There have been a lot of “firsts” and “unthinkable” moments since Israel signed the normalization agreements with several Arab nations less than two years ago that were dubbed the “Abraham Accords.” But few likely come to the level of four foreign ministers from Arab nations, along with the US Secretary of State, meeting together in Israel and posing for photos with their arms intertwined.
Attended by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the historic summit, held in the southern Israeli desert city of Sde Boker in the Negev desert, was the first time that the UAE and Moroccan diplomats publicly visited Israel.
The Palestinians weren’t present at the talks, but a series of attacks in Israel this month served as a reminder that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is always nearby.
Five people were killed in a shooting near Tel Aviv on Tuesday, according to Israeli police, marking the third such attack in Israel within a week.
And, in a sign of the ever-present divides in the region, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, while Palestinian militant groups praised it. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – the armed wing of the Palestinian Fatah movement – took responsibility for the attack and said it was “a clear message written in blood in response to the Negev summit.”
Aside from turning the Abraham Accords from “ceremony to substance,” as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said, the meeting also illustrated the changing power structure of the region as the US pivots away from the Middle East.
Much of what bonds these countries together is a common stance on Iran, especially as negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal reach an advanced stage.
The meeting was an opportunity for the foreign ministers to express their disappointment in what they see as a weak deal, one that will only further bolster what they see as Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the region, like supporting militant organizations from Lebanon to Yemen.
“These shared interests revolve around countering Iran and dealing with the vacuum the US is leaving behind,” said Ezzedine Fishere, professor at Dartmouth College and former Egyptian diplomat in Tel Aviv. “The two issues are intertwined.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday that the “new regional architecture” with Arab countries “intimidates and deters … Iran and its proxies,” but the UAE has been keen to present its regional alignments in a wider context, as part of a changing world order that is no longer unipolar.
Top UAE official Anwar Gargash told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday that the “Middle East is not really only about Iran … and Israel.”
“Our whole intention is to find a way of functionally working with Iran … that there is an agenda of stability or prosperity in the region that includes Iran and others,” said Gargash, who is a diplomatic adviser to the UAE president.
Fishere said Gulf states started feeling America’s “reticence” to support them as far back as 2006 “when the Bush administration suddenly lost appetite to push back Iranian influence in Iraq.”
“And as [President] Obama decided to take few steps back, Gulf states found someone else eager to step in and help: Israel,” he added.
For months, Bennett has said he hopes to one day form a regional security alliance – like NATO – to counter Iran, no matter what happens with the nuclear deal. While a regional NATO-like grouping may be far off, there has been progress on security cooperation between the countries and the foreign ministers did agree to meet on a regular basis, rotating the host country each time.
“[T]he emergence of a new regional architecture cannot and will not happen overnight,” said Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum and former foreign policy adviser to late Israeli president Shimon Peres. “It starts with discrete nano steps, continues with mini steps, before morphing into a mature structure. It seems that in the Negev, an important mini-step in that direction was taken.” The alliance sends a message to the US and Arab public opinion as much as it does to Iran, Fishere said.
“It sends a message… that a new page has turned, rules have changed,” he said. “Arab states are no longer bound by Pan-Arab solidarities, sensitivities or causes, including Palestine – not even symbolically.”
The absence of the Palestinians is “an important win” for Israel, said Hasan Alhasan, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. It allows it to present its relations with the Arab world as being unconstrained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.
The summit was “an opportunity for Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to act as a pressure group vis-à-vis Washington on Iran,” Alhasan added.
The meeting was heavy on symbolism and optics. It was held not in Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital, or Tel Aviv, where most foreign embassies in Israel are located. Instead, it took place in a desert retreat where Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is buried. A figure long detested in the Arab world, Ben-Gurion is seen as an emblem of Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, who viewed Jewish settlement in the Negev as vital to the state’s future.
“Holding the summit in the Negev desert that borders Egypt and Jordan, rather than in Tel Aviv… or in Jerusalem, where Israel’s claim of sovereignty remains unrecognized by Arab nations, hints at Israeli overtures towards the Arab world,” Alhasan said.
But while the Palestinians may have been absent, Israel’s conflict with them continues to creep into its talks with the Arab states, said Novik.
