Defensive Cooperation Against Iran Discussed at Israel's Mideast Summit

Historic Negev summit is further evidence of the decline in the Palestinian Authority’s status in the Arab world

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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From left: Bahrain's Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Egypt's Sameh Shoukry, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israel's Yair Lapid, Morocco's Nasser Bourita and the UAE's Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan
From left: Bahrain's Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Egypt's Sameh Shoukry, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israel's Yair Lapid, Morocco's Nasser Bourita and the UAE's Abdullah bin Zayed Al NCredit: Shlomi Amsalem/GPO
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The first day of the Israeli-Arab summit in the Negev was devoted largely to having the attending foreign ministers to get to know each other better.

One after another, the ministers from Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Egypt landed at the Negev’s Nevatim Airport; U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was slated to join them Sunday night. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the guests at the entrance to the Kedma Hotel on Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Lapid organized the summit within days, immediately after learning of Blinken’s planned visit. No goals have been publicly announced for it. Nobody has promised that the ministers will issue a joint statement against Iran, publicly press Blinken to keep Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on America’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, or agree on increased oil production by the Gulf States, as Washington seeks to reduce dependence on Russia oil.

Nevertheless, ideas for defense cooperation against Iran – or to use the official jargon, “a regional security architecture” – came up even in the initial meetings. The goal is to build deterrence against both aerial and naval threats. And sources familiar with the discussions predicted that the summit will end with agreements.

Visually, however, success was guaranteed in advance. The historic photos of four Arab foreign ministers at an Israeli hotel located near the grave of the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, was additional evidence of the change that has taken place in the Middle East since the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020.

Lapid and bin Zayed on Sunday in Sde Boker.

Despite that impressive gesture, the foreign ministers made it clear that they would not take questions from the media after their concluding statements. “Let’s just hope we manage to produce diplomatic achievements,” a person involved in organizing the event said.

The main factor that enabled this historic meeting in the Negev was the opportunity it gave the foreign ministers to meet directly with Blinken, who advanced his trip to the region by a few days. In recent months, all the participating countries have been very concerned by the dramatic changes in America’s foreign policy in the region, as well as by the diversion of attention from the Middle East and Africa to Russia and China.

Lapid’s office identified the opportunity as soon as Blinken confirmed his arrival. First, he invited the Emirati and Bahraini foreign ministers, since these two countries most directly share Israel’s concerns over the Iranian threat. Later, the Egyptian and Moroccan foreign ministers expressed interest and were invited as well.

A Mideast NATO

“Israel is playing an important role as the axle connecting countries in the region to the United States, especially in light of their growing perception of American abandonment and a significant cooling of American-Emirati relations,” said Dr. Gil Murciano, CEO of Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The world has thus turned upside down. If in the past, the U.S. was the matchmaker that created the connection between Israel and the Emirates, now Israel is the one helping to maintain American-Gulf ties.”

Iran will be the focus of the summit’s working meetings, which will take place on Monday. Israel is a key player in the emerging regional alliance to counter drone and rocket attacks by the Revolutionary Guards and its regional satellites on targets in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region.

“The road to an Israeli-Middle Eastern NATO runs through Washington,” Murciano said. “The chances of achieving a regional defense alliance without American support are slim. Unlike Israel, which is playing a zero-sum game with Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are playing a different game that seeks to promote dialogue with all the relevant players, including Iran.”

Blinken and Lapid in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP

But either way, the dramatic meeting in Israel is in itself a clear signal to the Iranian regime, as well as to the U.S. administration that is currently negotiating with Tehran. Closer security ties among Israel, the Gulf States, Morocco and Egypt to deal with Iran’s drone attacks and nuclear program are not just a fact, but an open, public one.

The UAE, and recently Bahrain as well, have opted not to speak out publicly in the battle against Iran. “Each country has its own sensitivities on the Iranian issue, whether it’s terrorism or the nuclear issue,” a diplomatic source said. “We have to tread cautiously among these different interests.”

Just like at last week’s meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the leaders of Egypt and the UAE, the parties will also discuss other issues at the summit – the wheat shortage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is raising the price of bread throughout the region; agricultural ventures; and efforts to export more oil and gas from the Middle East to the rest of the world in light of the invasion.

Since there is no guarantee that any tangible results will emerge from the summit, Lapid is investing in the atmospherics. The entire Kedma Hotel was rented for the event. Every foreign minister will hold personal meetings with each of the others, and all six have been invited to a private dinner with no aides or media present.

The Foreign Ministry described the concept as a “Camp David atmosphere.” The goal is to break the ice among the ministers, make the summit a pleasant social event and lay the groundwork for them to be in direct contact with each other in the future.

The historic Negev summit is also further evidence of the decline in the Palestinian Authority’s status in the Arab world. Even though the Palestinian issue will be on the table, none of the participants conditioned the meeting on any kind of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic initiative.

The choice of Sde Boker as the venue made life easier on all the participants. The Arab ministers don’t have to engage in contortions over the status of Jerusalem, and Lapid doesn’t have to deal with questions about why he “gave up on” Jerusalem in favor of the “alternative capital,” Tel Aviv.

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