara.
Still, after the applause ends and the cameras are turned off, Israel will be left with the same existential problems in its relations with the Palestinians. Its leaders should not deceive themselves into thinking that this conflict will solve itself or disappear under the layers of makeup put on for the official photos. The terror attack in Be’er Sheva last week, not far from the summit, and the seasonal warnings of tension during the month of Ramadan remind us that the old Middle East is still here, it hasn’t gone away. Even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not invited to the summit.