What makes a summit “historic”? Certainly not contemporaries who call it that because they believe their mere participation is what makes it so.
To be worthy of being called “historic,” a conference has to constitute a point of departure from pre-summit constructs, significantly alter power relations and have a lasting effect on geopolitical dynamics. Only then is it by definition worthy of the venerable prefix.
Calling a summit “historic” a day before it begins is where vanity and hyperbole dilute its actual importance. If the Negev Summit, which was held Monday in Sde Boker, southern Israel, is ceremoniously and melodramatically hailed as “historic” by eager participants and a Ukraine-jaded media, what would you call the Yalta Conference of February 1945, in which Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin divided Germany into four occupation zones?
Or what about the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, the post-Napoleonic Wars conference that remodeled Europe; the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944 that laid the foundations for the United Nations; the subsequent 1944 Bretton Woods Conference – a gathering of 730 delegates from 44 World War II allied nations that set up the International Monetary Fund and the future World Bank; or the Potsdam Conference of July-August 1945 that essentially demarcated postwar Europe?
Okay, you might argue, it’s not that kind or scale of “historic,” but by Middle Eastern standards the Negev Summit was definitely historic, right?
Sure, if you ignore the 1978 Camp David Summit that led to Israel and Egypt subsequently signing a peace agreement – to this day the cornerstone of Israel’s relations with the Arab world. Or if you conveniently forget the Abraham Accords that are the foundation of this week’s event.
Historic or not, there are several possible ways of assessing the Negev Summit’s value.
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First, think of it as a “Seinfeld” summit: it’s great but it’s about nothing. There’s an impressive photo op, some discussions on topics of mutual interest and a commitment to meet again, but no clearly defined goals, no durable geopolitical objectives and no discernible deliverables. A “regional” summit that does not include Saudi Arabia and conspicuously ignores the Palestinians is futile.
Second, the opposite perspective: a summit held in Israel, with the participation of the U.S. secretary of state and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, is an important event by virtue of it taking place – regardless of whether there were any action items on the agenda. (Rest assured, there weren’t any.)
This projects Israel’s growing regional power and gravitas, and dismissively labeling it a “Seinfeld” summit is an affront to 74 years of Israeli diplomacy and security policy in the region. It sends a message of potential cooperation, even if it is ad hoc, and conveys the appearance of a loose coalition that is unhappy with Iran.
From Israel’s standpoint, it also proves the argument that there’s more to the Middle East than the Palestinian issue. To be sure, that’s a dangerously reckless approach, but one Israel espoused in the past few years. In that regard, this government is no different to the Netanyahu one it replaced.
Third, that this is a gathering of anxious U.S. clients/allies, suffering from varying degrees of “fear of abandonment” and sharing one overriding concern: that American disengagement from the Middle East imperils their interests and exposes them to instability, and Iranian and ISIS aggression.
The United States is in the midst of a decade-long strategic pivot away from the region, reprioritizing its interests and disengaging due to several trends and factors: the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which changed regional deployments and the focal point; U.S. energy independence and the effective end of U.S. dependence on Mideast oil; fatigue with never-ending, expensive and casualty-fraught wars and entanglements in the region, from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan and back to Iraq. And then there’s China and a major shift of priorities, threat perceptions, economic and diplomatic emphases, and resources to the Indo-Pacific region.
Then came the Ukraine crisis and Vladimir Putin’s war, and the Middle East “bros” were all elated with spite: We told you so. The Americans just don’t get it: leave the Middle East and the Middle East will find you.
The United States can’t really disassociate from the region because Russia is present. Russian energy-dependent Western Europe needs the Middle East producers to replenish or compensate for lost Russian oil and natural gas, and Russia – together with the United States – is involved in the renewed Iran nuclear deal. On top of that, Gulf states are openly flirting with China for infrastructure investments.
So, the Middle East concluded, the United States will stay because surely a new thinking and policy is being revisited in Washington. Let’s have a summit to consolidate this.
This may prove to be a dangerously inaccurate assumption. The United States hasn’t “left” but gradually downsized its involvement, deprioritized the region and narrowed the scope of its interests. The Iran nuclear deal will likely be signed and the Americans will need to “find an accommodation with Iran going forward,” as the outgoing commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., told the Washington Post Tuesday.
Mideast countries may be egregiously wrong to surmise that the United States will change trajectory. The Ukraine crisis has not changed the fundamental U.S. view that China is the great challenge and the Iran deal is just a lower priority that needs to be removed from the table.
Still, while the Middle East participants were talking about Iran, the United States may have noticed a very irritating picture. Israel, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE have one recent thing in common: none stood by the Americans and condemned Russia’s aggression. Not one. They each came up with convoluted and sorry excuses.
While Israel appointed itself a “mediator” and expressed deep understanding about Putin’s feelings and grievances, the UAE put a hold on the F-35 deal, courts China openly, entertains Russian oligarchs in Dubai and hosts the inestimable guardian of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the region – one Bashar Assad of Syria.
More important than anything else at the summit was a conspicuously absent Palestinian delegation.
Here’s an inconvenient truth: A summit that ignores the Palestinians is a summit that ignores reality. It’s that simple.
Israel thinks the Abraham Accords are a substitute for negotiating with the Palestinians? Think again.
“Regional peace agreements are no substitute to an agreement with the Palestinians,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Israel thinks the two-state solution is off the table? Think again.
“We spoke about the importance of the two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
Israel thinks the Arabs no longer support this process? Think again.
“We support the two-state solution and believe it is viable,” said Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.
But there is something even more alarming in Israel’s exclusion of the Palestinians: Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE do not have to coexist and cohabit with 5.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel does. As does Jordan, which is why King Abdullah chose to visit the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah rather than send his foreign minister to Sde Boker.
None of this changes the fact that the Negev Summit had value and projected positive vibes in the region, emphasizing Israel’s centrality in confronting common threats.
That Israel has “coalition agreements” instead of a foreign policy, and has made a conscious decision not to deal with the Palestinian issue, is also a fact. And for this reason alone, this cannot conceivably be called a “historic” summit.