“Time and again the old and new normalizers remind us Israelis that the Abraham Accords… are not immune to the effect of violence between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “This was a message conveyed behind closed doors – and made public – in the Negev.”
With additional reporting from Nadeen Ebrahim, Adam Pourahmadi and Abbas Al Lawati
Other top Middle East news
Saudi-led coalition to halt fighting in Yemen
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen announced Tuesday it would halt military operations there starting on Wednesday, after the United Nations urged a truce during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
- Background: the Saudi-led military alliance and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement have been at war since 2015. Houthi rebels have in recent months intensified strikes on key Saudi oil facilities, the last of which caused a huge fire at fuel storage tanks on Friday. Saudi Arabia also hosted allied factions from Yemen’s war on Tuesday, but the Houthis refused to attend the talks, demanding they be held in a neutral country.
- Why it matters: Yemen’s humanitarian state has reached what one UN official called “alarming heights,” and it is rapidly worsening after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cut off wheat supplies to several Middle Eastern countries. The truce is the most significant step towards possible peace in three years.
Blinken meets with UAE leader, affirms US support against attacks
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met on Tuesday with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s de facto ruler, and sought to reassure Gulf monarchies of Washington’s determination to fight off attacks from Houthi rebels in Yemen.
- Background: Blinken met with Sheikh Mohammed in Morocco as part of a trip to the Middle East and North Africa. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have recently targeted the UAE and Saudi Arabia with missiles, adding to the Gulf’s concerns about Iran’s clout in the region as the US negotiates a revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.
- Why it matters: Gulf monarchies have been frustrated with a perceived US pullback from the region and a lack of adequate action against attacks targeting them. President Joe Biden’s last 14 months in office have further strained relations, especially with Saudi Arabia. Blinken’s reassurance comes as the West continues to urge Gulf states to increase oil production amid crude price rises following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Egypt, Qatar sign $5b in investment deals
Egypt and Qatar agreed to sign investment deals worth $5 billion, the Egyptian cabinet said on Tuesday. The deals were announced during a visit to Cairo by the Qatari foreign and finance ministers.
- Background: Egypt is facing new financial pressures linked to the war in Ukraine, which is pushing up the cost of its large wheat import needs and hitting Red Sea tourism. Earlier this month, Egypt’s currency lost 14% of its value amid rises in the price of commodities, which the government blamed on the instabilities precipitated by the Ukraine war.
- Why it matters: The deal signals a warming in relations between the two countries. Last year Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain agreed to end a dispute that had seen them boycott Qatar since 2017 over charges it supported terrorism, which Doha denies. Qatar also supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy, who was deposed by the incumbent president.
What to watch
Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told CNN’s Becky Anderson that investment in Russia is currently “under a lot of review” and that Doha is not thinking about increasing its investments there until there is a “better environment and more political stability.”
Watch the interview here:
Around the region
The Egyptian Football Association has claimed its men’s national team was subject to racism during a defeat in its FIFA World Cup playoff match against Senegal on Tuesday.
In a statement on Instagram, the governing body said its players, particularly captain Mohamed Salah, were targeted with abuse from Senegalese fans in Diamniadio, Senegal.
It also accused Senegal supporters of attacking and damaging the team bus.
“The Egyptian team was subjected to racism after offensive banners appeared in the stadium stands against the players, specifically against Mohamed Salah, the team leader,” the statement read.
Egypt said it was filing an official complaint against the Senegalese FA, which has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) referred CNN to FIFA, which organized the qualifier.
World football’s governing body told CNN it was “in the process of analyzing the official match reports.”
There has been widespread criticism online regarding lasers apparently pointed by members of the crowd into the faces of Egypt’s players during crucial moments in the match.
Green lasers were notably seen all over Salah’s face as he stepped up and missed his spot kick.
By Ben Church
Forty-three years ago on March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty formally ending three decades of hostility, a truce that resulted from the 1978 US-brokered Camp David Accords. Under the March 26 treaty, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and the Arab country recognized Israel right to exist.
Earlier this month, Egypt and Israel announced an agreement that expands direct flights between the two countries by adding a new route between Tel Aviv and Sharm El-Sheikh. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Egypt last September, the first official trip to the country by an Israeli head of government in more than a decade.