The Israeli government claims that history is being made in the Negev desert.
For the first time on Israeli soil, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is hosting the foreign ministers of four Arab countries that have developed close ties with Israel — a new reality for a region that has been reshaped in recent years, particularly by the threat posed by Iran.
After an evening of meetings with Palestinian leadership, including President Mahmoud Abbas, and civil society on Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will join them for what Israel calls the Negev summit. While these new Arab-Israeli ties have been hailed as bringing peace and stability to the region, they have largely ignored the Palestinians and done little to address long-standing tensions. After the tumultuous Trump years, the Biden administration is attempting to mend fences with the Palestinians, especially with the threat of violence looming next month. Passover and Ramadan fall on the same day this year, setting the stage for a recurrence of last spring’s deadly fighting.
The meeting on Monday brings together Israel and the United States, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, all of whom are signatories to the new agreements. Egypt, which established ties with Israel over 40 years ago in a deal brokered by the United States, will also attend, though Jordan, which established ties with Israel in a 1994 deal brokered by the United States, will not. Sudan, which was a signatory to the accords before a military coup last fall derailed its transition to a civilian-led democracy, will also not participate.
Blinken sang from the same sheet music Sunday, with he and other U.S. officials saying they believe deepening ties will help anchor peace across the region.
Biden has had no luck so far in that effort, with Saudi Arabia in particular remaining a stumbling block, and it’s unclear what, if any, announcements will come out of the meeting on Monday.
Nonetheless, the symbolism of Israel hosting these Arab countries, with their US backer, is powerful – a “dramatic signal of American alignment with Israel and moderate Arab states in the double shadow of the Ukraine crisis… and the likely return to the JCPOA Iranian nuclear agreement,” according to Jim Jeffrey, a former US diplomat who is now the chair of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program. Under Biden, ties between the US and its Mideast allies and partners have deteriorated on these two security issues. The US has urged Israel, the UAE, and others to do more to punish Russia and support Ukraine in recent weeks, though Blinken praised Israeli commitments to enforce sanctions and provide humanitarian aid, including a field hospital deployed to western Ukraine, during a visit to Jerusalem on Sunday.
Furthermore, as the State Department’s team approaches a new nuclear deal with Iran, Israel and its Arab neighbors are concerned that sanctions relief will leave Iran flush with cash, ready to boost arms and funds to its proxies and expand its ballistic missile program. Several of these countries are threatened on a daily basis by Iran and its proxies — Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria for Israel, and the Houthis for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are adamant that Biden’s administration has not done enough to support them.
As a result, Blinken’s meetings on Monday will be a delicate balancing act, as he tries to embrace the Abraham Accords’ peaceful face while tempering the growing anti-Iran alliance as his team tries to complete a renewed Iran nuclear deal. Blinken brushed aside any differences, especially with Israel, in Jerusalem, saying the two countries “are united in addressing the challenges posed by Iran, including its nuclear program.”
Some of the worst violence in years between the Israeli military and Hamas, the US-designated terror group that rules the Gaza Strip, seized the Biden administration in one of its first foreign policy challenges. Last May, fighting lasted 11 days and killed over 250 people, the vast majority of whom were Palestinians.
However, the threat of violence will loom large again next month, when the holy days of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — Passover, Ramadan, and Easter — all fall on the same day in April. After Israeli restrictions on the Temple Mount during Ramadan and the threat of evictions of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem, violence erupted last spring.